Meat just got a lot healthier

Aug. 17, 2013 @ 04:54 AM

How do you remove the risk of contracting heart disease, diabetes, and cancer from eating meat?

You take out the animal.

Then you replace it with GMO-free, cholesterol-free, hormone-free, and antibiotic-free plant protein that so closely mimics meat from animals, for a moment you wonder if the company that makes it is playing an evil corporate trick and that’s what you’re actually eating.

As it happens, Beyond Meat’s CEO Ethan Brown tells me his company’s Chicken-Free Strips product is indeed real meat. Only it’s made from plant-based protein instead of animals.

It took the California-based company’s food scientists years to crack the code on making the two almost indistinguishable.

“The process itself was relatively simple. There aren’t any weird chemicals, nothing being grown in a lab. What took time was figuring out the right combination of heating, cooling, and pressure,” Ethan tells me.

Basically, the right way to cook the stuff.

“We actually use some of the same machinery that makes bread and pasta. Anyone can visit our facilities to check it out,” he adds.

Think you’d ever get a similar invitation to tour a Tyson chicken plant?

Ethan believes the day is coming when grocery stores also perceive plant-based meat as real, and sell it in the conventional meat section.

“Remember, 20 years ago soy milk was stashed away in the ‘penalty box’. But now it’s right beside dairy milk,” Ethan reminds me.

Some marquee names in business are betting that Beyond Meat will forge a similar path for plant-based meat. The company’s financial backers include Twitter co-founders Biz Stone and Evan Williams, and its products were recently featured in a “Future of Food” presentation by none other than Bill Gates – who declared that he couldn’t tell the difference between the Chicken-Free strips and real chicken.

Gates’ presentation also highlighted concerns that raising animals for meat requires more water

and land than we have to adequately feed the world’s population, and that switching to plant-based protein is key to diminishing climate change.

The latter might come as a surprise to many, given the almost exclusive blame fossil fuels have received in this arena. But according to a 2009 World Watch report titled “Livestock and Climate Change,” livestock and its byproducts account for more than half of annual worldwide greenhouse gas emissions.

It turns out eating plant-based protein is also healthier for the planet, not just our bodies. But personal health concerns remain a primary factor driving consumer interest in such foods – which leads us to a very pertinent question.

Is chicken a health food?

If you were to judge by how frequently it appears in “healthy” cooking magazines, one would think so. But fat and cholesterol levels in chicken are actually similar to red meat. What’s more, if you cook up one of these magazine’s chicken recipes, very likely you’re serving your family arsenic.

It’s true. Arsenic is a central ingredient in drugs used to speed up poultry growth and treat the untold number of parasites that find an ideal habitat in poultry operations.

Chickens are also excluded from protection in the Humane Slaughter Act, even though more chickens are slaughtered for food in the United States – almost 10 billion a year – than any other animal. And as I’ve talked about in a previous column, there’s a political effort underway to criminalize undercover video investigations of factory farm animal abuse. Take the hint: factory farms really do have something to hide.

The very welcome news is that if the advances Beyond Meat has made in taste and texture are any indication, the conventional market for meat is on the cusp of re-invention.

So what will this do to the existing market? Ethan tells me that Beyond Meat is interested in collaborating and working with it. He doesn’t go into detail, but frankly I’m fine with it if ConAgra, or for that matter, a fast food company like Chick-fil-A, sees the writing on the wall and partners with Beyond Meat and companies like it to launch animal-free lines of meat that one day will replace meat from animals.

As for the big companies’ smaller suppliers, Ethan points out there are sources of plant-based protein that haven’t even been tapped yet but could one day be the primary ingredient in products that taste uncannily like meat from animals.

In other words, the market for all sorts of high-yield crops that no one ever thought to grow before would suddenly be wide open.

If that sounds like a pipe dream, well…who would have thought plants could ever taste so much like chicken?