The case for meat options that taste like the real thing

There is a significant environmental impact to livestock production. It accounts for 40% of global agricultural output and has significant greenhouse gas emissions. To meet global warming targets, a drastic dietary shift is needed. We need to explore meat substitutes like Impossible Foods’ products, that are a promising and nearly indistinguishable alternative to traditional meat.

This article was first published in The Mint. You can read the original at this link.

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization), rapid increases in the demand for foods derived from animals has led to an unprecedented increase in livestock production. Livestock accounts for about 40% of the global value of agricultural output today and supports the livelihoods and food security of almost 1.3 billion people on the planet. The total volume of land set apart for grazing and for the cultivation of crops dedicated to feeding livestock represents almost 80% of all land under agricultural cultivation today.

Animal husbandry has become an industrial enterprise designed to churn out livestock like widgets. Modern livestock farms are factories, keeping animals indoors so that they can be fed to a plan and bred faster. As a result of all of this, the average time-to-market for a US chicken has come down from 112 days to 48 over the last century, while its weight has more than doubled. Estimates vary, but in general farming today uses up anywhere between 70% and 90% of the world’s freshwater.

This has come at significant environmental cost. Because of the huge amounts of nutrients and organic by-products of animal farming that make their way into our water bodies, the algae and plants in our lakes and ponds have begun to grow aggressively, using up all the oxygen available at the expense of other species. A recent study in Nature magazine indicated that 72–78% of all food related greenhouse gas emissions are related to animal products. According to the study, the environmental impacts of the food system exceeds the planetary boundaries for food-related greenhouse gas emissions by 110%, for cropland use by 70%, for nitrogen application by 125%, and for phosphorus application by 75%.

Unless we make drastic changes to our global dietary habits, we will not be able to meet our planetary target of keeping global warming to under 1.5 degrees Celsius. This means that everyone on the planet will have to eat, on average, 75% less beef, 90% less pork and half the number of eggs, while tripling our consumption of beans and pulses and quadrupling the nuts and seeds we eat.

As an unabashed lover of food, I find all this deeply disconcerting. I absolutely relish the many different flavours, tastes and textures of animal proteins, and the thought of having to live the rest of my life eating only plant-based foods gives me the chills. But given what industrial production of animals is doing to the planet, it doesn’t seem like we have many other options.

For more than a few years now, I have been hearing about new meat substitutes that are supposed to taste, smell and feel so much like real meat that it is impossible to tell the difference. There are a number of companies competing to produce the most authentic faux-protein, the most famous of which is arguably Impossible Foods, which has recently started retailing its meat products in grocery stores around the US. The company’s most sought-after product is the Impossible Burger, a patty made from a combination of soy and potato proteins, coconut and sunflower oils and food starch that offers the texture, sizzle and taste of a real burger.

Central to its verisimilitude is a food molecule called heme that Impossible Foods claims to have been the first to identify. Heme is found in every living plant and animal, but is most abundantly available in animal tissue. This, apparently, is what makes meat taste like meat and what we yearn for when we bite into a burger. Plant-based heme is widely available—most commonly in the root nodules of soybean plants—but Impossible Foods seems to have found a way to produce heme at an industrial scale through the fermentation of genetically engineered yeast. This is what makes their meatballs, kebabs, sausages and burger patties so hard to distinguish from the real stuff.

I wanted to see for myself whether this was true or not. Therefore, last week when I was in Washington, I walked into a restaurant and did a taste test. I did not have the time to organize a full-on double-blind trial. Thus, I did the next best thing. I asked the server to get me two burgers—one regular and the other made from the Impossible Meat burger patty—and asked the server to make sure that they looked as much like each other as possible. I then asked him not to tell me which one was which till I was done tasting.

When the burgers were brought to my table, I tried my best to see if there were any visual differences between the two. To the naked eye, it was impossible to tell them apart, and when I first bit in, there was literally no difference in terms of mouth-feel, texture or taste. Given all that I had read, I knew I was not going to be served some bland, meat flavoured tofu, but even so, I was pleasantly surprised by how authentic it felt. As I made my way through the burgers, I began to pick up a few subtle differences: just the tiniest hint of a stronger Maillard reaction on one over the other that made the caramelization on the burnt ends just a tad more authentic.

I guess it is still possible to tell Impossible Meat from the real stuff—if only just. However, I have no doubt that even these differences will soon be too subtle to detect. Given human consumption patterns, it seems inevitable that we will need to change the way we farm. In which case, instead of banning meat altogether, we’d do well to encourage a tasty alternative.