Alternative Meat: Yay or Nay?

For most of us, meat is a big part of our diet. Think steak, shabu-shabu, fried chicken… I’m starting to salivate as I list down my favourite meat dishes, especially since it’s the Circuit Breaker period. Humans have been eating meat for at least 2.6 million years now. However, it was only in the last century that the Animal Rights Movement gained traction and more people started to advocate vegetarian and vegan diets. Along with an urgent need to come up with more sustainable and environment-friendly solutions to feed the growing global population, many companies have emerged in the past couple of years looking at alternative ways of producing “meat”.

There are two main types of alternative meat; one is cell-based (more commonly known as lab-grown meat) and the other is plant-based. Cell-based meat uses animal cells, often stem cells from the fat or muscle of an animal, first cultured in a petri dish and later a bioreactor under pre-determined growth conditions (i.e. mix of nutrients, temperature, pH, etc.). You must be wondering then what makes plant-based meat special. Haven’t the Chinese been eating mock meat for a long time? The differentiating factor for big players in the current plant-based meat industry, such as Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, is the application of new knowledge in science and technology.

For Impossible Foods, most of the work went behind creating the iron-containing molecule, heme, which they identified as “what makes meat tastes like meat”. Heme is a component of haemoglobin essential for carrying oxygen in the blood and is what gives meat its red colour. The iron in heme, besides allowing it to bind oxygen, is said to be responsible for the bloody taste of raw meat and the unique burst of flavours when it is cooked.

In meat, heme is found mostly in the myoglobin protein which functions as an oxygen storage (as opposed to transport). The plant version of this protein is leghaemoglobin found in the nitrogen-fixing root nodules of leguminous plants such as soybean.  Identifying soy leghaemoglobin as a suitable candidate for their purpose, the R&D team started off by extracting this compound directly from soy plants.  While this worked out fine, it was not the answer to scalable and sustainable production. Thus, making use of genetic engineering techniques, the team inserted the DNA for soy leghaemoglobin into yeast for mass production of the protein through yeast fermentation. This is combined with other plant-derived ingredients to create ground “beef” that is commercially available as the Impossible Burger. In Singapore, you can have a taste of products from Impossible Foods or Beyond Meat at various restaurants. P.S. I haven’t tried either yet, so I can’t comment how close these taste to actual meat but this is in my to-do list for when Circuit Breaker ends.

The prospect of eating meat without the guilt of slaughter is enticing. But there are many challenges lying ahead of mass adoption of cell- and plant-based meat as alternative meat sources. In fact, just how to label these “meats” has been a big question for food legislation. Beyond taste and getting past the ‘ick’ factor, consumers will have to be convinced about the safety, price, nutritional value and unique advantages (e.g. elimination of faecal contamination and antibiotics) offered by such alternatives. Now, do you think we are ready for a FOOD REVOLUTION? Leave your comments below!  

Written by Vivian Ching
Illustrated by Lee Ai Cing