When growing a test-tube burger still costs hundreds of thousands of dollars, going with 100 percent vegetables may prove more economical for fake meat. A European project has already set up a fake meat factory capable of creating an "endless" long piece of vegetarian meat.
The lab factory churns out 130 to 150 pounds (60 to 70 kilograms) of vegetarian meat per hour from a system no bigger than two ping-pong tables. Its long slabs of fake meat — about 1 centimeter thick — have the juiciness and chewy consistency of real meat cutlets. Perfecting the taste remains the main challenge for winning over meat lovers, said Florian Wild, a researcher at the Fraunhofer Institute for Process Engineering and Packaging IVV in Germany.
"Our goal is to develop a vegetable surrogate for meat that is both juicy and fibrous, but that also has a pleasant flavor," Wild said. "The product should have a long shelf life, it should not be more expensive than meat, and be suitable for vegetarians and allergy sufferers."
Weaning the world off of real meat could do much more than just reduce the environmental damage of industrial animal farming — it could also make much more food available for the world's growing population. The cows and pigs that end up as juicy burgers or pork chops must eat 5 to 8 pounds of grain just to make 1 pound of meat.
The European team has already shown how it can make fake meat out of wheat, peas, lupin beans and soybeans. By contrast, other researchers have tried growing meat in the lab based on stem cell muscles.
"We are intentionally not tying ourselves down to one type of plant because many people get an allergic reaction to the one or other substance," Wild explained. "In the process, we have developed a variety of recipes. They are the basis for a product spectrum that offers a broad selection to people who suffer food intolerance or allergies."
Making a meat substitute that has the texture and taste of real meat requires the talents and know-how of both academic researchers and meat-processing companies. The team hit upon the solution of boiling water and plant proteins and then slowly cooling them down — a process that allows the plant proteins to begin forming chains which lead to a fibrous structure similar to that of meat.
Researchers from the Fraunhofer Institute worked with the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences in Vienna, the University of Wageningen in the Netherlands, and 11 small- to medium-size companies that do business in food or food ingredients. The team also includes one Dutch and two Austrian companies that have only worked with processed meat, and an organic food producer in Spain.
The fake meat is expected to be ready to hit the market within one year. The experts will present their new product at the Anuga FoodTec trade fair from March 27 through March 30 in Cologne, Germany.