Wednesday June 16, 2010
From John Cloud, Time magazine: The desire to eat meat has posed an ethical question ever since humans achieved reliable crop production: Do we really need to kill animals to live? Today, the hunger for meat is also contributing to the climate-change catastrophe. The gases from all those chickens and pigs and cows, and from the manure lagoons that big farms create, are playing a part in global warming. So the idea of fake meat has never been more alluring. What if you could cut into a juicy chicken breast that wasn't chicken at all but rather some indistinguishable imitation made harmlessly from plant life?
This spring, scientists at the University of Missouri announced that after more than a decade of research, they had created the first soy product that not only can be flavored to taste like chicken but also breaks apart in your mouth the way chicken does: not too soft, not too hard, but with that ineffable chew of real flesh. When you pull apart the Missouri invention, it disjoins the way chicken does, with a few random strands of "meat" hanging loosely.
The vegetarian world is buzzing about the breakthrough in Missouri. "Along with ham, chicken has always been the holy grail," says Seth Tibbott, 59, the creator of Tofurky and the dean of soy-meat inventors. Tibbott's Oregon-based Turtle Island Foods has become famous for its surprisingly full-flavored fake turkey. But Tibbott says efforts to create a credible fake chicken have foundered because of chicken's unique lean texture and its delicate flavor. ("Turkey has a gamier flavor," he says, "and it's easier to match stronger flavors.")
Like his competitors, Tibbott is now investigating whether to buy the Missouri product. A meat analogue that not only looks like chicken but also works in your mouth like chicken has great market potential. According to the Soyfoods Association of North America, a Washington-based trade group, annual sales of soy products totaled $4.1 billion in 2008, up from $300 million in 1992. But $4.1 billion is, to use a food metaphor, just peanuts. Americans spend something like half a trillion dollars on real meat every year. A meaty-tasting alternative that could capture even a tenth of this market would make someone very rich. The University of Missouri team may finally have cracked the code.
For several years, Fu-Hung Hsieh — a biological-engineering professor who, at his previous job at Quaker, figured out how to use glycerin to soften the raisins in the company's granola — had wondered how to solve the fake-chicken problem. The answer was certainly going to be a combination of soy, wheat gluten, oil and water — the building blocks of most fake meats, including Tofurky. But in what combination? And how would you get it to transform from a congealed goo into a believable simulacrum of chicken? Hsieh, a slight man who was born in Taiwan and educated at Syracuse, worked on the problem in a concrete-floored lab with an unlikely partner, Harold Huff, a tall and gruff native Missourian who runs the mechanical parts of Hsieh's lab.
What has confounded fake-meat producers for years is the texture problem. Before an animal is killed, its flesh essentially marinates, for all the years that the animal lives, in the rich biological stew that we call blood: a fecund bath of oxygen, hormones, sugars and plasma. Vegan foods like tofu, tempeh (fermented soy) and seitan (wheat gluten) don't have the benefit of sloshing around in something so complex as blood before they go onto your plate. So how do you create fleshy, muscley texture without blood?
It's at once harder and easier than it sounds. First, you take a dry mixture of soy-protein powder and wheat flour, add water and dump it into an industrial extruder, which is essentially a gigantic food processor. (You have to climb a ladder to get to the hole at the top.) At first, the mixture looks like cake batter. But as it's run through the gears of the extruder and heated to precisely 346°F (175°C), the batter firms up and forms complex striations. It took Hsieh and Huff many years to get the temperature right, and it also took years to discover how to cool the soy cake very quickly, before it could melt.
All this processing raises a question: Will vegans and other gastronomic purists buy a product that is vegetarian but highly processed? Also, what does it taste like?
On the day I visited their lab, Hsieh and Huff had arrived early along with some of the university's culinary students. The scientists and the students worked together to create three dishes: a barbecue sandwich, a tarragon "chicken" salad and a fajita. The seasoning in all three dishes was unbalanced, and none were very good. But the way the meat broke across my teeth felt exactly how boneless chicken breast does. It was slightly fibrous but not fatty. The soy wasn't mashed together as in a veggie burger; rather, it was more idiosyncratic, uneven, al dente — in other words, meatlike.
Public-health types have long yearned for a credible soy meat because soy is a great source of protein that has significantly less fat and cholesterol than animal meat. But while Missouri's fake chicken has the right consistency, it still has to be flavored — and heavily salted — to taste like meat. That's why the next green-food frontier is real meat grown in vitro — actual flesh that is sliced away not from a living animal but a petri dish and which offers all the taste with none of the livestock slaughtering.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has offered a $1 million prize to anyone who can bring in vitro chicken meat to market by 2012. As with so much of what PETA does, it is largely a publicity stunt: according to Jason Matheny, a vegetarian who runs a venture-capital firm called New Harvest, in vitro meat is "at least five or 10 years away." Meantime, Tibbott and other soy proponents, including the University of Missouri scientists, believe they can bridge the gap by offering realistic fake meats. Who knows? Maybe one day you'll order a chicken fajita at Chili's that is made with soy. You almost certainly won't notice the difference, but the planet will.