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The Fake Meat Industry's Quest To Make Faux Taste Real


Tech investors are always looking for the hot new gadget or the latest sexy app. But now a lot of tech money is also being funneled into fake meat. Companies are scrambling to find ways to make a better, tastier more meat-like faux burger or pseudo-chicken strip. Food writer and carnivore Corby Kummer decided to check out the latest frontiers of fake meat, and he writes about what he found and tasted in MIT Technology Review. the headline gives you a clue. It's called "The Problem With Fake Meat." Corby, welcome to the program.

CORBY KUMMER: Thanks for having me.

BLOCK: You went out to LA to visit the company Beyond Meat - has a lot of tech money investment. Bill Gates is one of its investors. And you watched a machine called the steer in action. It's a protein extruder. What's the problem that they're trying to solve here?

KUMMER: The problem they're trying to solve is that the most environmentally inefficient way of making foodstuffs is to eat beef. You're using a tremendous amount of water and just gobbling up resources that you shouldn't be doing if you are a right-minded person. So Ethan Brown, the founder of this company, was working on alternative fuel cells, and he's somebody who - a mentor said if you really want to do something to help the environment, get out of this business and find an alternative to beef. People are always going to buy beef. It's hugely inefficient for water and environmental resources - responsible for all kind of runoff. This is what you can do.

And then Bill Gates in a very widely seen post and video praising the idea of Beyond Meat and other alternative protein sources said farming is an outdated system. It's ridiculously inefficient raising a steer. Instead, let's find a way around it. And that's what they went looking for.

BLOCK: And Bill Gates, I think, also has said that the Beyond Meat product - he cannot tell the difference between that and real meat. But other people can, right? So what's the biggest challenge in trying to create fake meat?

KUMMER: You know, it's the texture. Meat's really hard to do. It's not like fish. You know, we all know crab legs, right? Surimi...

BLOCK: Fake crab, yeah.

KUMMER: And, you know, we like it. We see it in sushi. We know it's fine. But that's one texture you have to get. Think about meat. It's got fat. It's got fiber. It's got gristle. It's got that delicious stuff by the bone. It's got brown bits on the outside. Think of trying to mock all of those up and glue them together. It's not easy.

BLOCK: Well, you tried Beyond Chicken. You tried Beyond Beef. You tried the Beast Burger. What did you conclude after trying them all?

KUMMER: So what I really concluded - 'cause I always tell people, if you want to taste something, taste what they're trying to go against. You always have to do a challenge tasting. So I said to Dave Anderson, this incredibly nice guy who's their main chef and is really working on the flavor, would you please go out and buy some regular chicken strips and some regular ground beef from the supermarket, and he very gamely said, yes. And he let me try the Beast Burger, which they're not calling beef. They're calling it the Beast. And it's got lots of nutrients and omega-3s. It's incredibly healthful for you. He served that right next to ground beef that's the 80 lean, 20 fat combination that they're going up against, 'cause that's what you usually buy in the supermarket and Tyson's chicken strips from a bag which is what they were going against with their own chicken strips.

And what I really thought was - wow, our palate is so debased. What we're thinking of as meat is, like, so flavorless and terrible as it is that Beyond Meat's doing a pretty credible job of imitating it but what a shame.

BLOCK: Oh, so you're saying the bar is just too low.

KUMMER: The bar is way too low, but they have very cleverly set the bar to what people buy and want to feed their families. And I'm not saying people by bad food. I'm saying they buy what's easy, and they put it into tacos, and they put it into casseroles, and so they have these beef crumbles - and indeed, just as good as the ground beef they got from a fancy Los Angeles supermarket.

BLOCK: Well, we decided to put this question to our followers on Facebook. We had a feeling that there might be some vegetarians among them. We were right. We asked if fake meat tastes as good as the real thing. Here's one response from Ron Smith of the Denver who says he eats a mostly vegan, whole food, plant-based diet. And here's what he writes. (Reading) A vegan who eats fake meat to me is akin to the alcoholic who drinks nonalcoholic beer. It's OK on occasion, but regular consumption feeds an unhealthy longing for the real thing. What do you think about that Corby?

KUMMER: I am such a judgmental guy and food snob and a terrible foodie, but I have to say, if people want it, give it to them. There's something about the texture and the flavor that awakens something primitive, and it isn't, you know, overcoming some character defect. You know, it's like the phenomenon of Orthodox Jews who head for the fake shrimp that's made of the extruded white ground fish. You know, there's just something about it that they like. So stop being so judgmental.

BLOCK: The idea here, Corby, really - and that's the reason that tech investors - billionaires are sinking all this money into fake meat is the notion that there has to be a mass market out there - right? - beyond current vegetarians, the idea that the growing population will need protein, and meat isn't going to do it.

KUMMER: Well, in fact what everybody who's making these alternative says is I am not aiming for the vegan market. I'm not going to make a dent in the environment if I'm only trying to appeal to vegans. And so other companies - for example, Hampton Creek which makes just mayo from isolated vegetable pea proteins, which is the chief ingredient in the Beast Burger from Beyond Meat - they won't even use the V word. What they're interested in doing is bringing a affordable, wholesome proteins to the widest masses that they can because if you give people something cheap and usable that tastes good and they don't need to buy something that harms the environment or, you know, in the case of animals, animal welfare. It's a big motivation for a lot of people who get into it. Just give people what they want, what they can use and what they can afford.

BLOCK: Here's the vision statement that I saw on Beyond Meat's website. Their goal is a 25 percent reduced global meat consumption by 2020. Do you think that's doable?

KUMMER: I think it's a very nice mission statement and a very nice goal. No, frankly, I don't think it's doable. You know, what I say in the technology review piece is after tasting these things, what I most want to see happen is some new undreamt of wonderful protein that is this food that completely opens our eyes to what food industry can give us.

So I recently was in Japan, and I got to taste Buddhist versions of tofu, you know, which sounds, like, ridiculous, and it's going to be rubber, and it's going to horrible. It completely opened my eyes and palate to this ethereal, pudding-like texture with savory sesame and just a little salt. I mean, it was fantastic. And I thought, if people with that talent and those gifts can get a hold of what these inventors and marketers at companies like Beyond Meat and Hampton Creek, which are really trying to advance environmental preservation, we might be in for a whole range of culinary invention we know nothing about.

BLOCK: Corby Kummer is senior editor at The Atlantic. His article in MIT Technology Review is titled "The Problem With Fake Meat." Corby, thanks for talking to us.

KUMMER: Thank you, Melissa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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