The New Reality of Animal-Free Food Innovation
As you may have heard lately, meat production has problems. From its mammoth contribution of serious greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, to its over-consumption of much of the planet’s land and fresh water, to the devastating effects farm animal waste and feed crops are having on natural waterways, species habitats, and biodiversity the world over, industrial meat production may represent the greatest environmental disaster in modern history.
But there is an answer — and it’s not vegetarianism. An ambitious new industry is steadfastly focused on taking farmed animals out of the equation completely, and instead leveraging new technology, fearless innovation, and incredible creativity to make meat (and dairy and eggs) that are completely animal-free. This is the new future of truly sustainable, healthy, and ethical food production.
The fast-emerging field of animal-free animal products is being pioneered by a bold and visionary group of entrepreneurs, start-ups, scientists, and investors. Based on their primary approach, they fall into two distinct categories: those who are using the powers of synthetic biology to create actual meat, dairy, or egg products using harvested animal cells, yeasts, microbes and other organisms, and those who are turning to plants as the new medium for making animal-like proteins, flavors, and textures.
The following list of companies and research projects is not exhaustive — there are a number of startups and research labs working on different animal products (gelatin, shark fins, horseshoe crab blood) that are not included here.
This list features the most prominent and well-funded organizations working on more sustainable and humane solutions for animal-derived foods.They represent the exciting advent of a field of endeavor that will fundamentally disrupt the massive, shockingly wasteful, irresponsible and grossly inhumane industries of conventional animal agriculture.
Here they are, separated into respective meat, dairy or eggs categories as well as by their biotech or plant-based approach.
Welcome to the future.
MEAT — BIOTECH
Since 2008, Dr. Mark Post has led the world’s foremost research lab in growing real animal meat using in-vitro tissue culturing methods. His lab created the world’s first edible cultured meat burger, which was introduced in a live television taste-test in 2013.
Dr. Post is also helped to organize the world’s first international cultured meat symposium in 2015, in Maastricht in The Netherlands. The historic event brought together leading scientists from a diverse array of disciplines — including engineers, food scientists, food technologists and biomaterials experts — to facilitate the exchange of ideas to help driver faster innovation of cultured meat technology.
In October, 2015 Dr. Post’s research team announced plans to bring the world’s first cultured meat product to market in 2020, or just under five years.
Modern Meadow is a Brooklyn-based startup that is also working on creating animal meat, including fish, using in-vitro culturing methods. In 2014, they introduced a prototype for “steak chips” at a Google Solve for X event , and CEO Andras Forgacs spoke about his unique vision for cultured meat production last year at the Bitten Conference in NYC. Modern Meadow is also notable for its groundbreaking materials program, which is using animal skin cells to grow real leather and other biofabrics, which may become available in 2018.
MEAT — PLANTS
Impossible Foods is a bit of a dark horse in the the race for a plant-based burger that actually tastes like a burger. Several companies and startups have tried but ultimately failed in their efforts to replicate the full flavor and juiciness of cow-based beef.
But Impossible Foods might be the incredible exception. Headed by Stanford biochemist Patrick Brown, it has held a decidedly low-key profile, only periodically sending out enigmatic messages about their first product, the Impossible Burger, which is slated to be released in late 2016 (though it may make select appearances before then.) Patrick Brown and the Impossible Foods lab were interviewed in this fascinating video in 2014, which went viral when it re-surfaced last spring.
If The Impossible Burger can actually deliver on what it is promises — a truly delicious, slaughter-free, sustainable burger — its impact will be profound, to say the least. We will have to wait and see if the Impossible Burger can really achieve the impossible; in the mean time, The New Omnivore will be closely watching its development.
Sushi from tomatoes? This improbable-sounding idea actually turned out to be a feat of culinary genius, and has made life-like, sustainable sushi available to all for the first time. Created by internationally renowned chef James Corwell, tomato sushi was first conceived as a solution to the massive overfishing that is decimating populations of tuna and other popular “sushi” fish.
Using a special method known as “sous vide” cooking, Corwell transforms ordinary slices of tomato into pieces of raw “tuna”, with nearly exact fish-like color, flavor, and texture that is visually nothing short of stunning. Tomato Sushi has received glowing reviews from omnivores and vegans alike, and is currently available in several San Francisco-area retail shops, as well as for bulk purchase online.
DAIRY — BIOTECH
Real milk, without cows. This simple but powerful idea is being pursued by two bioengineers, Ryan Pandya and Perumal Gandhi, who, with the support of New Harvest launched Muufri ( a word play on “moo” and “free”) in 2014. Dairy milk production is both environmentally and ethically problematic, and cow-less milk promises to provide a sustainable, safe, and humane solution to the greenhouse gas pollution, excessive water consumption, and rather cruel practices that are standard in large-scale dairy operations.
By synthesizing a mixture of special sugars, proteins, fats, and water (the basic components of milk), Muufri is working to create an identical product to bovine milk that will not only taste like the conventional stuff, but can be created to be free of allergens and lactose, as well.
In September 2015, Muufri was selected as a runner-up in the Dutch Postcode Lottery Green Challenge, an international sustainability competition, and received over $200,000 to continue their research into animal-free milk products.
As their name implies, Counter Culture Labs isn’t your typical research laboratory. They encourage the concept of “citizen science”, and generously open their Oakland, CA-based research space to all amateur scientists, biohackers, and curious tinkerers.
Their flagship project is Real Vegan Cheese — an inspired effort to make real dairy cheese with yeast-borne proteins instead of cow’s milk . Melty, stretchy, gooey cheese without any dairy is the holy grail for most vegans, considering the low quality of most plant-based cheeses.
Following a successful Kickstarter campaign earlier this year to upgrade their lab space and equipment, CC Labs is hard at work on their much-anticipated project, which was the subject of this insightful piece by Wired last year. The Real Vegan Cheese initiative holds the best hope yet for all those waiting on real, cruelty-free cheese to become a reality. And Counter Culture Labs just might be the answer.
EGGS — BIOTECH
The demand for eggs has shot up dramatically in the past few years; but even more valuable are egg whites — the clear part of the egg that is rich in protein but low in fat and cholesterol. These desirable characteristics have made egg whites the “it” breakfast food of the last several years — and supply can’t nearly keep up with demand. Egg white prices more than doubled in just two years, and 2015’s unprecedented outbreak of avian flu has pushed prices to astronomical levels.
Clara Foods is a startup that wants to make egg whites without chickens to meet the sky-high demand for this low-supply product. Using yeast to create the unique proteins found inside chicken eggs, Clara Foods (who win the award for most clever logo) hopes to disrupt the conventional egg white market with their more sustainable, healthy, and affordably-priced product, which will be identical in taste, appearance, and nutritional value to chicken-based egg products. Even better, their products would be totally immune to avian-borne diseases and flu outbreaks, and contain fewer allergens.
EGGS — PLANTS
Hampton Creek was first begun with the simple goal of making a plant-based egg replacer for industrial food processes. However, some four years later, they have introduced several best-selling stand-alone products including mayo and cookie dough, and became one of the fastest-growing food companies of all time. Their products can be found in dozens of major retailers from Wal-Mart and Target to Dollar Tree and 7-Eleven, and last year secured a major deal with one of the world’s largest food distributors, FoodBuy. CEO Josh Tetrick has been featured in countless articles, interviews, and television shows as a thought-leader of the better food movement, and given keynotes at leading food innovation and sustainability conferences.
And Hampton Creek only appears to be getting started.They have been hinting for months at the much-anticipated release of their plant-based scrambled egg product, Just Scramble, which, if comparable in taste and texture to traditional scrambled eggs, could revolutionize this breakfast food for egg lovers everywhere. (Not to mention pose major competition to conventional egg producers.)
For now, we will just have to wait and see — but Hampton Creek stands as an incredible testimony to the potential of animal-free foods to positively influence retail markets and the entire food system to make food better.
Founded in 2004, New Harvest is a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting and developing cultured meat technology. The organization and its executive director, Isha Datar, have also been instrumental in creating and launching different animal-free food startups, including Muufri and Clara Foods. They co-organized the world’s first cultured meat symposium in Maastricht last October, and will hold the second annual event this fall.
Recognizing the need for an incubator to foster independent biotechnology research, IndieBio was launched in 2014 to help accelerate important biotech innovations in the fields of food, medicine, consumer products, and beyond. Based in San Francisco and Europe, IndieBio provides generous seed funding, scientific advisement, and expert mentorship to promising biotech startups and research teams.
PLANT-BASED MEATS: GARDEIN & BEYOND MEAT
There are many brands of plant-based meat products currently on the market, but unfortunately, few are up to par in matching traditional meat’s taste and texture. Gardein and Beyond Meat, however, are two notable exceptions. Using proprietary ingredients and/or technology, Gardein and Beyond Meat have each produced impressive plant-based chicken and beef products, which are widely available for retail purchase.
Gardein’s products are so good that several restaurant chains, like Yardhouse, have incorporated them into their main menu. Hopefully the influence of these company’s products will grow as more people try them and see that meat from plants can be just as satisfying as the traditional kind.