Several years ago I read a story in Pacific Standard magazine called “The Biography of a Plant Based Burger”. The main character was a hamburger, of course, but at his heels was Patrick O. Brown, a “Stanford University professor in gray, with glasses, 62 years old,” who, after a sabbatical to spend with “The elimination of industrial meat production”, decided that he would find a way to make plant-based meat.
Rowan Jacobsen’s fascinating article explained how this idea evolved into a product you could cook on the grill this weekend. And it’s his description of Brown’s challenge – making a product that has the umami flavor we crave – that stuck with me. “Beef contains hemoglobin,” Jacobson wrote, “the secret catalyst that turns flesh into yum.” Brown and his team finally figured out how to get this yum without using meat.
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Brown, whose CV is packed with scientific accomplishments, became the founder and CEO of Impossible Foods, which, along with Beyond Meat, has proven that meat lovers will give alternative proteins a chance – at least sometimes. Their success has inspired thousands of alternative protein startups around the world, and many of them are in California. With so many new products on the market and more pending, it was a great time for the Food Section to document this gold rush of modern day entrepreneurs.
Corie Brown, former member of The Times’ Food and Business team, immersed herself in the “rapidly expanding line of meat imitations – plant-based, cultured, and mushroom-based – that are evolving rapidly as producers strive to match the nutrition, taste, appearance, feel, smell and cost of conventional meat.
Alternative proteins “are an entrepreneurial approach” to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and dismantling industrial animal agriculture, Corie explains, and the people behind the new products are, generally, “dedicated vegans.” In the meantime, some of the world’s largest suppliers of conventional meat are also getting into the act.
And what exactly is everyone getting into?
Plant-based meats have been around for a while, and they dominate the alternative protein category, as evidenced by any product you can find in the grocery store. You can also find them served at a variety of restaurants, including California Pizza Kitchen and Chronic Tacos, all over Southern California.
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Meat products (including bacon, chicken and steak) made from mycelium (stems and roots of fungi and the threads that make up nature’s fungal network) are just starting to appear in commercial outlets. . And cultured meat, which begins with a thimble filled with animal cells, looms on the horizon.
Right now, you’re probably thinking to yourself: this is all well and good, but how does it taste? Can anything other than meat come close to the pleasures of conventional sausage, bacon or sushi?
Food columnist Jenn Harris tested over two dozen alternative proteins, rating them for appearance, texture, taste, and how well each mimicked the original protein. “There are names you’ve heard of (giants that have pushed their products into all the big grocery chains and a growing number of fast food restaurants) as well as a lot of newbies,” she explains.
Want some suggestions on what products to try? Want to know which one got a 9 out of 10? Which one reminded Jenn of dog treats? You can read his story (and watch a video) at latimes.com/food on Sunday.
It’s a brave new world in terms of alternative proteins, and we’re here to guide you.