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Silicon Valley start-ups and investors go vegetarian

Posted by Marta Kot on 23rd March 2015

“This is the best hamburger I’ve ever had!”

“Great! But actually it doesn’t have a single gram of meat”

This is what some Silicon Valley-funded tech start-ups are aiming to be able to say this year.

Many food companies already offer a selection of meat alternatives, but the exciting ambition of a current crop of start-ups is to replicate a meaty flavour and texture that will thrill meat lovers and enable vegetarians the chance to enjoy the flavours they have avoided because of ethical or dietary reasons.

These start-ups are not being coy about describing their plans. They are creating “a plant-based hamburger patty that bleeds and meatless chicken strips with the same fleshy and fibrous texture as cooked poultry.” Sounds perfect to me and I’m not surprised the project has already attracted a fair share of venture capital firms and investors, including Bill Gates, Google Ventures and Kleiner Perkins.

The product will offer many advantages over meat and is likely to be:

  1. Healthier (a human’s digestive system is not genetically designed for a high meat diet)
  2. More ethical
  3. More nutritious (our bodies can absorb only a small proportion of animal-based proteins)
  4. As satisfying as meat
  5. Cheaper than organic meat
  6. More environmentally friendly

What technology can enable such an effect?

The process of creating a plant-based hamburger that bleeds has been initiated by a start-up called Impossible Foods, drawing on the expertise of a large group of molecular biologists, biochemists and physicists who break down plant structure and extract proteins that can, for example, make foods firm up or melt down during cooking.

Apart from focusing on meat texture, the start-up has also dedicated plenty of time to working out how to imitate the unique flavour from haem, which is abundant in haemoglobin in blood. To find a close replacement of haem is not an easy task because during the cooking process haem acts as a catalyst that helps transform amino acids, vitamins and sugars in muscle tissue into numerous volatile and flavourful molecules. However the start-up claims to have found a solution — they use a heme protein found in the roots of legumes.

The burger is anticipated to be available on the market by the end of this year, but judging from the comments around the project, not everyone is welcoming it with open arms. There are questions being asked; are the plants that the start-ups rely on genetically modified? If so, how can they confidently call their products ethically grown or healthy?

Some consumers go a step further and wonder, is “meatless meat” going to appeal to the men who see meat as ‘masculine’ food? Is vegetation an efficient way to process sunlight energy or should the next step be to provide human nutrition direct from the sun?

Playing devil’s advocate, the whole discussion may be irrelevant over the next few decades because with the current way that we’re eating, we may not be able to sustain the number of people that we’re going to need to feed.

photo credit: 1604_16