In The Restaurant At The End Of The Universe, Douglas Adams poses an ethical conundrum that the book’s protagonist, Arthur Dent, finds rather tricky. The scene is set in a dining establishment that is both physically and temporally located at the end of the universe, a popular hangout for space-faring species to enjoy a fine meal while watching the universe die outside. A bovine-looking creature walks up to Arthur’s table, introduces himself as the “Dish of the Day” and asks how the guests would like him cooked and served. Arthur, clearly nonplussed, says what every reader is likely to have said in that situation—“I am not going to eat an animal that talks to me. I will have the salad.” The bovine entity responds: “Well, science has finally engineered an animal that wants to be eaten and now you want to eat a salad? I have some plant friends who would disagree with your choice of meal.”
Homo sapiens is an omnivore. Hunter gatherer diets were predominantly hunted game (more so in colder latitudes), wild-harvested fruits, nuts or berries. Once we invented agriculture, diets became more plant-based, with grains like rice, wheat and corn making up most of our calories. In agricultural societies, meat was a luxury because most land was used for crops, not as pasture. The industrial world brought astonishing improvements in agricultural productivity and huge increases in average wealth, at least in the developed world.
This led to an exponential increase in the per capita consumption of meat and an industry that was able to scale supply. More recently, economic growth in China and India has been accompanied by significant increases in meat consumption; what used to be largely small-scale pastoral operations transformed into greenhouse gas emitting dystopian factory farms of large-scale cruelty, fuelling the growth of an urban population far removed from the mess of meat production.
It is clear that large-scale animal husbandry is unsustainable. If plants convert 10% of the sun’s energy into calories, animals eat plants and only give us 10% of those calories as meat, generating greenhouse gases that heat the planet in the process. Either we all learn to eat less meat and pay a premium price for it or we won’t have much of a planet left to enjoy a filet mignon in the near future.
Technology, which first enabled large-scale factory farms, now has a potential solution. Nutritionally, we don’t necessarily need meat but it’s tasty, and if a culture and tradition is centred on it, no amount of preaching is going to turn anyone vegetarian anytime soon.
There are two solutions. One, growing meat in a laboratory setting—essentially, growing animal muscle tissue from its DNA to produce guilt-free, low-carbon footprint meat. This is complex—meat tastes the way it does because a walking, breathing animal produces the texture and flavour we like (which is also why factory-farmed chicken tastes so bland). The second, and more promising, solution is to take protein from plants like wheat, peas and soybean, use flavour additives and binding chemistry to synthesise something that tastes exactly like meat. This tech isn’t new.
Mock meat made from soy has been catering to Buddhist monks in East Asia for ages. But while it had protein, it tasted like cardboard. Since plants don’t have muscle tissue, which is elastic and flexible, they have rigid structures, without the bite and chewiness of meat that most of the planet enjoys.
Over the past few years, some food-tech firms in the US have made breakthroughs in the looks, flavour and texture department. Beetroot extract, pomegranate powder and soy leghemoglobin are used to mimic the colour of red meat. For flavour, plant-based meat uses plant-based saturated fats to mimic the intra-muscular fat in animal tissue. One of those choices, coconut oil, melts at a lower temperature than animal fat, so the juiciness wears off quickly. In India, products tend to use trans-fat free vanaspati, hydrogenated palm oil, which provides a more neutral-tasting saturated fat than coconut oil. To get the texture, the plant protein also has to be laid out in a layered fibrous structure that mimics muscle tissue. For this, scientists use a process of high-moisture extrusion, a combination of heating, compression and cooling that can be sequenced precisely.
The tech has reached a point where even foodies can’t tell the taste difference between a burger patty made from beef and one made from plant-based meat. So far, though, plant-based meat has managed to successfully mimic minced meat, not steaks, ribs or drumsticks. That’s where lab-grown meat is expected to shine—but it’s not quite there yet.
Will this kind of ultra-processed, preservative- and stabiliser-laden product be healthy? Well, it’s emerging tech that will keep getting better. And most preservatives are absolutely safe in the tiny quantities that are required.
Krish Ashok is the author of Masala Lab: The Science Of Indian Cooking.