A large percentage of humans–even vegetarians and vegans–love meat. We love the texture, the way it feels when we chew it, and the juiciness. This love of meat has led to a lot of problems, including increased greenhouse gas emissions from raising livestock and reduced amounts of arable land to use for crops that people will eat (instead, the land is used to grow feed). The meat alternatives currently on the market are decent, but something always seems a little off. The smell, the appearance, the taste, and the texture all subtly let you know that you’re about to take a bite of a soy sausage, not a real one.
If scientists could make a vegetarian meat analogue that really seems like the real thing, would it convince people to eat less meat? The researchers involved in the EU’s LikeMeat project aim to find out. They are taking on the challenge of creating a production chain where raw vegetable material is used to create a meat substitute that can hold its own in a taste test against a steak or chicken nugget.
A motley crew of organizations are involved in the LikeMeat project, including university scientists and 11 different food companies. Three of the companies have only ever processed meat. Clearly, they think there’s a market for a real meat analogue. There’s also the cost factor–it’s a lot cheaper to deal with plants than animals.
So far, researchers have figured out that boiling and slowly cooling down a combination of water and plant proteins creates a fibrous product that’s similar in texture to meat. Any number of ingredients can be used, including soy, peas, and wheat. Note that wheat and soy are already used in meat substitutes; the LikeMeat researchers simply think they can use these ingredients more effectively.
There is already a prototype vegetarian meat factory in a lab at Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute for Process Engineering and Packaging. A system the size of two ping-pong tables produces an endless centimeter-thick piece of “meat” that can be sliced, diced, or molded into any form imaginable. The texture and consistency are reportedly already as good as the real thing. Taste–the most important piece of the puzzle–is still less than perfect.
If the project fails, there’s still hope for less environmentally intensive “meat” products. Test-tube meat is on its way. By the end of the year, Dutch researchers aim to create the first lab-grown hamburger. That might be more authentic than a meat analogue, but it’s arguably creepier as well.