Comparing Meat Alternatives: Lab-Grown v. Plant-Based
Updated: Oct 22, 2019
There is a lot of excitement about advanced meat alternatives, because they are showing up in grocery stores, restaurants, and even fast food drive-throughs. But there is a lot of confusion, too, because there are two very different types of meat alternatives, and they are coming in separate waves.
The two waves of advanced meat alternatives are
(1) Plant-based meat, and
(2) Lab-grown meat
The first wave is already upon us, thanks to companies like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat. The second wave may not be far behind.
We'll examine what the fuss is about and then look at eight providers in each category:
The Advantages of Meat Alternatives
There are four potential reasons to prefer plant-based or lab-grown meat:
1. Cruelty-free / No Killing
2. Better for the Environment
4. Less expensive
Ethical Vegetarians aren't the reason that venture capitalists are pouring money into these new technologies, but a lot of customers will prefer cruelty-free foods if they were just as good. Specialty retailers already do a good business selling cruelty-free products, and meat alternatives will fit right in.
In fact, the number of ethical vegetarians will grow if consumers can disassociate themselves from the killing and the factory farm conditions without actually giving up the experience of eating meat.
Better for the Environment
Abundance Utopians like me worry about the environmental costs of meat production. How do we provide high quality and aesthetically pleasing meat protein to a planet populated by billions of people without destroying land and sea?
Meat production generates enough of an environmental burden -- deforestation, fishery depletion, water use, waste product, energy consumption, effects on wildlife -- that some view our commitment to meat as destroying the planet. According to New Yorker, one-third of the world's arable land is used to grow feed for livestock.
So there are ALSO plenty of people who would pay extra for environmentally sustainable meat, even if they don't have empathy for animals and aren't ethically opposed to industrial farming practices. Indeed governments could reasonably mandate a transition to such alternative meats to protect the environment.
Lab grown meat should be less poisonous -- at least lacking the incidental exposures to antibiotics, fecal matter, mad cow disease, and e coli bacteria encountered with traditional farm practices. Even plant-based meats would have a lower risk of exposure to some types of routine agricultural contaminants.
But the reason venture capital and agribusiness money is flowing into biotechs attempting to re-engineer our food is because meat alternatives might eventually cost less than meat derived from traditional livestock practices, which could disrupt one of the world's biggest industries. The three largest meatpacking companies in America have combined annual revenues of more than two hundred billions dollars, according to New Yorker.
If clean meat were healthier, more ethical, more environmentally sustainable, AND it were less expensive, it would represent a new industry worth hundreds of billions of dollars. Newsweek predicted earlier this year that "lab-grown beef will save the planet."
So Is The Planet Saved?
For the transition to alternative meats to work, the alternative meats will have to really smell, taste, and feel like traditional meat.
We have all suffered bean-paste veggie burgers that are about as similar to a hamburger as a cow patty is to a peppermint patty. And anyone who has ever spat out a mouthful of Tofurky would reasonably be suspicious of this entire enterprise.
And anyone who has ever spat out a mouthful of Tofurky
would reasonably be suspicious of this entire enterprise.
But we are indeed getting much closer to the destination:
The marketers have urged the future industry of lab-grown meat to find a more palatable customer-facing name than "FrankenMeat," "Test Tube Meat," "Factory Grown Meat," or "Artificial Cell Culture Meat Substitute."
They have settled on the name "Clean Meat."
When you hear "clean meat," they are talking about lab-grown meat as opposed to traditional meat or plant-based meat substitutes.
Lab-grown meat should be stunningly close to the original, since it literally is the same substance, only cultured in a factory. It makes perfect sense that if stem cells can grow into any type of cell, why not tell them to grow into a filet mignon?
The only problem is that it is devilishly difficult to do.
It's not beyond our technical capabilities -- just really expensive.
Early efforts by MosaMeat resulted in a meatball that cost over $300,000. Memphis Meats apparently got the price down to $18,000 per pound in 2016, and $9,000/pound in 2017. Future Meat Technologies claims they are at $368/pound. This is great progress, but still too rich for a mass market.
Further drastic cost reductions are possible, so the eight companies described below are racing to make it happen, but it won't be this year or next year. Maybe 2020 in high-end restaurants for MosaMeat. Memphis Meats is guessing 2021.
We can wait.
Just like we waited years for mass produced electric cars, and for cheap solar energy, and they came.
But in the meantime, what should we eat?
Plant-Based Alternative Meats
Plant-based alternative meat is here right now. In fact, there's no need to bother with lab grown meat if plant-based meats are comparable, healthy, ethical, environmental, inexpensive, and available now.
So it's a good bet that plant-based alternatives are still coming up short.
I won't enter that fray except to share my first-hand experience of a Beyond Meat burger I recently had at TGI Fridays. Here is how it looked on the menu:
And here is how it looked on my plate:
The consensus view on the taste/texture of these advanced plant-based burgers will probably match my experience:
There is a wide range of tastes in burgers. Different breeds of beef taste different. White Castle burgers don't taste like In-N-Out Burgers, which don't taste fancy restaurant burgers. Burgers taste different in the US and Europe.
The Beyond Meat Burger lives somewhere in this range. It didn't taste to me like the last burger I ate, or the best burger I ever had, but it tasted like a burger, and I enjoyed it immensely.
It didn't taste like the last burger I ate,
or the best burger I ever had, but it tasted like
a burger, and I enjoyed it immensely.
TGI Friday's let's you substitute a Beyond Meat patty for any burger on the menu -- all you have to do is pay $3.49 and add 70 calories.
Most Americans are used to eating pretty mediocre burgers -- McDonalds, Burger King, etc. I doubt that any flavor gap between these plant-based good-enough burgers and the scientific perfection of the lab-grown meat will by itself be enough to displace the new plant-based burgers.So when the lab-grown meats eventually appear, and until they become dramatically less expensive than the new plant-based burgers, there will rage fierce debates and unanswerable questions about what kinds of unhealthy chemicals, oils, and proteins were conjured by the plant-based companies to make peas taste like beef, and whether lab-grown beef wouldn't in the end be better tasting, healthier, and better for the environment, in addition to saving 70 calories?
So in anticipation of our dystopian future of endless Burger Wars, in which ethical vegetarians battle purity vegans over the biochemistry of fake food, prepare your arguments by sampling some meat alternatives for yourself.
In the coming Burger Wars ethical vegetarians will battle purity vegans over the biochemistry of fake food
Impossible Burgers are already available in some restaurants, including White Castle. Beyond Burgers are available at TGI Fridays, and Beyond Meats in grocery stores. You can also get Beyond Meat at Amazon: The reviews are quite polarized. This product, for example, gets exclusively five-star or one-star reviews -- nothing in between.
Sixteen Companies Working on
Plant-Based or Lab-Based Alternative Meats
None of the lab-based meats is currently available in stores or
restaurants, and probably won't be next year, either...but just you wait!
According to New Yorker, Thirty-three companies are working on a single-ingredient approach: using animal cells to grow meat in vats. Here are some of those:
MosaMeat, based in the Netherlands, was the first to demonstrate a lab-grown meat from cultured cow cells, and is working on a commercial product. In July 2018, MosaMeat announced Series A funding of 7.5M Euros led by Merck to develop a pilot production plant for the introduction of a premium product in 2021. Early investors included Google's Sergei Brin.
2. Memphis Meats
Memphis Meats, located in San Francisco, received $17.5M in 2017, led by celebrity investors Bill Gates, Jack Welch, Richard Branson, and Elon Musk's brother Kimbal, as well as Cargill. Memphis Meats is simultaneously developing beef, chicken, and duck products.
3. Just Inc.
Just, located in San Francisco and formerly known as Hampton Creek, and more widely known for its plant-based eggs and mayonnaise, is included in this list because it claims it is entering the lab-based meat business and will beat everyone else to market. This is doubtful, if only due to recent organizational turbulence, but they do not lack funding, having received $220M over the years.
4. Future Meat Technologies
Future Meat Technologies, based in Israel, in May 2018 received a $2.2M investment in a funding round co-led byTyson Ventures. Future Meat started at $10,000/kg, and has their manufacturing cost down to $800/kg, with "a clear path" to $5-$10/kg by 2020. Future Meat started with chicken.
5. Finless Foods
Finless Foods, based in San Francisco, raised $3.5M in June 2018. Finless claims to have manufactured the first cultured fish-cakes. They are focusing on bluefin tuna, and expecting a good market for contaminant-free, sustainably grown, luxury fish and everyday prices.
SuperMeat, based in Israel, raised $3M in seed funding in January 2018. SuperMeat is culturing chicken cells.
7. Aleph Farms
Aleph Farms, also in Israel, is focused on beef. Swinging for the fences, Aleph Farms claims that it has a three-dimensional growing process that can culture something more like an actual steak, rather than merely single-cells that can only replicate ground beef.
BONUS: Mission Barns
The newest plant-based alternative meats are
already here, and more are on the way soon
1. Impossible Foods
Impossible Foods, based in Silicon Valley, uses Heme, a molecule found in hemoglobin and part of what makes meat taste like meat. But instead of extracting the heme from meat, Impossible Foods replicates by fermentation the same heme molecule that is also found in the roots of soy plants. This allows Impossible Burgers to "bleed" convincing plant juice. Impossible Foods has raised nearly $400M, including from celebrity investors Bill Gates, Google Ventures, and Li ka-Shing. Impossible Burgers are available in over 3,000 restaurants, including White Castle and Umami Burger.
2. Beyond Meat
Beyond Meat, based in Los Angeles, creates chicken and burgers that get their red from beets and their protein from peas. Beyond Meat started out selling their patties and sausages primarily in grocery stores, but Beyond Burgers are now available in 10,000+ restaurants as well as 5,000+ grocery stores, including Whole Foods and Hyvee grocery stores, and TGI Fridays and Canadian A&W restaurants. Bill Gates and Tyson Foods are among its investors.
3. Just Inc.
Just Inc., based in San Francisco and formerly known as Hampton Creek, is primarily known for its Just Eggs, Just Mayo, and Just Cookie Dough vegan products. Just Eggs are made from mung beans. Just also manufactures Power Gari, a nutrient-rich porridge to combat malnutrition in Africa. Celebrity investors include Yahoo's Jerry Yang, Li ka-Shing, Tom Steyer, and Google's Jessica Powell. Just products are widely available in grocery stores.
4. Right Treat
Right Treat, based in Hong Kong and focused on Asia, where demand for pork is very high, makes its "Omnipork" out of pea protein, soy, mushroom, and rice. Omnipork premiered in just a few restaurants in Hong Kong in mid-2018, and is not yet widely available.
5. New Wave Foods
6. Ocean Hugger
Ocean Hugger, based in New York, makes "Ahimi" -- Ahi Tuna Sashimi -- from tomatoes. Ahimi is mostly available through Whole Foods, and Veestro. An Aramark partnership should bring Ahimi to college and corporate dining halls. Ocean Hugger hopes to add salmon and eel products soon.
7. Terramino Foods
8. Wild Earth
We'll update this report occasionally as we get a chance to sample more of the meat alternatives, and as the various providers make additional progress. Please add your thoughts below in the comments.
UPDATE JANUARY 2019:
Impossible Foods upgrades its product:
UPDATE SEPTEMBER 2018:
Netherlands-based Meatable joins the lab-grown meat race:
"Rather than relying on cells that can't grow without a serum-like food source, Meatable's founders use pluripotent stem cells, which possess the unique ability to turn into any type of cell — from muscle to fat — without serum."
I do not work for or invest in in any alternative meat company. I just Alternative Meats are a really good idea whose time has come.