New strains of ‘meatless meat’ are beginning to make headlines. But can carnivores taste the difference – and is it really the healthiest, most ecofriendly fix to the food chain?

Beyond Meat, which is based in Los Angeles, is one of an array of new “meatless meat” companies creating buzz in Silicon Valley and attracting investment from the likes of Bill Gates and Google Ventures.

These food-tech startups are trying to create convincing facsimiles of animal products – same texture, same taste – using only plant-derived proteins. Unlike Quorn, say, these companies are pitching themselves not at vegetarians but at meat eaters. The Beyond Burger is pink prior to cooking and even “bleeds” when you cut it, thanks to the inclusion of beetroot.

The Beyond Burger

Since launching in 2016, more than 13 million Beyond Meat burger patties have been sold across 15,000 restaurants and grocery stores in the US.

Beyond’s chief competitor is San Francisco-based Impossible Foods, whose Impossible Burger contains an even greater helping of science. Run by a former Stanford University biochemistry professor, its angle is all about haem, the iron-containing molecule in animal muscle that gives a burger its burger-ness. Haem also occurs in plants, and Impossible has found a way of growing and extracting the protein in which it is contained.

This seam of innovation is not just about burgers. Beyond Meat also makes sausages and “chicken” strips, for instance, while New York-based Ocean Hugger Foods synthesises tuna from tomatoes.

What all these startups have in common, however, is an ambition to save the world (and make money in the process). With the global population on track to hit nine billion within a few decades, food supplies will come under pressure. Fish stocks are limited, and animal farming requires a great deal of resources – land, water, food, time – that may be better used in other ways. What’s more, farming produces carbon emissions and there are concerns that eating meat has poor effects on health.

A long-term solution to the food crisis could also come from meat grown in-vitro from stem cells. There are already several US startups operating in this area: Memphis Meats, which focuses on beef, duck and chicken; MosaMeat, backed by Google cofounder Sergey Brin; and Finless Foods, which is working on fish proteins.

Right now, lab-grown meat is expensive: it costs £1,800 to produce a pound of Memphis Meat. Still, the costs of new technologies tend to diminish over time and if lab-grown meat becomes affordable, that means consumers can get meat that’s more sustainable but just as healthy and delicious as the real thing – because it is the real thing.

The race is on, then, with in-vitro meat seeking to drive down its costs before the plant-based imposters improve…