Although meat and dairy production is responsible for 15 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions, like many people I continue to eat meat, fully aware that my addiction to hamburgers is currently causing the world to burn. The current options for meat-alternatives—whether it be the Beyonds, the Impossibles, or whatever else—can’t quite deliver the same savoriness and mouthfeel as a piece of steak cooked from what was once a living animal. I empathize with those who choose to ditch the pastrami and go cold turkey (pun intended). I wish I had the resolve to take a similar step. But for me, it’s going to take more convincing before I fork over my hard-earned moolah for a slice of partially hydrogenated soy.
I’m not alone—taste continues to be a barrier for many people to pivot to fake meat. And yet, the momentum for it continues to build—in large part because it has to. The global population is expected to reach 9.7 billion people by 2050. Industrial meat production in its current form will be completely unsustainable. The ship is going to sail whether I’m on the boat or not. The Consumer Electronics Showcase (CES) in Las Vegas last week proved as much when I met companies that are convinced they have solved the taste conundrum and are ready to usher in the meatless revolution.
Despite the fact that most plant-based brands are trying their best to convince carnivores like me that their products taste the same as actual meat and dairy, Alan Hahn, CEO of alternative meat producer Myco Technologies, believes that plant-based alternatives are never going to taste quite like the real thing—and he argues that’s quite alright.
“We as a population will have made the transition into plant-based foods when we stop trying to make it taste like some other animal,” he told me at CES. “It’s a plant. You need to make it taste as good as it can as a plant rather than trying to make it into something it’s not—an animal.”
Much of this is just food science. Taste is just a sophisticated way our body tries to decipher the weird and complex chemistry we choose to shove into our mouths. You can try your best to, say, make peas taste like steak. But at the end of the day, it’s the subtle combination of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates that separates real animal products from the gustatory uncanny valley that is today’s meat alternatives.
That’s a huge reason why many consumers who have tried out brands like Beyond and Impossible (which captivated CES in 2020 when it debuted its Impossible 2.0 Burger) have been quite disappointed, even when they acknowledge that the food itself isn’t bad at all. Hahn explained why recreating the exact food chemistry that makes many of us fawn over meat is nigh impossible.
“Say you wanted to make a plant-based burger with a complete protein,” he said. “If you mix two plant-based proteins with complementary amino acids, such as pea protein and rice protein, the first thing you’ll notice is that the aroma and taste is horrible. So what do you do? Well, traditionally you would mask it by adding sugar, salt, and fats to levels where you can’t taste the bitterness.”
In other words, you season the hell out of your food to make it taste better. But most people aren’t interested in eating something caked in excessive spices.
While companies like Beyond and Impossible may never truly crack the code for making an exact meat taste from plant protein, startups like Myco Technologies believe that they can get pretty darn close by turning toward innovative food chemistry approaches. Hahn explained that his company’s secret lies in the use of mycelium—fungal filaments or mushroom roots—to ferment and process plant proteins and carbohydrates. This process of fermentation, said Hahn, creates a product that removes the bitter “planty” flavors from the “meat,” effectively creating a product that tastes more like meat than current methods of manufacturing can allow.
“Mushrooms are a biological engine, so we use the same process in our fermentation,” said Hahn. “What we do is take that same pea and rice blend and ferment it with mushrooms. That way it removes the bitterness.”
This technique is inspired by nature itself. “If you think about it, in the forest, the toxic plants tend to be bitter, so mushrooms naturally go after that,” said Hahn. “They remove the harsh aromas by breaking the bonds of that material, because aromas are volatile chemicals. Eventually you end up with a product that tastes better, has a better aroma and you need less sugar, salt, and fat.”
Myco Technologies isn’t the only alternative meat maker looking at fungi for an assist. Aqua Cultured Foods, a Chicago plant-based fish startup also at CES this year, uses fungi fermentation for an entire line of “seafood,” including tuna, calamari, whitefish, and shrimp. The protein is grown instead of processed, which the company says allows it to “retain its naturally occurring fiber and micronutrients.”
Sounds good on paper, but Aqua Cultured Foods is likely to face the same struggles to emulate the taste of meat that others have as well.
It comes down, once again, to food chemistry. The properties that make fish taste like fish are noticeably devoid in plant-based alternatives. For instance, take the chemical trimethylamine oxide (TMAO). In the wild, TMAO helps prevent water pressure from damaging the fish’s proteins and killing the animal, but in the kitchen it also gives fish its intrinsic fishy taste and aroma. It’s a critical part of how we think about fish as a food.
Unfortunately, as Forbes pointed out in 2020, plant-based seafood lacks the fishy odor. Given that smell is such an important part of taste, this severely blunts the ability of a plant-based alternative to seem like authentic seafood. That’s no small loss, considering there are 2.7 trillion fish caught every year.
Aqua Culture Foods counters that the fishy smell isn’t really the point of what it is trying to accomplish in the grand scheme of things. Brittany Chibe, co-founder and chief growth officer of Aqua Cultured Foods, told me that the fact that their product is tasteless actually makes it more versatile than the real deal. “70 percent of all seafood is consumed in restaurants,” she said. “If I were to give you a sample [of our food] today, it would taste just like water, which is, in a way, a ‘holy grail’ for chefs. The chefs we're talking to are super excited that there is no taste because they can bring into their kitchen and flavor it however they want. You can literally marinate our products in soy sauce for example and it's going to carry the flavor of the soy sauce.”
In the future, however, people may not have the luxury to harp on about the taste of new foods. We may simply have to settle for something that allows us to keep our planet habitable. “I think we have to recognize that we're not going to entirely displace traditional seafood,” said Chibe. “But I think by bringing our products to market and educating consumers on our options, and showing them that it is not only better for you, but better for the planet, slowly somebody replaces one meal a week. Or two meals a week. I think no matter what, we’re going to make an impact on our oceans and in our environment.”
Hahn agrees we’re on that inevitable path. “I believe that once the world opens up to new sources of protein we will eventually even the load on protein consumption,” he said. “Maybe, just maybe, animal based-protein will eventually become the smallest slice of the pie.”