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Is it possible to build ‘meat’ out of plant protein?

Americans eat three times the world average of beef each year. However, with each pound requiring more than 50 gallons of water, producers in drought-stricken California are looking to find other ways to get protein into our diets. Dr. James Hamblin, a senior editor at The Atlantic Magazine, reports.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Tonight, a look at the growing phenomenon of meatless protein. Americans eat the equivalent of 322 quarter pound burgers per person every year. That's three times as much beef as the world average; and with each pound requiring more than 50 gallons of water, producers in drought stricken California are looking to find other ways to get protein into our diets.

    Our story comes to us from Dr. James Hamblin, a senior editor at The Atlantic Magazine.

  • DR. JAMES HAMBLIN, The Atlantic:

    I'm here at the Bon Appetech Food Tech Conference in San Francisco — where start-ups are competing to replace animal meat with new, sustainable sources of protein.

  • MAN:

    Insect protein combines nutritional density of animal protein with environmental efficiency of plant protein.

  • MAN:

    We do not put insects anywhere in or around our products.

  • WOMAN:

    We`re using pea protein and brown rice protein.

  • WOMAN:

    With the soy, we ferment it to just to the very tiny pieces.

  • DR. JAMES HAMBLIN:

    While the industry is divided on which protein source is best, it is in agreement that an animal meat alternative will be necessary to feed the rapidly expanding world population. The Los Angeles-based start-up Beyond Meat has invented some plant-based chicken and beef that's getting particular attention from investors, like Bill Gates, and unlike most vegan products, they look a lot like traditional meat.

    All right. What should I try first?

    All of the meat on this table is meat from peas.

    It`s a little chewier than your traditional chicken but very close.

    Jody Puglisi is a Stanford professor of structural biology. He says building meat out of a plant protein is a challenge, though chicken is easier than beef.

    JODY PUGLISI, Scientific advisor, Beyond Meat: Chicken is easier to do than beef because the text of a chicken breast is pretty uniform, the color is uniform.

  • DR. JAMES HAMBLIN:

    It`s really a proper scientific laboratory focused on deconstructing and rebuilding the experience of meat.

    TIM GEISTLINGER, Vice President of R&D, Beyond Meat: What you`re looking at right here is a gas chromatograph, it`s a hook to a mass-spec instrument, and what gives us a measurement of what meat tastes like. Essentially, it`s a fingerprinting of what flavor and aroma exists in meat already.

  • DR. JAMES HAMBLIN:

    Ethan Brown is the founder and CEO of Beyond Meat.

  • ETHAN BROWN, CEO, Beyond Meat:

    So, we`re taking protein from a pea, and using heating, cooling and pressure to align it in the form of meat. That`s it. We have to be able to figure out a way to describe that consumers, so they understand they`re having is basically a pea protein in the form of meat.

  • DR. JAMES HAMBLIN:

    It sounds like processed food. I don`t eat processed food. I was told not to eat processed food.

  • ETHAN BROWN:

    I worked so hard to say that.

  • DR. JAMES HAMBLIN:

    No meat at all is the American future.

  • ETHAN BROWN:

    Meat is really made up of those five constituent parts, the amino acids, lipids, carbohydrates, minerals and water. They're actually present in plants. What we`re doing is building a piece of meat directly from the plant so the compositions are basically, the same. In that case, we are delivering meat.

  • DR. JAMES HAMBLIN:

    Meat that the American consumer needs to be convinced might be as good as the beef or pork they`re accustomed to eating.

    So, you study a sort of sociological aspect of people`s reactions to these foods?

    ALEXANDRA SEXTON, PhD candidate, King's College London: So, it`s the whole performance around the food. So it`s the words that are being used, the packaging, it`s where it`s located within the supermarket.

  • DR. JAMES HAMBLIN:

    Although Beyond Meat is available nationally at Whole Foods, Walmart, and other select retailers, at prices comparable to animal meats, product placement does influence sales.

  • ETHAN BROWN:

    Because of my height they put it up here. Here are some of the packages.

  • DR. JAMES HAMBLIN:

    Here with tofu.

  • ETHAN BROWN:

    Right, so the whole challenge is how do we make the decision process seamless for the consumer so that they`re doing something exactly what they do with animal protein and the products behave exactly like they do with animal protein?

    I do believe that in, you know, 10 years or so, you`ll be able to come in here and there will be meats in here that are made from different plants. There will be lupine beef, there`ll be a camelina, any manner of plant feed stock and the consumers can choose which type of beef they want. The days of this just being animal protein I think are rapidly coming to a close.

  • DR. JAMES HAMBLIN:

    Maybe not rapidly, but all the factors are in place that could lead to a shift in our collective thinking about meat. Beyond Meat is currently available in 10,000 locations with major expansion slated for the New Year. Maybe when plant-based meats are at our fingertips, we`ll do the American thing — eat them.

    For PBS NEWSHOUR, I`m James Hamblin in El Segundo, California.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    You can find more reports by Dr. Hamblin at TheAtlantic.com.

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