Chances are when you hear the phrase “vegan meat,” you think of bland veggie burgers, mealy meatless sausages and the much-maligned Tofurky. But that’s about to change. Enter a new breed of meatless “meat” that’s carefully crafted and technologically engineered to truly replicate the tastes, smells and textures of the real thing — no animals required.
Typically, we define meat as something that comes from a chicken, cow, pig or other animal. “But what if we define meat as its constituent parts — amino acids, lipids, water and a trace amount of minerals and carbohydrates — source them from plants, and organize them in the architecture of meat?” asks Ethan Brown, founder of Beyond Meat, a company that produces a line of plant-based burgers, chicken strips, meatballs and more. The company’s goal isn’t to convince everyone to give up meat, but, as Brown puts it, “to give them the meat they love without the health and environmental downsides.”
In Minneapolis, the brother-sister team of Kale and Aubry Walch have recently opened the country’s first vegan butcher shop, The Herbivorous Butcher. And to look around, you’d never know there are no animals involved in making their popular Korean ribs, pastrami and porterhouse steaks. “When I became a vegan, I really missed the flavors of meat I grew up with and the traditions of sitting down at the table with my dad and cutting into a steak,” says Kale Walch. So the team has worked hard to come up with ways to mimic both the flavor and the texture of meat, using nothing but plants. “Replicating the flavor of meat is actually pretty easy, because you can use spices to infuse flavor into the protein at the molecular level,” says Kale. Texture, he says, is trickier, but they’re learning to nail that too. “Our Korean ribs have a tapioca-brown sugar dry rub that makes them crisp up nicely and creates a ‘skin’ when you cook it just like you would expect on a rib,” he says.
Another new entrant into the real-meat-from-plants arena is a company called Impossible Foods, founded in 2011 by Patrick O. Brown, MD, Ph.D., who had been a leading research scientist at Stanford University. The company is finally set to launch its first product, The Impossible Burger (pictured at top), later this year. According to the company, it will be a plant-based burger without compromise: “We aim to deliver every pleasure that meat lovers get from burgers — from the visual appearance of the raw meat, to the sizzle, aromas and changing appearance during cooking, to the ultimate taste and texture of the burger.” One of the key ingredients is a molecule called heme, which is naturally found in the root nodules of legumes. It is also found in the myoglobin of red meat. Turns out that heme — regardless of whether it originates from a plant or a cow — is what provides that unmistakably meaty taste. And in the case of The Impossible Burger, it also helps create the red, juicy appearance of rare burger oozing blood.
While such realism may not be appealing to some vegetarians and vegans, these new meats are courting a new audience. “About 70 percent of our customers are omnivores,” says Kale Walch. And now, those omnivores can eat healthier without giving up the “meat” they love.
Sally Wadyka is a Boulder, Colorado-based journalist who writes about nutrition, health and wellness.