The Economist "Silicon Valley gets a taste for food"

March 9, 2015

*Tech startups are moving into the food business to make sustainable versions of meat and dairy products from plants *

A PLANT-BASED hamburger patty that bleeds. Meatless chicken strips with the same fleshy and fibrous texture as cooked poultry. Mayonnaise made without eggs that is creamy and smooth. And a vegan beverage that contains all the ingredients for human sustenance, making it unnecessary to bother eating ordinary food every again. Hungry yet?

These are the offerings from a recent crop of Silicon Valley-funded startups which are trying to change the way people eat. The idea of making such products is attracting entrepreneurs and venture-capital firms who think that the traditional food industry is ripe for disruption because it is inefficient, inhumane and in need of an overhaul. The companies have different approaches, but they share the ambition of creating new plant-based food that they say will be healthier, cheaper and just as satisfying as meat, egg, dairy and other animal-based products—but with a much lower environmental impact.

“Animal farming is absurdly destructive and completely unsustainable. Yet the demand for meat and dairy products is going up,” says Patrick Brown, founder of one such startup, Impossible Foods, based in Redwood City in the heart of Silicon Valley. It has raised $75m to develop plant-based meat and cheese imitations.

According to the United Nations, livestock uses around 30% of the world’s ice-free landmass and produces 14.5% of all greenhouse-gas emissions. Making meat also requires supplying animals with vast amounts of water and food: in the United States producing 1kg of live animal weight typically requires 10kg of feed for beef, 5kg for pork and 2.5kg for poultry. Yet between now and 2050, the world’s population is expected to rise from 7.2 billion to over 9 billion people—and the appetite for meat to grow along with it. To keep up with demand, food production will need to increase significantly.

It is a big challenge, but also an economic opportunity. “Anytime you can find a way to use plant protein instead of animal protein there’s an enormous efficiency in terms of the energy, water and all sorts of other inputs involved—which translates at the end of the day to saving money,” says Ali Partovi, a San Francisco-based entrepreneur and investor in tech startups, such as Dropbox and Airbnb, as well as half-a-dozen sustainable-food companies.

The problem is many people shun vegetables and prefer to eat meat or dairy products. Dr Brown and others think the solution is to mimic the taste of meat and other animal-derived foods with plants and take the animal out of the equation. In theory at least, there would be plenty of food for everyone and fewer resources needed to produce it. “We’re reinventing the entire system of transforming plants into meat and milk,” he says. Other startups have similar aspirations. Beyond Meat, which makes plant-based chicken strips and beef “crumbles”, is already selling its products in stores. As is Hampton Creek, whose eggless mayonnaise has become a bestseller at Whole Foods Market, a big American chain.

Beyond vegetarianism Of course, the food giants already offer a variety of meat and dairy alternatives that many vegetarians and vegans buy. What is different with this new approach is that the startups are not targeting the small percentage of the population who largely live on a plant-based diet already. They are after people who love meat and dairy products, and that means replicating the meaty, cheesy or creamy flavours and textures that so many people crave. “We want to have a product that a burger lover would say is better than any burger they’ve ever had,” says Dr Brown.

This is also different from “growing” meat in a laboratory using tissue engineering, which involves culturing cells taken from live animals. Modern Meadow, a New York company, is working on this technology, although its more immediate aim is to grow unmarked cultured leather.

Introducing a new food category is risky as it takes a lot of time and money. Big food firms prefer to acquire innovative products rather than develop them internally, explains Barb Stuckey, chief innovation officer at Mattson, a California-based food and beverage consultancy which has developed many new products. “It may take someone from outside the food industry to really disrupt it,” reckons Ms Stuckey. And Silicon Valley has enough hubris to do so.

The business has already attracted a fair share of famous venture-capital firms and investors, including Kleiner Perkins, Google Ventures, Andreessen Horowitz, Khosla Ventures, Bill Gates and others. “If we can provide [plant-based] food that’s healthier, tastes equal to better, at an equal to lower cost, it’ll go everywhere,” says Khosla’s Samir Kaul. If the companies they are backing succeed, the returns could be massive. The US beef industry alone is worth $88 billion. And even for condiments, such as mayonnaise, the market totals $2 billion. Still, not everyone is bullish on the prospects. These are high-risk endeavours and some of them might fail, cautions Michael Burgmaier of Silverwood Partners, an investment bank involved in dozens of food and beverage deals. The question is, he says: “Is the consumer ready for some of these products?”

Impossible Foods’ Dr Brown thinks they are. The inventor of a DNA chip now widely used in gene-expression analysis, his firm has been developing meat and cheese imitations from plants for three years. For meat, the aim is to recreate its key components—muscle, connective and fat tissue—using suitable plant materials. The company’s first product, a hamburger patty, already looks and cooks like meat, and will taste as good or better by the time it reaches the shops, Dr Brown promises.

To do this he has assembled a team comparable to one at a biotech or pharma company. It is largely made up of molecular biologists and biochemists, as well as some physicists; only a few members of his staff have a background in food science or have culinary training. In the company’s laboratory scientists break down plant materials and extract individual proteins with functional properties that can, for example, make foods firm up or melt down during cooking or baking.

The company has also spent a lot of time working out what gives meat its unique flavour. According to Dr Brown, the secret to a burger’s taste is haem, a compound found in all living cells, including plants. It is especially abundant in haemoglobin in blood, and in muscle tissues as myoglobin. It also gives a burger its red colour. During the cooking process haem acts as a catalyst that helps transform the amino acids, vitamins and sugars in muscle tissue into numerous volatile and flavourful molecules, he explains. To create the meaty flavour in its burger patties, the company uses a heme protein equivalent to one found in the roots of legumes.

Development of the burger has come a long way. Dr Brown says one person described the taste of the very first prototype as “rancid polenta”. Recent versions have been reviewed much more favourably as “better than a turkey burger”. In terms of nutrition, the patty’s protein content may be slightly higher than that of a conventional burger and have at least as many micronutrients. Because it is made from plants, it will not contain any traces of antibiotics, hormones or cholesterol. The company hopes to start selling the burger before the end of this year.

Getting the flavour Beyond Meat, based in Southern California, has also been studying the components of meat to emulate its texture and flavour. “We’re smart enough now to understand the architecture and the composition of a piece of muscle,” says Ethan Brown (no relation to Dr Brown), the company’s CEO. The firm’s flagship product, Beyond Chicken Strips, has been on sale since 2012, and has a surprisingly authentic feel when eaten. When several Whole Foods Markets accidentally sold mislabelled chicken salads with the company’s plant-based strips there were no complaints. Only when an employee discovered the mix-up after two days were the salads officially recalled. The product’s texture is based on years of research at the University of Missouri, and it can now be created in a process that takes less than two minutes. An extruder rapidly heats, cools and pressurises a mixture of proteins and other ingredients into a structure that mimics the fibrous tissue of muscle.

The company’s most recent product, the Beast Burger, was released last month. It has more protein, more iron and is overall more nutritious than actual meat burgers. “The entire quest for meat in human evolution is really about a nutrient-dense source of food,” explains Mr Brown. “I wanted to build on that theme.”

But marketing plant-based burgers to carnivores is not easy. “My view is that meat has a masculine bent to it. You can’t sell it the same way you sell lettuce,” says Mr Brown. Hence the company is building the brand with images of vitality, fitness and health. In promotions it is using athletes. David Wright, captain of the New York Mets baseball team, has already signed up. In return, he is getting a small stake in the company.

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