Good chemistry: Using plant-based proteins to ‘copy’ meat

Ethan Brown HERO

Plant proteins processed to chemically re-create the structure of meat are the next generation of vegetarian options, says Beyond Meat founder Ethan Brown.

Ethan Brown
Ethan Brown

Ethan Brown, CEO and founder of California-based Beyond Meat, is convinced there’s a better way to feed the planet. But to get there, he has to persuade consumers that real meat should be defined by its chemical makeup rather than whether it came from a formerly living, breathing pig, cow or chicken.

Anyone who’s ever been let down by a not-so-tasty veggie burger has certainly earned the right to be skeptical about Brown’s contention. But hold that thought, because Brown is approaching the alternative meat market unlike anyone else.

We’re not trying to get soy and wheat to mimic meat. . . . We are literally trying to create a piece of meat from plant inputs.”
—Ethan Brown

“We’re not trying to get soy and wheat to mimic meat. We are actually trying to rebuild it. It’s that commitment to re-creating meat from plants that sets us apart [from other companies],” says Brown. “We are literally trying to create a piece of meat from plant inputs.”

Beyond Meat launched its first retail product, grilled chicken strips made from soy and pea protein, in 2013, and in 2014 the company expanded to pea protein-based beef crumbles that look a lot like prepared taco filling. Brown’s latest and most ambitious creation, called Beast Burgers, is scheduled to roll out nationally in the United States through Whole Foods Market in February 2015.

“It’s an incredible product,” says Brown. “It has more iron than steak, more protein than beef, more omega-3s than fish, more calcium than milk, and more antioxidants than blueberries. We said to ourselves, if we’re going to go to the trouble of making meat from plants, why not create something that has benefits that a single species couldn’t deliver?”

Planting the seeds for new technology

Brown, who devoted the early part of his career to the clean energy sector, has championed a meatless lifestyle for much of his life. As a child he spent weekends at his parents’ small dairy farm in rural Maryland, and eventually he started to question the ethics of why it was OK to eat certain animals, like cattle, but not others, like house pets. By the time he turned 17, Brown had become a vegetarian and is now a long-time vegan.

In making the case for Beyond Meat’s particular brand of plant protein, Brown says he wants consumers to consider meat from its scientific definition, a combination of five elements: amino acids, lipids, carbohydrates, minerals and water.

“That’s all it is, organized in a certain architecture. It’s assembled in a certain way, and that’s what the muscle is,” he says. “None of those things are exclusive to meat—in fact, they’re plentiful in the plant kingdom.”

The pitch is simple, even if the execution of it is complex. It turns out that reproducing the way meat feels in your mouth is a very high hurdle, and while they’re close, Brown admits they’re not quite there yet.

“We’ve been eating meat for 2 million years, so it’s incredibly nuanced what goes on when you bite into a piece of meat in terms of familiarity, and in terms of what you’re expecting,” he says. “We’re trying to replicate something that is very intimate—how you chew on a piece of food.”

Although Beyond Meat doesn’t discuss the specific technology it uses to produce its products, the company essentially applies heat, pressure and cooling to the ingredients to “line up” the proteins so they form fibers that mirror the structure and shapes of the fibers found in meat.

“Under a microscope, the fiber construct of our chicken vs. an animal chicken is pretty indistinguishable,” says Bob Connolly, Beyond Meat’s vice president of marketing.

A new environment for protein production

Beyond Meat estimates 60 million Americans are now reducing their meat consumption at least once or twice a week. That less-of concept, along with its timing—smack in the middle of an urgent global conversation over the impacts of animal agriculture on the earth’s eco-system—has helped Beyond Meat attract a dream team of high-profile tech industry backers including Bill Gates and Twitter co-founders Biz Stone and Evan Williams.

“At its core, what’s so appealing to people is that there are very few things you can do that will simultaneously impact a number of different important problems at once with tremendous efficiency,” says Brown.

Reducing meat consumption is one of them, and Brown is convinced that how we produce protein is the most important environmental question facing our society today.

“People are finally starting to realize that from a climate perspective, it’s [producing animal protein] the equivalent of driving a Hummer,” he says. “It’s a gratuitous use of emissions. To give you an example, the pea protein we use to create our beef? It emits one-tenth of the emissions that grass-fed beef emits. It’s incredible from an emissions perspective.”

Broader horizons

As global prices for beef, pork and fish continue to climb, the future looks bright for more affordable plant-based alternatives. Beyond Meat products are already sold in 6,000 stores in the United States, with sales doubling every year, says Brown.

Although he declined to specify other plant sources the company is exploring for future products, Brown says protein options in plants like mustard seed, camelina, lupine, algae and yeast are plentiful. That means shoppers could very well see a boom in the variety of faux meat supermarket offerings in the not-so-distant future. In fact, products that would mimic chicken nuggets, hot wings or even a full steak fillet or ground beef, selling alongside the real stuff in the fresh meat department, are all currently in development at Beyond Meat.

While Brown says their immediate focus is on building the Beyond Meat brand in the United States, he wholeheartedly believes there’s a role for plant-based proteins in the developing world.

“It’s absolutely essential that we get traction in the Third World. If the developing world does adopt the animal agriculture model, the climate will be destroyed. There’s no ambiguity on that point,” he says. “There’s an opportunity to leap-frog the way cell phones did landlines, so instead of transitioning over everyone to McDonald’s, we transition them over to plant-based protein.”

Find out more about Beyond Meat technology: University of Missouri Professor Fu-hung Hsieh, Ph.D., CFS, talks about his work developing a soy-based food product marketed by Beyond Meat.

Clare Leschin-Hoar

Based in San Diego, Clare Leschin-Hoar specializes in reporting on seafood, sustainability and food trends. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, The Guardian, EatingWell, The Boston Globe and many more media outlets.

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