Earth First

What Does the “Meatless” in Your Meatless Burger Really Mean?

The world’s population is expanding, which means we need new techniques to feed ourselves without wrecking the planet. Meatless meats use clever food engineering to recreate some of the most beloved but least sustainable food products.

The makers of "meatless meats" want to change how the world eats using chemical and gastronomical sciences. But can they make a product with the same satisfying texture and taste meat-eaters swear by? And what on earth do meatless burgers consist of, if not meat? Let’s dig in.

The Science Behind Meatless Meats

The mysterious qualities that make a burger's familiar flavour and colour so distinct are thanks in part to a compound known as ‘heme’. Heme gives burger patties their slightly metallic taste and signature colour. Heme appears in haemoglobin in blood and myoglobin in muscles, with iron forming the primary ingredient in the heme molecule.

The other half of the mystery comes from a protein known as ‘globin’. In traditional burgers, the complex aromas and tastes are thanks to the interactions of multiple protein types.2 Coming up with a tasty alternative to animal flesh is difficult, primarily because of these complex interactions.

The good news is that globins don’t just appear in animal blood and muscle but also throughout the plant kingdom. Leghemoglobin, structurally similar to myoglobin, is a component of soy roots. Discovering this was one of the missing links in creating convincing and delicious meatless burgers.3

Unfortunately, growing and processing the amount of soy required to replace meats outright is too costly, resource- and labour-intensive. Future-minded food companies have had to figure out a better way.

How Meatless Meats Are Made

Synthesising meatless meat is a multi-step process. For Impossible Foods, that process goes something like this:

  1. Technicians isolate the genes in soy plants that correspond to the production of leghemoglobin.
  2. Next, they splice these genes into a type of yeast called Pichia pastoris and feed them minerals and sugar, including the leghemoglobin, to induce replication.
  3. The result is a far more abundant supply of leghemoglobin than farming soy plants alone could produce.3

That’s not all that has to happen. To make Beyond Burgers and other meatless products as authentic as possible, companies regularly experiment with gas chromatography mass spectrometry (GC-MS). This process entails releasing scents from meat samples and binding them to a specific type of fibre. Technicians then analyse the residue on the fibre to determine which compounds produce the desired aromas.

You can think of this process as a little like fingerprinting for our favourite meat products, including beef patties. Along with a scalable method for synthesizing essential compounds like globins, you have the makings of an environmentally friendly and much less wasteful "meat" industry. And there is no animal suffering required.

Is This the Right Time for Meatless Meat?

According to many, the advent of meatless meat is long overdue. It’s not happening because we’ve grown bored with standard hamburger patties. Meatless meats are a crucial scientific advancement of our time due to factors such as the following.

  • The human population will increase to 9.7 billion by 2050. Unless something changes about how we use land and water, we will struggle to supply growing food demands.4
  • The animal agricultural sector represents 14.5% of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, totalling 7.1 gigatons of CO2 equivalent every year.5
  • Raising a cow until it’s ready for slaughter requires around 41000 litres of water per cow per year.6

In short, eliminating animals from our food supply chain could be better for the environment and consume fewer resources.

Read about lab meat's environmental impact.

Science Has Put Animal Agriculture on Notice

Change can come in our society from entrepreneurs who take risks — whether those entrepreneurs lead sustainable tea companies or seek to reinvent the world’s most beloved food staples, like chicken nuggets, sausages and hamburger patties. If we can roll out meatless meat sustainably and at scare,  we could greatly reduce animal suffering and improve food security for generations to come. 

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