Plant-based meat: transition or new paradigm?

Jose de la Rosa - Fermentedfreelance
FUTURE FOOD
Published in
7 min readJul 2, 2021

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Food Alchemist Reflections #9. MEAT-FREE CONSUMPTION CONSEQUENCES

In a world that has been built by words and words that have been created by humans, where does nature take the lead? It is time for a change, re-think what has been already established by our words, and create a new paradigm that includes us as part of nature. How? Through Food. Food is our common treasure, the best indicator of our planet’s health. These words represent an out-loud thought from The Food Alchemist Lab that endeavors to take you on a trip around general and specific food topics → proposing solutions, destroying myths, and waking up your interest through impactful recipes. Because your curiosity is our trigger and, once you’ve shot us, nothing will stop us from bringing a better food system, the one that listens to nature’s voice.

1. FIRST THINGS FIRST

What is meat?

It is not the first time that I begin a Food Alchemist Reflection by analyzing a definition and today will certainly not be the last. Usually, when we are facing a problem and trying to find solutions we forget the most important thing, the beginning or origin of that problem, its main and basic definition. If meat consumption is becoming an issue for our society and the stability of our environment, maybe and just maybe, before looking for solutions, we should ask ourselves: What is meat?

What is the first animal that comes to your mind when thinking about meat? Well… if we check the Cambridge dictionary, meat is defined as “the flesh of an animal when it is used for food.” Interesting, right? Basically, from this definition, any flesh from an animal used for food purposes is considered meat and this means that fish, horses, crocodiles, snakes, frogs, jellyfish, or even insects (Fig.1), when used for food, are also considered as meat. I say this because all of them are part of the animal kingdom. However, if we check the Oxford dictionary things are slightly different: “the flesh of an animal or a bird eaten as food.” Curious, right? An animal or a bird? Well, as a biologist, I have to say that birds are part of the animal kingdom so I do not really distinguish between animals and birds…

As you can see, the starting point for solving this problem, meat consumption, is already wrong. We are not clear what exactly meat is… a fish is also meat as far as fish are animals even if on restaurant menus there is always the distinction between meat and fish. In conclusion, how do we pretend to solve a problem if we do not even recognize the size and limits of that problem?

Figure 1: A tiny representation of the animal kingdom: humans are also meat for someone else. Source Sheri Amsel, www.exploringnature.org

Wrong starting point→ wrong solution→ worse problem.

I’m going to explain it as simply as possible. Imagine that we live in a world that is suffering changes and instability due, in part, to meat consumption. The word meat is linked to the animal kingdom which is represented by millions of different species. Imagine now that the intelligence of one of these animal species, called human, is used to solve the problem. A conversation between humans looking for solutions could look something like this:

Human 1: “Hey man, I’ve got an idea to reduce meat consumption.”

Human 2: “Really? What is it about?”

Human 1: “Easy man, what is meat?”

Human 2: “Well… burgers, meatballs, steaks, sausages, and frankfurters.”

Human 1: “Exactly dude, so I was thinking of recreating that meat by using only peas and soybeans. Believe me, I have the formula to recreate the same texture, flavor, and aroma”.

Human 2: “Wow man, you are awesome. In this way we reduce meat consumption and the exploitation of cows, chickens, and pigs and only use soybeans and peas, which are healthier and more sustainable. Man, you are a genius and we are going to be rich!!!

What’s wrong with this conversation? What does not pair with what was previously discussed about the meat definition? Easy right? These imaginary humans consider that meat and thus animals are only represented by cows, chickens, and pigs when actually there are millions of species out there. Basically they are trying to solve the problem of “meat consumption” which represents millions of living creatures, providing a diversity of protein sources + other valuable nutrients + huge biodiversity, and richness of nature with just two plant-based ingredients: soybeans and peas.

Don’t you find this imaginary conversation quite stupid? What would the future of our planet be if the solution from this conversation is taken further? Can you imagine our world losing all its biodiversity just to use the whole surface of the planet for growing peas and soybeans?

Mmmm… what a boring and binomial future right? In this hypothetical case we’ll live in a world that will be fully green and we’ll eat only brown patties and meatballs. Sounds like a plan right? However, my dear readers, there is a bigger problem than this imaginary conversation and it is that unfortunately, this is not an imaginary conversation, and it is not between only two humans but rather millions of them, including you as a consumer. This is real and it is happening.

My apologies in advance but yes, until this paragraph the only conclusion that you may extract from these words is: we are stupid and only think about our particular and individual gains.

2. BIODIVERSITY IS THE SOLUTION

In past medium posts, I’ve spoken about our addiction to meat and fire and the reason behind it. The flavors and aromas that come from the Maillard reaction and the ‘umaminess’ released when the proteins are broken down into amino acids make this food a must for our ancestral brain. Understanding this we could easily create the nostalgic sensation of meat consumption simply by cooking non-animals in a similar way, enhancing Maillard reaction flavors and adding plant-based, protein-rich ingredients that enhance the umaminess that “normally” vegetables lack. Well it seems that this simple solution is not welcome by every culture, it seems that is not just a fact of flavors and aroma but also texture.

Texture makes our chews work and that satisfies us. n part, that is the reason why we are using the pea and soybean isolated proteins, to create a non-flavor matrix that emulates the texture of meat. As a single and punctual solution, it is a great idea but when it becomes the only solution it becomes a disaster. So let’s look for a rainbow of solutions that brings new colors, aromas, flavors, and also textures that satisfy our palates and also our chews without compromising the richness of our mother earth.

Plants have been on this planet for much longer than animals and because of this finding molecular structures that emulates meat texture in plants, funghi or microorganisms is not that difficult. We just need to see beyond soybeans and peas. I do not want to take this much longer and continue repeating the mistakes we’ve made and continue to make so let’s go directly to one example from some of the solutions we’ve been studying at the Food alchemist Lab:

Fig 2: Plant-based chorizo, on the left fresh and “raw” ready to be aged at cool temperatures, on the right already aged and ready to be eaten. Source: Food Alchemist Team.

How do we do it? Taking advantage of the natural texture from veggies, legumes, and nuts, and the enzymatic machinery from molds (Fig. 3) and microorganisms that help us to enhance the umaminess of these animal-free resources.

Fig 3: Rice koji. Usually, at the Food Alchemist, we make barley koji, which is more local and easier to find. Source: Food Alchemist.

It is clear that not only molds and fermentation are the best transformation tool but science in general helps us to understand what is the food that we have available and therefore how to transform them.

Another curious example of application and transformation is pomegranate peels. Pomegranate peels are hard, bitter, and astringent as many other fruit and vegetable peels which is why we usually throw them away. At the Food Alchemist Team, we’ve worked on it, trying to understand how to make them edible, softer, and not bitter. We baked pomegranate peels in the oven in order to ”sterilize” them and then marinated them in vodka for a certain amount of time. The vodka turns red, bitter, and astringent and so we use it for making cocktails similar to the famous Italian spritz. Through this process, the peels become tender and lose all the flavor that the vodka absorbs. At this point we have fibers and texture without flavor that we clean from the vodka and marinate in whichever flavor we desire. In this way the pomegranate peels are reminiscent of mushrooms, soft but also somehow chewy like oyster mushrooms, and that is why we marinate them in funghi shoyu (soy sauce) rich in umaminess and saltiness. In conclusion, from that 30% of pomegranate that we use to put in the bin we’ve created a byproduct + turned it into something edible, what else?

Fig 4: Pomegranate peels cleaned in water after the vodka process. Source: Food Alchemist Team pics.

3. RECIPE IN A NUTSHELL

Italian Nduja from animal-free resources

A very simple and fast recipe that will satisfy your palate and inspire you to practice having a more sustainable kitchen within your house. Today it is myself commenting on this recipe, thanks to the hard work of my colleagues Paco and Leire. I’m not going spend one more word trying to explain this recipe, please click play:

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Jose de la Rosa - Fermentedfreelance
FUTURE FOOD

Ganadero de levaduras y mohos — Agricultor de bacterias — Domador de enzimas. Gastronomic Scientist — MicroFarmer in a Fermented World