The science of plant-based meat (2021)

Introduction to plant-based meat

What is plant-based meat? 

GFI uses the term “plant-based” to refer to products made from plants that are alternatives to animal-based products. This includes plant-based meat, seafood, eggs, and dairy. This overview focuses primarily on the science of plant-based meat and seafood. 

The concept of plant-based meat is not a modern development. The prevalence and variety of plant-based meat has steadily increased for centuries. However, many of the early plant-based meat products were designed with vegetarian consumers in mind. Early plant-based meats did not try to exactly replicate, or biomimic, conventional meat.

Recent concerns about sustainability, food security, and the environmental and public health impacts of industrial animal agriculture have spurred a sense of urgency to develop plant-based meats that appeal to mainstream consumers rather than niche markets. This has led to an explosion of innovation during the last decade. Today’s plant-based meat options appeal to the fast-growing segment of “flexitarian” consumers. 

What is the market for plant-based meat? 

Flexitarian consumers are looking for plant-based meat options that create the same sensory experience as animal-based meat. These consumers deliberately reduce their meat consumption but do not completely give up animal-based products. This decision to eat more plants is often due to concerns about health, the environment, or animal protection. It may also simply be a way of obtaining novelty and variety with flavorful and affordable meals. The rise in flexitarianism is creating considerable market growth for plant-based foods.

Despite the market growth in plant-based foods, plant-based meat is currently only about 1% of the US retail meat market. For plant-based meat to become a significant part of the global meat market in the coming decades, there remains tremendous need for additional R&D. This innovation and subsequent growth of the plant-based meat industry will only be realized through a concerted and collaborative effort to direct resources (financial, human, and technological) to this area.

How is plant-based meat made? 

Animal meat is primarily muscle tissue. Plants don’t have muscles. So how do the plants we see growing in a field become a piece of meat that looks, smells, tastes, and cooks like animal meat? 

At its simplest level, animal meat is made up of protein, fat, vitamins, minerals, and water. Though plants don’t have muscles, they do contain protein, fat, vitamins, minerals, and water. Plant-based meat takes advantage of this biochemical similarity between plants and animals. 

For every protein, lipid, or functional compound in the dozen or two animal species we typically eat, we can look for an analog or replacement in the plant kingdom. If a replacement doesn’t exist in nature, we can try to make it through mechanical, chemical, or biological treatment of a plant ingredient.

The unique spatial arrangement of proteins in muscle tissue creates the distinct texture of animal meat. Chopped or minced meat has a simpler texture and is easier to replicate than larger pieces of animal meat like chicken breasts and pork chops which are made from intact muscle tissue. The spatial arrangement of proteins in these whole-muscle types of products is integral to the texture. Thus, not surprisingly, there are more technical challenges to overcome in order to biomimic whole cuts of animal meat with plant ingredients.

The general method used to produce plant-based meat involves three primary steps. First, we grow crops as a source of raw materials. Second, we process these crops to get rid of the parts of the plants we don’t want. At this stage, we end up with the proteins, fats, and fiber ingredients that will become our plant-based meat product. Finally, we put together the desired mixture of ingredients. This ingredient mixture then goes through a manufacturing process to create the muscle-like texture needed for meat.

Whether we are making plant-based burgers, chicken kebabs, pork dumplings, or sashimi, these same general production steps apply. The rest of this page summarizes each of these three technology sectors – crop development, ingredient optimization, and end product formulation and manufacturing – in more detail. We highlight the current state, existing challenges, and forward-looking opportunities for each technology sector.

What about other plant-based alternatives? 

For resources specific to plant-based dairy, please refer to GFI India’s plant-based dairy webinar and a GFI seminar on colloid approaches to plant-based milk by Dr. Julian McClements from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. For information about optimizing functional properties and applications of egg alternatives, please see GFI’s technical paper on plant-based egg alternatives.  

Although fungi and algae are not biologically classified as plants, plant-based products that include fungi- and algae-based ingredients are included in our definition of plant-based foods. Products such as Meati’s steak that are made solely from fungi using fermentation processes are not classified as plant-based meat. For more information about how companies like Meati use fungal biomass fermentation to create meat analogs, please refer to the science of fermentation. For more information about microalgae and seaweed as an alternative protein source, check out GFI India’s analysis.


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