Manufactured ‘meat’ the new food frontier

These vegan “pulled pork” appetizers were made with plant protein at the Saskatchewan Food Industry Centre at the University of Saskatchewan.  |  William DeKay photo

Meat that isn’t meat may be coming to a plate near you.

Biting into the relatively stable market of animal protein, a.k.a. meat, is technology using plant-based proteins that mimic the look, feel, smell and taste of meat.

Such manufactured food products are providing consumers with more selection to satisfy wide-ranging palates, vegan and vegetarian choices and the wishes of those who eschew animal agriculture.

“It’s all about choice, which is changing,” said Shannon Hood-Niefer, vice-president of innovation and technology for the Saskatchewan Food Industry Development Centre on the University of Saskatchewan campus.

“Globally, how we consume food, as the population grows, as wealth increases or decreases in certain areas, we’re going to be making different food choices” she said.

Food is mostly an unexplored scientific frontier and internationally researchers are investigating the molecular basis of food flavours and textures. They are learning the effects of food choices on the body and environment while discovering healthy new ingredients from plants.

“As food scientists we need to be making food that will fit the future choices people will be making. I think this technology is something people will choose more often in the future,” she said.

However, it’s a highly subjective topic, said Harvey Wagner of SaskPork who ate a veggie burger once, but has not gone out of his way to continue.

“We all have our opinions and anybody associated in the livestock industry has an opinion on that,” he said.

“Whatever floats your boat. If that’s what you want to do then knock yourself out.”

Why would anyone want to eat fake meat? That’s the question Hood-Niefer hears most often.

She said a growing number of vegans and vegetarians don’t want to consume animal protein, but they still crave the taste and texture of real meat.

Another expanding category, the flexitarian or semi-vegetarianism, still eats meat, but sometimes looks for other choices.

“Not everybody wants to choose a meat option every day.

So you choose a vegetarian option a couple times a week maybe,” she said.

“That’s kind of the market segment that we’re looking at. Consumers like choice and to be able to offer new product offerings, and new flavours and textures with different nutritional aspects and still fit your lifestyle.”

She said most grocery stores position vegetarian and vegan selections in the legume aisle with dried beans, peas, chickpeas and lentils, as well as in the canned or fruit and vegetable aisle.

This is likely to change as consumption of manufactured foods and the alternative protein sector grows.

“We’ll see ready to eat meals in the frozen and refrigerated sections and more options in the take- away, already-warm food service section and deli section,” she said.

While it looks and tastes like meat, she thinks manufactured meat will remain separated from other meat sections because of the many product possibilities.

“It could be its own aisle because people are looking for that and don’t want to be going to the meat aisle,” she said.

“The companies working on this have varying opinions of where it should be. Some think it should be in the meat aisle, but those people are well outnumbered generally from my conversations. Most of them want to keep it in the vegetable-fruit aisle or somewhat close to it just from perception.”

Compared to livestock, she said it’s easier to grow plant-based proteins. It’s also a small fraction of the total energy input compared to real meat.

“At what point will this be competitive and profitable at scale compared to livestock from the beginning of the supply chain to the end?” she said.

“It’s getting closer for the big companies. What needs to happen is the price of plant based proteins needs to come down.”

However, depending on the formulation, the technology can be less expensive than real meat and sometimes costs more at retail.

“It really depends on what markets you’re in and what you’re looking at in terms of price point as well. We’ve developed products that are 13 cents a pound all the way to $2.56 a pound,” she said.

“Just like any food manufacturing thing, the cost of your ingredients is your major input. The cost of labour and processing is actually quite small. The cost of packaging is more when you go to market.”

Packaging also has to be designed significantly different because the product doesn’t handle like meat even though it is kept refrigerated or frozen.

“If you’re going to mistakenly grab this and think you’re grabbing meat and cook it like meat, you’re not going to have an enjoyable eating experience,” she said.

“If you over heat it you’re done. You’re eating elastic bands for dinner.”

For example, compared to a barbecued chicken breast, which typically takes 10 to 12 minutes to cook, a “chicken” breast made from plant-based proteins only requires minimal heating before eating.

“If you cooked it any more than two minutes it’s not going to be nice. You’re not going enjoy eating the product at all,” she said.

“That’s because by the time it comes out of the extruder all those proteins are denatured (cooked). You’re just warming the product and so you don’t need to cook out any proteins and starches.”

Each year the Food Centre has been bringing scores of products to market and has had a hand in developing more than 750 products since it began in 1999.

It currently has 50 different clients utilizing its 10,000 sq. feet, to refine existing products, develop new ones or process existing ones.

On any given day, kettles, scales, mixers, extruders and heaters are put to work in the facilities three primary food development labs.

The recipe to recreate whole muscle meat starts with a dried formulation that includes wheat, soy or pea protein, or some combination thereof, as well as starch and fibre. Colorants and flavouring agents are added during blending to imitate real meat products.

The dry blend is fed into the extruder and mixed with 55 to 60 percent water.

Like a tube of toothpaste and in less than two minutes, the product is squeezed through a die where proteins go from their native state to a denatured one. They relax, unfold and align with the flow of the extruder. As the product cools, proteins form bonds and create textures that look like real meat fibre.

Post-extrusion processing involves further refining the look and feel of the intended product.

“We can do anything from pulled pork, chicken breast, chicken fingers. We’ve also done calamari, ham, roast beef, bacon, sausages and ginger beef,” she said.

Not so fast, said Wagner, who thinks real meat remains a necessary nutritional component.

“We in the livestock business think that meat is a vital part of a healthy diet and has been for modern human history and I think will continue for modern human future,” he said.

“There’s a reason why we as modern people are six inches taller than our ancestors. It’s because we have better nutrition. … If you don’t have a good balanced diet you definitely will suffer.”

As the manufactured food market increases grain farmers could see their bottom lines improve as demand for plant-based proteins grows.

“As more and more ingredient manufacturers start figuring out, and it’s economically viable to start fractionating and making proteins out of other things, then we’re going to see other proteins come up,” said Hood-Niefer.

“I’ve spent the last 15 years working in pulse utilization so I’m going to say that pulses are probably the next wave in terms of proteins and starches coming from crops.”

“If I was to pick what that next crop would be I would say faba bean. They have a higher amount of protein than pea, they are more bland, and their colour is more easily hidden in food,” she said.

“From a food processing perspective there are a lot of wins.”

Perhaps one of the greatest challenges facing the burgeoning industry is finding the right words to label and brand alternative foods.

“What do we call it? I’m a scientist and I’m going to call it what its technical term is, but that doesn’t sound appealing. Do you want to eat high moisture chicken breast?” she said.

“We need to call it something else and there’s a fine line too. If you want to call it chicken or chicken replacement then it goes back to the question, what are the rules around doing that? Do we need to meet every micronutrient of a chicken to call it a chicken replacement?”

“Yes,” said Wagner, who thinks the familiar expression, “tastes like chicken, looks like chicken,” is misleading.

“To say that it’s equivalent, it’s not equivalent. It’s something similar but it’s certainly not equivalent,” he said.

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