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Faux meat gets fancy: Animal-free meat brands are going gourmet

Will home cooks and restaurateurs be won over by realistic, whole cuts of faux meat?

Meati uses fermentation to turn mushroom roots into realistic-looking steaks. (Photo: Meati)
ALTERNATIVE PROTEINS

The first wave of VC-backed meatless meat makers — the Impossible Foods and Beyond Meats of this world — had fast-food chains in their sights. But brands launching in the category today have something a bit more upmarket in mind.

In France, Gourmey is a three-year-old startup that is cultivating foie gras in a lab using stem cells taken from duck eggs, while Slovenian brand Juicy Marbles wants to bring its meat-free filet mignon steaks to the masses. Wildtype is using cellular agriculture to grow ultra-realistic sushi-grade salmon, and Meati creates whole cuts of beef steak, pork cutlets and chicken tenders made from mushroom roots.

“We’re not so interested in the highly processed [meat-free products],” says Vicky Kummer, head of corporate communications at Swiss plant-based meat brand Planted, referring to the minced meat and burger patties that were grabing headlines in the category a few years ago. “We are trying to imitate the muscle fibre.”

The art of fermentation

Until recently, Planted’s "meat" products have been made using a process called wet extrusion, where mixtures are essentially pushed through a machine to create fibre-like strands.

But Kummer says new tech advances are helping plant-based meat brands to create even more realistic products. Planted is now using what Kummer describes as a "biostructuring" approach to create its next range of products, which combines extrusion with fermentation and will result in a meat that has a lot more bite and flavor.

“Lots of the raw materials you use in plant-based [meats] don’t necessarily have a nice odor, smell or taste. And because we’re not using additives, we’re super dependent on fermentation to give taste to the products,” she explains. The plan is to launch whole cuts of meats such as chicken using this approach.

Planted is not the only brand exploring precision fermentation to create more meat-like — and higher value — products. In the dairy space, Stockeld Dreamery, Formo and Perfect Day are using fermentation to make cheese and milk proteins, while Meati uses fermentation to create its mycelium-based steaks.

Going after the gastronomes

By going beyond faux minced meat and chicken nuggets, this crop of plant-based brands are hoping customers will turn to their products at moments other than when they are looking for a fast-food fix. They also say their products are healthier — Kummer says that Planted’s key selling point, for example, is that it only uses natural ingredients and zero additives.

It also provides a way to stand out in an increasingly competitive market. According to Forbes, there are now more than 100 plant-based chicken nugget brands. Meanwhile, although plant-based meat sales boomed at the start of the pandemic, now going out to eat is back on the cards, sales are down: the Financial Times reports that in the month to October 3rd, 2021, U.S. sales in this category were down 1.8% compared to the year before.

Part of Planted’s strategy involves working with restaurants across a range of price points, from fast-casual chains to Michelin-starred restaurants. The brand currently has over 2,000 restaurant partners including Zurich’s Bauernschänke and the Michelin-starred Restaurant Neue Taverne, and Restaurant Tim Raue in Berlin, which has two Michelin stars and is among the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list.

“In a restaurant, [people] feel more like eating meat, and people are also much more open to trying something new,” Kummer says. She adds that there is often an implicit trust, particularly in a high-end restaurant, that pretty much whatever you order will be delicious and well-cooked. “But if you see it on the supermarket shelf, to [get people] to buy it and try it at home — the hurdle is much higher.”