IV. ‘Food Needs a New Operating System’
“We really make sure there’s nothing artificial in our product,” Beyond Meat CEO Ethan Brown said over the phone. “It’s all plant-based inputs that go through a heating, cooling and pressure process. If you’re willing to have bread, you should be willing to have this.”
The product is undeniably processed. It is not soy in its natural form. Beyond Meat contains additives (titanium dioxide, dipotassium phosphate) for coloring and flavoring, Kim Hoban, R.D., a New York-based dietician in private practice, told weather.com. “But nothing too controversial or dangerous, especially for a healthy person,” she said.
In the company’s Columbia, Missouri, processing facility, machines whir and hum, mixing the product’s core ingredients — soy protein isolate, pea protein isolate, amaranth, some oil, some seasoning — and then spit out long, thin “chicken-free strips.”
After they’re made into strips, they are then grilled, cut, flash frozen, packaged and shipped across the country. The strips are currently available in Whole Foods, Publix and other chains, with the goal of 5,000 stores by the end of the year.
The machines, which produce tens of thousands of pounds of strips every week, are a compact, simple and clean stand-in for chickens, the plant manager, Varun Singla, remarked. “Animals eat plant protein and convert it into muscle fiber. Dr. Hsieh took the animal out of the equation,” creating a plant protein fiber that mimics animal muscle, he said.
The chicken-free strips certainly tear and cut like the real thing. The taste and texture are nearly identical, too, when they’re mixed into chicken salad, for example, or hidden in a fajita. Alone, the strips are not an exact match though they are markedly closer than other soy meats. Brown said the technology is continually changing. “The constant focus of our research and development is improving existing products.”
For his part of the puzzle, Hampton Creek CEO Josh Tetrick, 34, is focused on eggs, that culinary marvel that emulsifies and binds like no other food.
In the front of Hampton Creek’s San Francisco headquarters, there is a small army of desk workers, crammed around one large table littered with laptops, iced coffees and iPhones. The top boss doesn’t even have a place to sit, not that he would want one. Tetrick is a flurry of energy, flitting from person to person, pacing around and talking on his iPhone in his Alabama accent.
The back of the room is where the science happens. There, biochemists, molecular biologists, bakers and two world-class chefs, Chris Jones and Trevor Niekowal, who met working at the famed Chicago molecular gastronomy hotspot Moto, work. The scientists pass their latest creations around to other departments for taste testing and cooking. Everyone refines the product multiple times a day.
The goal is Just Scramble, an egg substitute made entirely from a plant — the company won’t say which one — that cooks, tastes and bakes just like a chicken egg. Just Scramble is also wheat, gluten and soy free.
The current prototype is close. The raw eggs are thin, like Egg Beaters. When cooked, and fluffed a bit with a plastic spatula, the texture is pretty much spot on. Just the color and taste need slight tweaks. Right now, the end result tastes bland and slightly plant-y, in the way that tofu doesn’t have a distinct taste.
The company’s plant-based mayo, now in stores, Just Mayo, is made from yellow pea protein. There’s also a soon-to-be-sold product, Just Cookie Dough, made from sorghum. Both of these have it right. The mayo tastes just like the conventional stuff, and the cookies are even better, moister, than typical store-bought fare.
Once the Just Scramble mimicry is 100-percent there, Tetrick’s goal is to bring their product everywhere, cheaper and more humanely than the chicken-involved version. “Good people are doing things that aren’t in line with how they see the world, what’s good for the world, how they want their bodies to be,” Tetrick said. “Our mission is to change that … to create a system in which we’re bringing a healthier, a more sustainable food system to everyone, everywhere.”
Right now, their mayo product is the lowest price per ounce of any sold at Costco, Tetrick said, bouncing up and down on the toes of his sneakers. Just Scramble should be priced below factory-farmed eggs when it hits stores next year, he added. That is the only way to bring real change to the system, he believes. “We see a world in which my dad goes into any grocery store, and he sees a dozen eggs for a $1.50 that come from not always the best places. And then he see something we have for 49 cents,” he said. This proposition works for food producers, too.
Hampton Creek has the backing to make this dream happen, thanks to influential investors such as PayPal’s Peter Thiel and Bill Gates. (There’s a poster of Gates and Tetrick on the wall.) This, as well as the way it approaches product development, gives it the feel of a tech startup/kitchen hybrid.
“If we’re going to feed 9.5 billion people by 2050 in a way that sustains our bodies and the planet, food needs a new operating system,” Tetrick said.
But his food is more than tech, he added. “We’re not doing synthetic engineering. We’re not manipulating DNA. We’re not infusing chemicals into anything … the current way of doing things [in the food system] is the epitome of unnatural,” he continued. “It couldn’t be farther divorced from our concept of nature … so we look at all that, and we think ‘Wow! We need a new way to do this.’”
Nearly all of the food sector innovators weather.com interviewed for this article made this argument: Their way might be new, but it is not unnatural. These new technologies might be even more “natural” than today’s scientifically advanced agriculture with its genetically modified seed, antibiotics and chemical fertilizers.
The best way forward might be a little bit of all these strategies — plants, lab-grown meat, insects, sustainable farming practices and a less wasteful system from top to bottom. As Nirenberg, of Food Tank said, “The food of the future should [help] people to be able to afford not just calories, but nourishment, the vitamins and micronutrients we all need to live healthy, developed lives.”
To some, these solutions are unsettling. But to others, they are simply an eater’s way to save the world.