Alt-Foods

Yvette Chin

Rebooting the traditional food production model to improve climate and environment is driving innovative entrepreneurs to pursue a vegan path. The resulting alt-foods are, unlike alt-facts, solidly grounded in science, as the personnel list at these companies—data scientists, bioinformaticians, chemists, biologists, nutritionists and chefs—attests. While we already have soy-based meat alternatives, such as tofurky and veggie duck, the challenge lies in faithfully replicating, and even exceeding, the appearance and taste of animal-derived food products using solely plant-derived substitutes.

The most prominent/poster child of these is the Impossible Burger created by Impossible Foods – a one hundred percent vegan burger made with potatoes, beets, coconut oil, and most importantly, a plant version of heme protein—a distinctive component of animal muscles, which gives meat its distinctive taste. The founder of Impossible Foods is aware of the high threshold he has to overcome to win over die-hard meat-lovers. But undaunted, that is his goal—to not simply improve food options for vegans and vegetarians but to convert red in tooth and claw carnivores. So far, the feedback is encouraging with comparisons to turkey burgers.

The Impossible Burger isn’t alone—Beyond Meat, another startup, has a handful of pea- or soy-based “meat” offerings, including the Beyond Burger, Beyond Chicken Strips, and Beyond Beef Crumble that can be cooked just like the meat items they aim to replace. For those of you who failed to celebrate National Hamburger month (May) this is your chance to make amends. The Impossible Burger is served at several establishments countrywide, including BareBurger & Saxon+Parole here in NY. The Beyond Burger is available in grocery stores, including Whole Foods Market.

The stronger green credentials of Impossible Foods’ and Beyond Meat’s approaches are to be appreciated when compared with the efforts of Modern Meadow, a Brooklyn-based biotech company that aims to grow meat and leather in the lab using cultured cells from livestock. While noteworthy and arguably a more difficult undertaking to grow meat from scratch, the trouble with cultured mammalian cells is the requisite fetal bovine serum—a vital elixir for their sustained growth & nourishment—derived from unborn calves’ blood which doesn’t exactly circumvent the environmentally wasteful and greenhouse gas-emitting livestock industry.

Evidently, eggs from cage-free and pastured chickens weren’t sufficiently humane for the founders of Hampton Creek—they decided to get rid of eggs altogether, substituting them with a yellow pea protein as the emulsifier in their vegan Just Mayo. The company has other vegan offerings (salad dressing, cookie dough) and a mission to mine the cornucopia of thousands of plants to create cheaper, healthier and more stable foods than those that are animal-derived.

Living in NY, we are quite spoiled for dietary choice. Even so, one can imagine there can be moments when nothing appeals to the taste buds and yet life must be sustained. At such times, one can reach for Soylent—a completely animal-free food that provides a nutritionally complete meal from soy, algae and other plant-derived components in several easy to consume formats: bottled drink, powder, bar, and best of all, coffiest—breakfast + coffee in one drink. It seems like it was designed with busy New Yorkers in mind—no cutlery or flapping containers to deal with, just chug or chomp and go! For those of us who are neither culinarily gifted nor inclined, Soylent can replace hours of schlepping groceries, prepping ingredients and slaving over a stove before finally indulging in a meal. To some ardent foodies however, Soylent seems abhorrent (not least owing to the sci-fi reference) and only to be resorted to in a food desert.

Our industrial food system provides bountiful affordable nutrition and so the pressure to embrace these innovations is not yet urgent. Do we have this luxury? The human population is set to climb from 7 billion to just under 10 billion by 2050. The climate change debate is raging but the disappearing summer Arctic ice signifies a stark reality. However, a noble impetus to save the earth cannot force adoption of the healthier and sustainable foods 2.0. Ultimately, their success will be determined by the most important factor—taste.

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