Plant based meat. What may instantly come to mind at these words are things like blocks of tofu and tempeh, canned chickpeas and dried green lentils — the staples of the many vegan kitchens that just don’t seem to capture everything that meat actually is.
Because, well, plant based meat is much more expansive than the raw legumes which, as exciting as they are, are not so appealing to the modern omnivore — or, not as appealing as a nice beef patty.
Plant based meat is anything that is a substitute for the flavours and nutrition of animal meat that is derived from plants or fungi. So yes, it does encompass such raw legumes, but it also extends to much more.
What are plant based meats made out of?
Plant based meats have to replace two main things about meat: nutrition and sensory characteristics.
Nutrition has to do with what actually makes up the meat. While there are quite a few different components, the ones of main concern are protein, fat, b-vitamins and iron because they usually come into a person’s diet through meat.
Nutrition is often used as a kind of jumping off point for pin pointing viable plant based alternatives. As meat is mainly protein, the natural place to start would be with the plants that have the most amount of protein — the legumes.
These legumes are often used in fractionated forms — a part of the legume rather than the entire thing. Such fractionated products include flour, isolates, concentrates and hydrolysates. These fractionated products have functional characteristics like solubility, viscosity, gelling, emulsification, foaming, and dough formation which is what allows them to behave like meat does when it is cooked. The extent to which it exhibits these functions depends on the purity: the more pure the fraction, the more of a given functionality it has.
On the other hand, the more pure a fraction is, the more “beany” it might taste and smell, so it’s really kind of a balancing act. Legumes also have finer particles which adds a bit of a grainy texture. This mouthfeel is mitigated during processing with things like shearing, hydration and cooking which also help to downplay the beany taste and smell.
Another source of protein are hydrolysates which are made through chemical or enzymatic hydrolysis on a legume. A higher degree of hydrolysis improves functionality but also but also leaves a bitter flavour. As such, they are often added sparingly.
Another big thing about meat is the fat. In whole cuts of meat, you can usually see a marbling pattern prior to cooking — chunks of fat layered on top of muscle. Then, when exposed to heat, this fat melts into the muscle and imparts a full flavour.
Legumes don’t naturally have that sort of marbling, because they generally contain unsaturated fats whereas animals contain saturated fat. So, in with the legumes, we mix saturated and unsaturated globules. Coconut oil is a popular candidate for the saturated fat because it is animal independent.
Now that we have the nutrition aspect, the main thing we have to do is replicate the texture. This is done through starch. Legume starches have a lot of gel strength, film formation and crispness which helps simulate the snap of sausage or the bite of chicken breast.
Legume starches also contribute soluble fibre which makes gel when mixed with water. This gel has a fibrous composition which is similar to meat. Starches also crisp up when exposed to heat which is helpful for simulating more processed foods like burgers or chicken nuggets.
Last, but not least is the aroma. For years, scientists have underestimated the extent to which aroma influences how much we like meat. In essence, aroma is what distinguishes meat from all other foods. The reason? A protein called heme.
Heme is a molecule contained within the myoglobin protein and is responsible for transporting oxygen around an animal’s bloodstream. When a piece of meat is cooked, the myoglobin protein opens up and the heme is released to catalyze reactions responsible for a burger’s reddish hue, juicy texture and mouthwatering aroma. It’s why we love meat.
Amongst vegetarian foods, heme is most commonly found as leghemoglobin in the roots of soybean plants. However, it does not exist in high enough quantities to achieve the same effects as in meat.
So, scientists leverage something called recombinant protein production — using bacteria as mini machines to create the proteins we want in our finished product. In this case, heme.
Impossible Foods — which has gained a lot of popularity over the past year for their Impossible Burger — uses this technique to give their burger these hallmark “meaty” characteristics.
How are they made?
Then, once we have all the ingredients we want, we have to formulate them. As of yet, most plant based protein meat products simulate relatively unstructured foods like burgers, nuggets or sausages. Unstructured products refer to products that are more or less uniform all the way through. This is different than structured products (ex. steak or chicken legs) which are characterized by a specific arrangements of said ingredients.
The main way these unstructured products are produced is using something called extrusion. This happens in the following steps
- Textured Vegetable Protein (TVP) is hydrated. TVP are the various different kinds of proteins we get from the legumes and its mixed with oils, water and fats.
- Other ingredients are mixed in. Supplements like starches, vitamins, proteins, spices and concentrates as well as functional additives are mixed into the TVP which is then kneaded to form a kind of dough
- The dough is shaped into patties, nuggets or sausage links.
- The product is cooked (when applicable) either by frying, baking or steaming.
- Extended Shelf Life Processes (ESLP) are done which are meant to extend the shelf life of the product. These methods could include heat-pasteurization, high-pressure processing, UV, and the addition of antimicrobials.
- The products are cooled either by refrigeration and freezing in order to discourage microorganism growth which could spoil the product.
This process not only aims to formulate the ingredients in such a way that they taste meaty but also tries to make them look and have a meaty texture — i.e. like muscle fibres.
When muscle is formed with in an animal, stem cells (which are cells which don’t have a specific purpose), under go a process called myogenesis in which they differentiate into myoblasts and progenitors then fuse together in long multinucleated “myofibres” — the strands of muscle tissue. This leads to the muscle having a “striated” composition, or many different layers of fibres.
Legumes on the other hand, don’t have a fibrous composition, but have globules of fat uniformly mixed in through the entirety. The shearing that is introduced during the mixing stage of extrusion aims to make the dough a bit more stringy/chewy and less like a beany lump.
Why do we care?
It’s no secret that our agricultural system is terrible on many fronts — for starters, it’s responsible for 18% of our total global greenhouse gas emissions!
The reason being is that the way we farm is incredibly inefficient and consumes copious amounts of land, water and energy. For instance, producing 1000 kg of ground beef requires producing 33 GJ of energy, 521 m³ of water, and 230 m² of land. In total, 33 x more calories are invested in a cow than it will ever return in it’s lifetime. If we look at farm animals as machines responsible for pumping out calories, they would be incredibly inefficient machines.
And it’s this idea of considering animals as machines which has lead to the infamously inhumane living conditions they are subject to in factory farms: crammed metal pens, living in your own excrement, never seeing sunlight or breathing fresh air, being force fed unnatural diets, dying painfully…etc.
These conditions are also responsible for developing a very insecure food system. In particular, one where pathogens can quickly build up resistance and spread. These pathogens can then be spread to humans (H1N1, salmonella) or lead to mass livestock culling. This has lead us to raise animals with a lot of antibiotics which from a health perspective, many are averse to.
The fact that plant based meat doesn’t rely on animals in the first place means that we don’t have to even worry about pathogen transmission (at least at the human level) or animal welfare. In terms of the environmental footprint, a Lifecycle Analysis done on the Beyond Meat Burger predicted that it production emits 90% less greenhouse gas emissions, requires 46% less energy, has >99% less impact on water scarcity and 93% less impact on land use than a ¼ pound of U.S. beef.
Sustainability, check. At least in comparison to how we do things today.
Who is in the field?
Beyond Meat is perhaps one of the most popular brands of plant based meat due to the recent launch of their “Beyond Burger” which is made out of a combination of Mung beans, peas, coconut oil, potato startch, beet juice extract and more. The company also produces ground beef, sausages and crumbles.
Lightlife is another brand which got started in the 1970s and focused on producing classic plant based proteins like tempeh. Now, they cater to a wider audience by producing plant based meat products like burgers, sausages and grounds.
Quorn is another company focused on leveraging mycoproteins — protein from mycellium and fungi. They formulate it into things like patties, cutlets, crumbles and many more.
Other popular brands include Boca, Dr. Praeger’s, Field Roast, Gardein, , MorningStar Farms, Sweet Earth, and Tofurky.
Now, the big question: do people actually want this stuff? The answer, it turns out is yes. And it’s not only vegans as one might expect. According to the Good Food Institute, 93% of Beyond Meat consumers and 95% of Impossible consumers also eat meat. 60% of americans who tried plant based meat were “very” or “somewhat likely” to eat it again, and sales of plant based meat increased 268% between 2017 and 2019.
And, industry is catching on. The number of restaurants selling plant based meat increased 26.4% from 2017–2019. And, 9 out of 10 of the largest meat producers in America are in someway involved in plant based meat development. For instance, Tyson invested in New Waves, MycoTechnology and Future Meat Technolgy cultivated meat. Kraft Heinz acquired BOCA and runs the springboard incubator they are affiliated with. Pepsico runs nutrition greenhouse accelerator and has made plant based foods and drinks one of their four core focus areas.
- Plant based meat is anything that is a substitute for the flavours and nutrition of animal meat that is derived from plants or fungi.
- It uses things like legume fractions, starches, fats, and recombinant proteins (as well as other additives) to simulate the nutritional and sensory properties of meat.
- These ingredients are processed using shearing and extrusion in order to replicate the fibrous texture of meat.
- It has massive implications for agriclture’s environmental footprint as well as food security, health and animal welfare.
- The industry is rapidly expanding with investment on many fronts and the technology is popular amongst vegans/vegetarians and omnivores alike.
So yes, plant based meat. Hopefully what comes to mind now is a bit more expansive than some raw legumes :).