Call it fake meat, meat analog or faux meat, there’s no denying there’s a market for meat-like products — in this country, a $340 million market. Of course, that’s a tiny fi gure when compared to what Americans spend on real meat every year, but sales in the faux meat category are growing at rates around 3 to 5 percent a year, while per capita consumption of actual meat is declining. (CME Group noted that per capita beef consumption in 2010 was the lowest in its records, which date back to 1955.) More than a third of Americans are now having meatless meals at least once a week, according to surveys.
Manufacturers have noticed this trend and they are responding; they introduced 110 new meat-substitute products just in 2010 and 2011. Among those working on such products is a new Maryland-based company called Beyond Meat. The company’s founder, who became a vegan after spending time on the family farm and developing concerns about the welfare of the farm animals, was unhappy with available meat substitutes. He launched Beyond Meat with an aim to create a soy-based food that would be indistinguishable from chicken and be economical, too. That latter point is important to consumers (obviously) and would create an automatic advantage for his product, since many meat substitutes cost more than actual meat. Texture has long been a sticking point for faux meats, but Beyond Meat is one of a couple of companies claiming a breakthrough with its substitute chicken meat product. The process involves combining soy and pea powder, carrot fiber and flour, cooking and cooling the mixture and extruding it through a machine. The company says it requires only a small fraction of the natural resources — water, grains — needed to raise chickens, and it takes less than a minute from start to finished faux chicken meat. That “meat” will soon debut in some California Whole Foods Markets, and the company is now building a bigger production facility with the intention of developing faux pork and ground beef products.
Another group claiming some success is a European project called LikeMeat. It has developed a processing technology involving bringing water and plant proteins to a boil and then cooling slowly, so that the protein molecules can start forming chains as the temperature of the mixture falls. The result is a fibrous texture that mimics meat more closely than past meat-substitute products, the group says. It has developed different recipes using different kinds of plant proteins to accommodate consumer preferences as well as food allergy issues. The product is expected to come to market in 2013.
Reaction to this news among likely consumers of these products is mixed: Some (especially those coming from an animal-welfare perspective) applaud the efforts to create a vegetable-based, meat-like food that skips the animal involvement; others object to the extensive processing needed to create these products. And the conversation about real versus manmade meat (broadly defined as meat that bypasses the slaughterhouse) may shift again when Dutch scientists serve the first hamburger made entirely from meat cells grown in the lab, which is set to happen this fall. The cost of that hamburger is likely to be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, however, so it will be some time before that option reaches supermarket shelves and consumers get their say.