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The Consumer's Meat Landscape

July 24, 2018

A category overdue for innovation now offers a landscape of options. That category is meat, and this article identifies the different forms it takes present & future.

When food scientists talk about meat, what it is and how it’s made is no longer limited to a single option. This article will provide you a brief overview of the available options and what's coming. I owe my growing interest in this topic to the generous knowledge of Paul Shapiro’s book, Clean Meat, the curious, Adam Yee and his podcast guest, Marie Gibbons (Episode 130), and the amazing team at the Good Food Institute.


Figure 1. The Meat Landscape for Consumers. For the purpose of this article, “meat” is defined as the edible nutrition derived from animals and plants. Animal meat has been the gold (and only) standard for most our history, but options now also include plant-based meat, clean meat, and meat extenders.

Meat: In the English language, “meat” can mean a variety of things. A basic Google search for “define meat” will yield the results of “the flesh of an animal,” as well as “the edible portion of fruits or nuts.”

According to the regulating body, the Food and Drug Administration, “meat” has a standard of identity, as does “poultry” and “seafood.”

At this current time, the question of what is and is not “meat,” is an on-going debate. For the purpose of this article, meat is defined as the edible nutrition derived from animals and plants.

Animal Meat: The OG (original gangster) of everything you perhaps thought meat was. Derived from animals (and because there was not an option otherwise for a great period of time), it’s further derived from animals using "traditional" farming practices.

To be clear though, the majority of animal-derived meat is not produced nor processed according to traditional methods of animal farming and slaughter. What the methods very realistically are is better described as factory farming, or (if you are one for acronyms) CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations). The use of the word "traditional" is only used to contrast the advancements of cellular biotechnology (clean meat) discussed below.

Plant-based Meat: I too was a skeptic, up until Beyond Meat happened to me. The name says it all, and it was originally what got me thinking, “what is meat?”, and “how can something be better than (go beyond) the current status of ‘meat’?”

Plant-based meat can deliver on a taste and protein story similar to animal meat. In fact, some options today deliver on a significantly higher protein content than animal meat (based on the true standard of weight-basis).

Plant-based meat is composed of plant protein concentrates and isolates, generally soy and pea proteins at this time. There are a number of other ingredients to reach the desired taste and texture of an animal meat standard, but as far as “active ingredients” go, soy and pea are king in this category.

The process that makes this a reality is called wet-extrusion, essentially a process that applies a desired level of pressure, heat, and holding time to produce a desired texture and bite, as well as shape/form.

Clean Meat: This is where it gets so very exciting – like cutting-edge exciting (pun intended). Clean meat is the product of manipulated cells (think a controlled environment, diet, and process), derived from the animals we have traditionally eaten – but the benefits and room for innovation are far greater.

To carry out clean meat, there are two main methods on the table: (1) Tissue collection via biopsies, swabbing, and hair/feathers, and (2) Cell immortalizaton. The latter, is seemingly more theoretical in approach, and would potentially remove animals from the equation entirely (following initial harvesting of cells).

Tissue collection is the harvesting of cells from a living animal. Biopsies derive animal cells from a tissue sample taken from an animal. Alongside biopsies, less-invasive swabs or collection of skin, hair, and feathers can be potential starting points for clean meat production. The animal would continue living happily after tissue collection. [1], [2]

Cell Immortality is the power of exponential cell growth and would take routine animal biopsies out of the equation. The theory, according to Marie Gibbons, is that cells would be allowed to continuously grow until they’re told to stop growing. There are a number of factors that contribute to cell growth and integrity, but of those mentioned was increasing telomerase in order to ultimately increase the longevity of the cell. [2]

Clean meat processing once scaled may look a lot like current methods and equipment to produce cultured and brewed food and beverage products. The process will ultimately require the anchoring of starter cells to supporting materials, adding physiologic steps to mimic a growing animal (think exercise), and adding nutrients like peptides, vitamins, minerals, sugar, and oxygen.

It offers the potential for same look, same taste, same nutritionals (or better) as traditional animal meat. It also offers the potential for inexpensive protein, customized nutrition, customized taste, and even merged hybrids of very different animals. After all, if what you need is a certain set of starter cells, and the cells are influenced by what they are fed, the ability to control the presence of certain macronutrients (fat and protein for example) in a meat product is doable. [1]

Meat Extenders: This is a somewhere-in-the-middle approach, combining both animal-based and plant-based ingredients. The hope here is to cater to the meat eaters who won’t notice or mind that 10-15% (possibly more) of their meat experience is actually composed of plants. [1]

You know what’s better than 1