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The revolution will not be tenderized


We’re more than a decade into the alt-protein revolution. Will meatless beef ever replace the real thing?


What’s in your burger in the year 2030 may hinge less on culinary innovation than on a series of mechanical engineering experiments going on right now at the University of Illinois, where scientists are studying how to make plant-based patties more delicious.

Michael Leonard, the youthful-looking chief technology officer for Boston-based Motif FoodWorks, which is bankrolling the research, describes what researchers are looking for in existential terms.


“It’s all the mechanical properties that are relevant to the consumer mouthfeel and texture experience,” he says. “So you measure how springy is a product, how viscous is it, [and] how does it flow? How does it chew down?”


Leonard and his academic partners are searching for taste and texture needles in a giant biological haystack of otherwise dull vegetarian ingredients. Working with nearby synthetic biology powerhouse Ginkgo Bioworks, they use complex lab equipment called microbial “foundries” to synthesize and screen new botanical candidates that may have a desirable taste or texture. Think of it as speed-dating for lab-grown ingredients. If the scientists confirm that the new ingredient has the right structure and functionality, Motif can then use a fermentation process to produce large amounts. At a different lab across the ocean at the University of Queensland, Australia, Motif is researching an area known as “oral processing”—the mechanics of how we chew food and break it down with saliva. And at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, the company is studying solubility, viscosity, and emulsification in order to get a handle on that all-important hamburger quality: juiciness.


This may seem like a lot of effort to create a better veggie burger. Plant-based meat alternatives are currently a niche category that encompassed the equivalent of just over 1 percent of the $95.3 billion worth of meat sold in the U.S. in 2019. But the fact that Motif has attracted $119 million in venture funding suggests that investors think that the company and its competitors—like the $150-million fungal protein startup Nature’s Fynd, or the publicly traded SavorEat (market value: over $100 million)—are not just creating an obscure vegan product. Instead, these companies are seeking to replace the cow-based burger with something they predict will be kinder for cows, better for the Earth, and more pleasing to the tongue.


Creating plant versions of meat is one way to take livestock out of food production. Other companies are culturing stem cells taken from live animals and attempting to grow “kill-free” tissue in large tanks called bioreactors. Beef, pork, poultry, fish, shrimp, and even foie gras businesses are already cooking away. But producing cultured meat is energy-intensive and expensive, costing hundreds of dollars per kilogram, whereas plant-based alternatives are cheap and plentiful, and available at your local grocery store right now.

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