Plant-Based Meats: The Future Of Our Christmas Dinners?

Over the holiday season, many people will be tucking into meals with meats like turkey and ham on the menu – but have you ever thought about going meat-free at this time of year, or what the future of the meat industry could look like? 

For The Big Questions, IFLScience’s podcast, we spoke to Daniel Dikovsky, chief technology officer at Redefine Meat, to find out how scientists and engineers are creating delicious new meat products without the environmental impact.  

Redefine Meat creates plant-based alternatives to meat products. How do you go about this?

Daniel Dikovsky (DD): Animals consume plants and build their body from these plants, creating the protein food that we then frequently use as meat. At Redefine Meat, we just make a shortcut for this process; we take the plants and turn them directly into meat alternatives using the technology that we developed. This technology allows us to create the full range of meat products, addressing all of the taste and other preferences not only of vegans and vegetarians, but also of flexitarians, omnivores, and even carnivores.  

Why is that important to you to replicate that meat feel so closely?

DD: This feeling in general is very important to me because I believe that we should provide an alternative to industrial animal farming. The industry creates a bunch of environmental problems, starting from greenhouse gas emissions and continuing with land use, water use and a lot of pollution. 

When I switched jobs from Stratasys, the 3D printing company, I was looking for a place where my skills could create a real impact. I met the founder of Redefine Meat, Eschar Ben Shitrit, who told me about the company’s approach to breaking the glass ceiling of the performance that older meat alternatives were facing. 

If you ask the customers what is missing in meat analogs to make them a clear choice, 80 percent of them would say the number one factor is the taste. The actual performance of the meat analogs was not sufficient for more people to adopt them. Our approach is to break this glass ceiling and generate products that are on a totally different level, so that you can consume meat without any compromise on taste or the environment.

Can you tell us more about what Redefine Meat products are made of?

DD: We take existing plant-based ingredients – so we have not invented any new molecules, at least not until now. We’re looking for a way that we can impact the industry in the short term. We don’t want to use space technologies or crazy scientific things; we believe that there are simple solutions, located at the multi-disciplinary junctions of different sciences. 

Food science alone could not produce a sufficiently good meat analog. Steak, for example, has a very sophisticated internal structure: it has fat marbling, fibers that are oriented in a certain way, and meat juices that are distributed in a certain way. It has very sophisticated cooking behavior and you cannot create this set of features by just using existing food manufacturing technologies, which are usually just a set of mixers that mix many components together. 

We had to look beyond this into other scientific fields, such as advanced manufacturing and material science, in order to understand how you can reach this level of sophistication. That’s how our technology, plant-based tissue engineering, was formed. 

The concept of plant-based tissue engineering looks at meat as a complex tissue in the same way we do for living tissues; although meat is not a living tissue, it still preserves many of the structural elements that the living muscle had. We then break this down into separate tissues – fat, muscle, connective tissue, and liquids – and we reconstruct each one of them separately, putting them together during our manufacturing process.

Our main building block is a protein, primarily soy protein because it has very good nutritional qualities. It’s the same building blocks that are being used in other meat analogs, but we adjust them and we adapt them to the requirements of our components. We also use our proprietary technology that we developed for putting these elements together for delivering the texture, color, mechanical behavior, chewing behavior, fatty mouth feel, flavor, and aroma – all the characteristics that you need in order to address your five senses. We have so many senses that are analyzing every piece of food that we are consuming, that in order to kind of trick the senses and make them understand that this is meat, you really need to reach a very high level of imitation.

Can you explain the pillars of your technology, the new meat science, and the meat matrix manufacturing?

DD: Let’s start with meat science. There’s so much complexity to the different meat products that we are familiar with from the supermarket; different cuts, different animals of different ages, variations from animal to animal. To recreate this huge set of characteristics you first of all need to understand what meat is. That’s why we invest so much effort in studying livestock meat. We have in-house meat scientists analyzing all cuts of meats with both existing and our own developed testing methods. 

For example, there is almost zero information in the meat science literature about the characteristics of the meat at the serving temperature, because usually when you go to a restaurant and you get your steak, it will be between 50 to 60 to 70 degrees Celsius (122 to 140 to 158 degrees Fahrenheit) and all tests that are being done, they are being done at room temperature. Just to create a set of tools and methods to test the meat characteristics at serving temperature is a challenge. 

All the data that we collect, we put in a database that lists all the characteristics and serves as a reference for all the plant-based work that we do. Sometimes, these characteristics are just a modified testing tool, but sometimes we go really far; we did research at the Canadian Light Source, which is a synchrotron facility, where we scanned a piece of tenderloin with a tiny x-ray beam to recreate all the structures of the fibers, of the connective tissue and to see how the cooking affects this structure.

When we have all the data that we’ve collected about livestock meat, we can collect the same data for plant-based meat and very easily compare them and identify what the gaps are in order to close them. An example of one of these gaps is that meat has fibers – you break it apart and you see that the fibers break in a way that creates a kind of staggered interface between the two pieces of meat that you are holding or that you cut with a knife. 

If the fibers stick together too much, then you will get like a plastic [unclear 0:11:51]. It will be just homogenous material and it will not be like meat. Or, if the fibers do not stack together, they will just break apart and it will behave like meat cooked for a long time, rather than a steak. You need a very particular level of adherence between the muscle fibers to recreate this texture. 

This is an example of the kind of work that we do, adjusting all of the characteristics of the meat that we are producing in the various manners that we have, so that it will generate the desired behavior.

Does it also help to look at things on a molecular level?

DD: Sometimes, we do indeed need to look at the molecular level, especially when dealing with aroma, for example, because aromas are volatile molecules that we detect.

Muscle, on the other hand, is a hierarchical structure of fibers. It starts from very tiny fibers that are on the nanometer scale and then they are grouped into much bigger fibers of about 20-micron scale. These groups are called fascicles, which are about 2 millimeters thick, and are what you see with the naked eye when looking at a piece of meat. 

In this case, you don’t really need molecular-level resolution, which is also expensive. Sometimes work on the millimeter-scale instead, in order to make your meat fast and meet commercial demands, which involves not only quality, but also the cost of your technology.

How does 3D printing fit into the creation of the meat products?

DD: In my last role, I was a project manager of a product called Digital Anatomy Printer, a 3D printer that prints body parts. They are identical to human body parts and whilst they are not biological and cannot be implanted, they have amazingly high levels of biomechanical accuracy and can be used for training of hospitals and medical companies instead of cadavers and animals. It uses eight different materials at the same time to recreate the complexity of bone, for example. 

This is an example of inspiration that the food industry can get for reaching these levels of sophistication that are required with meat. At the beginning of our company, we were very much inspired by this approach first to create fascicles and different arrangements of fat marbling.

3D printing is also an excellent tool for making prototypes and many redesign cycles. If Apple, for example,  is developing a new cell phone, they will probably design a few thousand variants of the cell phone in order to get the best ergonomic functionality and to optimize it. 

The same can be said of making a meat product that is totally new to the market. Redesign cycles with 3D printing and additive manufacturing allowed us to solve both the structural targets and address the overall performance targets of our plant-based meat. 

Today, however, additive manufacturing has only a relatively small role in our technology. Many of our products do not use any 3D printing whatsoever – there is zero sense in using 3D printing for homogenous products like burgers. In steaks, however, you still need a very large set of advanced manufacturing technologies; 3D printing is only one of them.

Is it possible to build different things into each layer of the product?

DD: We can precisely control the special arrangement of all our components. It can be fat, or it can be muscle, but it also allows you to introduce elements that would not be possible to introduce otherwise, such as connective tissue. O

One of the things that we discovered after I joined the company was that connective tissue plays a crucial role in the behavior of meat. If you take a piece of meat and you try to pull it apart, you will see tiny white layers and films that bind together the muscle fibers. There is a kind of scaffold that entraps and holds together all the muscles. In the fat, there is also a matrix that holds all the fat cells together and prevents it from completely falling apart during cooking. 

In order to create this connective tissue, we developed a set of fails that we can introduce during the printing process, recreating this part of the composite structure of muscle and driving the right mechanical behavior that you would expect from a piece of meat.

Given that you’re creating these new meat plant-based products so close to what meat is like on that level, are the nutritional levels any different? 

DD: Nutritional value, of course, is a key consideration for everything that we do and even before that we take care of food safety. All our systems operate at 4 degrees Celsius (39.2 degrees Fahrenheit, so there is zero development of any kind of microbial growth. Once you take care of the safety, of course, you need to take care of the nutrition.

Livestock meat is a great source of protein, oils that are necessary for our body, and also some vitamins and micronutrients. Our product delivers all of these; it is very rich in protein, has lower fat in general and much lower saturated fat, and also it doesn’t have any cholesterol because that can only be found in animal products. In addition to this, some of our products are fortified with micronutrients. Overall, it’s a part of a balanced diet that you would expect from a meat product.

What is the environmental impact of plant-based meat products compared to livestock meat products?

DD: After I joined the company, I realized how severe the damage being caused by industrial animal farming is, particularly when it comes to beef. Beef is about three times more damaging than poultry and much higher than any other animal meat and there are many levels on which it damages our planet.

It starts with greenhouse gas emissions that can be compared even to the transportation sector and it continues with a huge use of land. Sometimes, people who are advocating for livestock meat say that the land that is required to grow soy for plant-based meat is comparable to the area that is required for the cows. However, land is required not only for the animals themselves but also to grow their feed. 

Then you have water pollution, such as when antibiotics that are being used for animals leak into the water and lead to the creation of microorganisms that are immune to antibiotics. Some diseases and viruses also come from livestock and industrial meat production. 

We’ve conducted life cycle analysis on our products, which covers all the emissions and all the environmental impacts that your product has, starting from the ingredients to all the processing and the energy that is being consumed, the packaging, the cardboard, the plastic, everything that you use, until the product reaches the final shelf in the supermarket. Our product has more than 10 times less environmental impact than beef. So, the difference is huge.

What are the main challenges with the creation and marketing of these products? What are consumers worried about?

DD: There are many challenges; if there were none, I wouldn’t expect livestock meat to still be presented in such a large volume on our shelves, because there are all manner of motivations to make the change. If that change doesn’t happen, it means we have more work to do. 

When we expanded our target audience from vegans or vegetarians to flexitarians and meat lovers, we actually had to face much higher standards. For many vegetarians and vegans, the last time they had livestock meat, if at all, was a long time ago and sometimes they don’t even want the meat to be too “meaty”. But when you go to a person that eats livestock meat on a regular basis and give them an alternative and you give him an alternative, you really need to aim higher – and this is what we do. 

The biggest challenge in the whole industry is taste. Everybody that you ask will say the taste should be better, meatier, with fewer odd flavors. The second challenge is versatility. Until recently, you could have a burger or maybe chicken nuggets as a plant-based version, but today we offer a huge variety of products with which you can have a lot of culinary creativity. I cook lasagna, people do pizza, burgers, steaks in different variants, beef Wellington, different types of sausages, koftas, almost everything you can think about. 

But there is still more to improve, and we’re constantly working on creating better products, such as providing the fat marbling that people love so much about cuts like ribeye or picanha, for example. As scientists, we’ll also look at what’s already on the shelves and use that to think about the next generation of products and the technology required to enable this.

How do you see the future of these plant-based new meat products evolving? Are there exciting developments that you’re working on?

DD: We’re constantly working on improving all the products that we already have on the market: making our mincemeat tastier, juicer, and healthier; our steaks able to imitate all the different cuts that you have from the animal; providing versatile meat that is compatible with all cooking conditions, with different kitchens and cuisines. We’re expanding our spectrum so that all meat lovers can get everything they want and used to have with livestock meat. 

I believe the future of the sector will be a major growth of the plant-based alternative. Of course, I don’t think it should replace 100 percent of livestock meat. Many environmental studies suggest that taking industrial farming to zero might also have negative consequences, so there should be a balance between the two. 

We respect people and their choices but believe that if we put out a product that performs in the same way as meat, without the same negative impact on the world, people will prefer this product. We also believe that governments will prefer this kind of product, with policymakers giving preference to things that are healthier for us and the world, in the same way as electric cars or smart homes. As a modern society, we should drive the preference towards a better Earth.

This interview was part of IFLScience’s The Big Questions and has been edited for length and clarity. Subscribe to our newsletter so you don’t miss out on the biggest stories each week.

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