How Real Should 'Fake' Meat and Dairy Be?

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Field Roast's FieldBurger doesn't pretend to be meat; it just aims to be similarly satisfying. (Photo: Field Roast Grain Meat Company)

"Field Roast is proud to make products that are real, not fake! Instead of trying to mimic traditional dairy cheese flavors like cheddar, mozzarella, or monterey jack, we have innovated new flavors that celebrate the brilliance of the plant based kingdom."

That's how the Field Roast Grain Meat Company describes its Chao Slices, a plant-based cheese alternative crafted from coconut and a fermented Taiwanese tofu called chao. It's an approach that the company has pursued since first launching its grain meat products like sausages, burgers, crumbles and deli slices.

A similar experience, not an exact replica

The goal, the company says, is not to create realistic replicas of meat and dairy products, but rather to create similarly satisfying, savory eating experiences while still staying true to the "real" ingredients they use.

In a world where vegetarian "meats" sometimes get a bad rap for being overly processed or artificial, it's refreshing to see lists of ingredients that are almost entirely recognizable. Here's what goes into the company's FieldBurger, for example:

Vital wheat gluten, filtered water, organic expeller pressed palm fruit oil, barley, garlic, expeller pressed safflower oil, onions, tomato paste, celery, carrots, naturally flavored yeast extract, onion powder, mushrooms, barley malt, sea salt, spices, carrageenan (Irish moss sea vegetable extract), celery seed, balsamic vinegar, black pepper, shiitake mushrooms, porcini mushroom powder and yellow pea flour.

The eating experience — while somewhat reminiscent of a real beef burger in terms of firmness, chew and savory umami flavors — still feels like you're eating plants. There's even detectable small flecks of carrots, onions and mushrooms that add variety in terms of texture and remind you of the burger's origins.

Another company pursuing a similar, even more unprocessed approach is Upton Naturals. With a self-professed focus on "simplicity and the use of real, recognizable ingredients," Upton's signature product is basically just young, shredded jackfruit — an ingredient which is said to mimic pulled pork or chicken, with various sauces added for flavor. The company also offers products like bacon seitan and a "cheesy bacon mac" which still manages to have a list of just sixteen ingredients, all of which are recognizable. While I found Upton's jackfruit products a little strange — carbohydrate pretending to be a protein — there's no doubt they've won over a strong following among many of my vegetarian friends. Whether they'll win over carnivores, however, is another question.

Meanwhile, other plant-based food entrepreneurs have a more radical aim: To recreate replicas of popular animal products.

Engineering realistic replacements to animal-based foods

Impossible Foods burger
aims to win over meat-eaters with this plant-based 'burger.'. Impossible Foods

Impossible Foods, for example, has been making waves with its Impossible Burger, a much-hyped alternative to beef burgers that's said to be so real it even bleeds. That "blood" is thanks to heme, a genetically engineered yeast that aims to mimic the meaty flavor and juiciness found in a true beef burger. (MNN's own taste test suggested only partial success on this front, and there are certainly many health food advocates leery of a new GMO ingredient.) The general goal, says Impossible Foods, is not to just cater to vegetarians, but to win over meat eaters by replacing all animal-based foods with realistic, plant-based replicas in the coming decades. Rumor has it that the company is currently working on a plant-based alternative to fish.

Alongside Impossible Foods, Beyond Meat has been pursuing a similar approach, creating plant-based burgers that are realistic enough to sit in the meat section of grocery stores. Made primarily from pea protein, the Beyond Burger also has a certain bloody hew thanks to the addition of beet juice. The addition of coconut and canola oils also give a rich, slightly greasy mouthfeel, not entirely dissimilar to that of real beef.

And then, of course, there's the next evolution of "fake" meat. It's called meat. And it will be grown in labs from cells extracted from live animals. Memphis Meats, for example, has been developing lab-grown chicken, duck and beef and has served these treats to a lucky few journalists and influencers. The reason for the selective audience, of course, is that a pound of lab-grown chicken currently costs in the region of $9,000, but the company is targeting $3 to $4 a pound by 2021. While early reports say the product is currently a little "spongier" than animal-grown meat (yup, that's a weird phrase), the company has been successful in attracting the attention of investors — recently closing a $17 million round of new funding, for example.

Who are these products for?

One question that often gets asked is "why would a vegetarian want to eat bloody meat?" The reasons, of course, depend on the motivation for the diet in the first place.

As someone who eats 95 percent plant-based foods, I mostly enjoy foods that are true to their plant-based origins and would rather eat Field Roast's clearly vegetarian burger over Impossible Foods' meat imitation almost every day of the week. That said, like many, I do crave meat and would be glad for a replacement to tuck into from time to time. Indeed, many of the companies pursuing the more "replica"-centered approach say they're not really interested in marketing to vegans — they want to win over the omnivore world. That's where they can have the biggest impact.

To do so, I suspect, they'll have more work to do to both improve the experience and drive down costs. But make no mistake — plant-based "meat" and "dairy" is here to stay. And we may well be grateful for it if climate change continues to wreak havoc on our farming systems.