Beyond Meat’s Fake Chicken Tastes So Real That It Will Freak You Out

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July 26 2012 6:51 PM

Fake Meat So Good It Will Freak You Out

Beyond Meat’s faux chicken will change how you feel about eating ersatz animal products.

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Photograph courtesy Beyond Meats

Brown’s long-term goal is to offer a product that can satisfy the world’s growing, and largely unsustainable, demand for meat, especially in ballooning markets like India and China. His investors believe that if Beyond Meat realizes that goal, it can become an enormous business. “When I met them I was absolutely stunned by the magnitude of their vision and the science behind it,” Stone says. “I was expecting to meet with a bunch of hippies who were like, ‘Yeah man, save the animals, we’re gonna make a meat thing out of carrot dust.’ They’re approaching it with real science. When they told me their plan to be a player in the multibillion dollar meat industry, I was like, Are you kidding me, this is incredible!

I’m rooting for Beyond Meat. I talk to new tech companies every day, and I’ve rarely come across a firm that has created such a fantastic product aimed at solving such a big problem. Real meat is delicious, but it’s terrible in nearly every other way. Meat is environmentally toxic and colossally inefficient, ethically dubious (even if you’re OK with killing animals, raising and slaughtering animals in factory farms is hard to defend), and it’s unhealthy (that’s even true if you don’t eat it—there’s good evidence that the rampant use of antibiotics in livestock production has given rise to drug-resistant infections). I’d rate Beyond Meat as being 90 to 95 percent as realistic as chicken, but in every other way, it’s superior. It requires far less energy to produce, it’s got no saturated fats, no antibiotics, and no animals are harmed in the process.

Brown got into fake meat after working in the clean-energy business. He says he loves the taste of meat, but his childhood on a family farm convinced him to refrain from killing animals, and he’s been vegan for many years. In 2009, he met Fu-Hung Hsieh and Harold Huff, food scientists at the University of Missouri who’d been working to create a meat substitute for more than a decade. The three formed a company, and they’ve been working to build the perfect fake meat ever since.

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The process has moved along in fits and starts. “It’s a combination lock,” Brown says. “There are three different parameters we’re working with—heat, cooling, and pressure.” To make the meat, the firm starts with a powdered protein—for the chicken strips, they’re using soy; for the beef, they’ll use a protein from a kind of pea—that they form into a liquid paste. The paste is heated, then it’s extruded through a machine that resembles a pasta press, and then cooled. “It was a process of trial and error to get all of those to align exactly right in the right sequence,” Brown says. “But if you do—if you get the heating and cooling sequence right, and you apply exactly the right pressure through the extrusion—you get the proteins to align in a way that makes them almost indistinguishable from animal proteins.”

Brown says that other hurdles remain, and Beyond Meat is constantly working to refine its methods. Making the perfect fake beef is harder than making chicken, because people expect real beef to look a bit red, from blood. Beyond Meat can add a red hue using beet juice or other natural colorants, but Brown doesn’t know yet if people will consider it strange to have bloody-looking fake meat. This sounds like a trivial factor, but one study has shown that a meat substitute’s appearance is the most important factor to consumers—even before you taste it, you decide whether fake meat is acceptable based on how it looks.

Over time, Brown believes, the firm will get all these little details just right. He’s also confident that society will accept his innovations just as it has adapted to tech revolutions of the past. “Once, we had the horse-drawn carriage, and then we had the horse-less carriage, and then we had the automobile,” he says. “I’m firmly convinced we’re going to go from beef and chicken products that are animal in origin to those that are made with plants—and at some point in the future you’ll walk down the aisle of the supermarket and ask for beef and chicken, and like the automobile has no relationship to the horse, what you get will have nothing to do with animals.”

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.