Inside the race to make hyper-realistic, plant-based proteins more accessible
As our appetite for plant-based proteins grows, the race is on to produce hyper-realistic, good-tasting products at a palatable price point.
Do cows and goats need to be involved when humans want to make cheese? Does an egg have to come from a chicken?
These companies represent a fast-growing sector of the plant-based meat industry, which are turning to labs to whip up uncanny analogues that look, feel and taste as close to the real thing as possible – no animals required.
According to the Good Food Institute, $3.1 billion was poured into alternative protein makers last year as venture capitalists sought to cash in on growing consumer appetite for faux meat and dairy. In the U.S., plant-based meat sales grew 20% year-over-year in 2020, to $1.4 billion. Plant-based milks saw an even bigger surge – up 45% to $2.5 billion.
But for the could-this-actually-be-meat and dairy makers to have a significant environmental impact, they will need to achieve a much larger scale. A number of challenges stand in their way – from competing with meat (a heavily subsidized product) on price, to ensuring their products live up to the expectations of meat eaters.
To find out how new brands in this space are approaching these problems, we spoke to four plant-based protein makers, covering the cheese, egg, chicken and beef categories.
Sorosh Takavoli and Anja Leissner have been trying to figure out how to make a dairy-free cheese that comes close to feta for the past two and a half years.
Their business, Stockeld Dreamery, is now just about ready to launch its first salad cheese to the public. Like a normal cheese, Stockeld’s version is made in a dairy, where the ingredients are fermented until curds form, then pressed. But instead of milk – the main ingredient in feta – Stockeld uses peas and fava beans. Fermentation is “where the magic happens,” says Takavoli. “It’s in the bacteria and the microorganisms, and the way they go in and slice and dice the proteins and combine them.”
Takavoli says the company went through “more than a thousand” iterations of the product before landing on the version it plans to launch. Some were total disasters, including one experiment using an acidic component that’s present in cheese (but also in vomit).
What's been most difficult to replicate with Stockeld’s animal-free salad cheese, Takavoli says, has been the texture. “It’s what we’re most proud of, but it’s also the hardest. You want it to be firm, but you also want it to be quite creamy, [and] you want a continuous flavor experience,” he explains. “What cheese does well is it really stays in your mouth, and that’s also where we get the best feedback.”
While Stockeld appears to have done a good job of creating a tangy salad cheese (the public taste test is yet to come), Takavoli is clear that the product is not intended to fool anyone into thinking it’s feta. “We want people to categorize this as a new cheese, and we’re working really hard to be respected as a cheese,” he says, adding that Stockeld plans to sell its product to cheesemongers following the launch.
Takavoli says nutrition is the next big milestone that he and his competitors must reach, as consumers are likely to start considering whether things like extruded soy – where the ingredient has been forced into a mince-like shape using high-pressure machinery – is really compatible with a more natural diet. “The labels will start to get cleaner, and I think we’ll start seeing fewer fake products and more real products that are alternatives, but not trying desperately to fake it,” he says. “They have a clear purpose and use case, but they’re not trying to fool anyone.”
With their unique texture profile, eggs have been an extremely tricky protein category to crack.
Nevertheless, progress is being made. In February 2019, Just, which makes a liquid egg copycat made from mung beans that can be used for scrambles and omelets, announced that it was outselling its real-egg competitors after just three months in retail. Following a $200 million funding round last month, the company is now ramping up its international expansion plans.
While Just has been able to capture the attention of investors with its realistic-looking egg alternative, its list of not-so-natural-sounding ingredients may fall short among consumers focused on the health benefits of an animal-free lifestyle.
In October 2020, Grace O’Brien set about trying to solve this problem. “Egg is in everything – it’s an essential in our daily lives, but unlike milk there were not a lot of alternatives,” she says. “I wanted to create something that achieves the goal of sustainability, and also feels natural and clean, just like a normal egg.”
She began testing recipes in her kitchen, before hiring a food scientist to help her develop the flagship product for her brand Peggs. The result is a powder made from chickpeas, potato starch, flaxseed, nutritional yeast and kala namak “black salt.” It can be scrambled, turned into an omelet, or used as an ingredient in baking.
Choosing clean over processed ingredients does come at a cost. While taste is still relatively easy to achieve (the kala namak provides the sulphurous, eggy flavor), O’Brien is still working on improving the texture of Peggs, and hopes that she can up the protein content so it matches that of a real egg.
“Egg has very unique chemical properties,” she says. “When you cook it, it breaks down into chunks, and it has that light, airy fluffiness. It contains some wetness as well, on the outside of every bite.”
Price is also something O’Brien hopes can come down as the business scales. Right now, 36 eggs-worth of powder costs $36, far in excess of the average price of $1.48 for a dozen hen eggs.
When Ross Mackay decided to try to create a chicken analogue, it was out of frustration with what he perceived to be a lack of awareness around the welfare of farmed chickens. Throughout COVID-19, consumption of chicken has gone through the roof. According to research firms IRI and 210 Analytics, in the nine months to November 2020, retail chicken purchases were up 19.5% year-over-year, resulting in an extra $1.3 billion in sales.
But mimicking the texture of chicken isn’t easy. Low-moisture extrusion – the process that many of the plant-based meat brands use to transform their ingredients from mush to meat-like – has been around for a number of years, but it doesn’t quite work for replicating the juiciness of chicken.
The high-moisture alternative that Daring uses is a newer technology, and as a result there are fewer experts and manufacturers on the scene to guide brands through the process – and to help bring costs down. These machines are also unable to produce as much product as their low-moisture counterparts. “So the operating cost is higher,” Mackay explains. “But it provides a far more suitable, chicken-like feel and texture which is [our] primary focus.”
Daring is confident that it’s nailed the texture and taste of its chicken, and the challenge Mackay is now set on solving is price.
“For us to have a real impact on the market, and on people’s lives and the planet, we have to drive the price of this plant-based offering to that of chicken,” he says. “That’s going to be the tough part, and it’s going to come with scale [and] increased demand and supply.”
It’s a feat that has already been achieved by beef alternative brands, and Mackay says Daring’s goal is to reach price parity within the next three to four years.
Last month, Slovenian brand Juicy Marbles revealed its plant-based filet mignon, complete with a fatty marble running through it. It looks impressive, but there's a catch: a two-serving sample costs more than $80.
Vladimir Mićković, the company’s cofounder and chief brand officer, says that right now Juicy Marbles is simply eager to get feedback on the product. “It’s at lab scale,” he says.
The steak is made using a machine that Juicy Marbles developed itself (called the Meat-o-matic Reverse Grinder 9000). It uses a combination of different techniques including shear-cell technology, which transforms plant proteins into fibrous strands, like you’d see in a steak. “It’s a machine that enables us to control all of the key parameters of [the] meat – how the fibers are aligned to create the right texture, what their density is, flavors, aromas, all of that,” Mićković explains, adding that he can’t provide more detail on the “Frankenstein” machine until it is IP-protected.
Feedback is limited, but Mićković says one customer marked the steak a nine out of 10 for looks, a seven out of 10 for texture, and a five out of 10 for flavor. “I tend to agree with that,” he says. “Aroma and flavor have been the biggest challenge for us.”
In the next few months, Mićković says that prices should come down significantly when the team gets hold of a second Meat-o-matic, and production can increase. By the end of this year, Juicy Marbles hopes it can start selling its steaks for the same price as a premium, beef-derived filet mignon.
“We’re entering with a lot of optimism, and we’re pretty informed about the things that might not work out the way we think. But it seems it can be done,” Mićković says. Going head-to-head with an expensive cut like filet mignon helps, as there is more wiggle room when it comes to price margins compared to a product like ground beef.
“These things tend to be pricier because of the smaller scale – and there’s no subsidies here,” Mićković explains. “You know, the meat sector gets $38 billion of subsidies every year, while fruits and vegetables get $17 million. It’s insane.”
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