Beyond Meat's Not-Chicken Strips May Revolutionize Meat Substitutes

By Wesley Fenlon

Replicating meat flavor is easy. Replicating meat texture is the hard part, and Beyond Meat is close to cracking the puzzle.

"Human beings eat 183 billion pounds of chicken every year, and just about nobody thinks that the way we grow and process these living creatures is sustainable," writes chef and Food Network host Alton Brown. "In 1997, humanity consumed 235 million tons of meat, and we’re on track for 400 million tons in 2030."

That's a lot of meat. And a lot of chickens crammed into gigantic farms, cows producing massive clouds of methane. As Brown writes, this farming and production isn't environmentally sustainable in the long term. Currently, most meat eaters aren't willing to give up chicken breasts and steaks for synthetic meats and vegetable substitutes. But in his feature for Wired magazine, Brown writes about how that may change thanks to a company called Beyond Meat.

Photo credit: Beyond Meat

Beyond Meat is producing a processed chicken substitute, but the end result isn't a sludge of chemicals pushed out of a nozzle like Play-Doh. It's something different, which aims to reproduce the texture of chicken in addition to its flavor.

"The extruder...uses steam, pressure, and cold water to knead and knit the proteins and plant fibers in the Beyond Meat mixture into a specific physical arrangement...This is what separates Beyond Meat’s chicken analog from Tofurky."

Alton Brown knows what chicken tastes like, but his initial reaction to Beyond Meat's product hints that the company may be close to something chicken eaters across the world would consider a viable substitute. "Fresh out of the extruder, a strip of Beyond Meat not-chicken is warm but not hot, striated like meat, and to the touch feels animal in origin," he writes. "My mind races to place the musculature … to identify the anatomical source. The closest thing I can come up with is cooked chicken breast, which I suppose is the whole point. I tear it and watch the break, the way the material separates. It’s more like meat than anything I’ve ever seen that wasn’t meat. Looking closely I can see a repeating pattern, like a subtle honeycomb, that reminds me a bit of tripe. I close my eyes and smell, but since the strip hasn’t received any flavoring at this point, I detect only subtle hints of soy. I take a bite. While the unflavored product tastes distinctly vegetal and still has a bit of what I’d call tofu-bounce, a hint of the spongy, the tear is … meaty."

The texture of meat is what's truly difficult to reproduce. As Brown explains, we've spent thousands of years as omnivores developing the ability to eat and recognize meats. Meat is muscle, and the fibers of different muscles move and interact in different ways. That's why we can tell the difference between the texture of chicken and the texture of steak, and why it's impossible to ever replace real meat with something made out of tofu. Flavor is the easy part.

The goal is to get meat eaters to cut down on their meat intake.

And there are real environmental problems with how we raise animals in bulk. They produce toxic waste and contribute to global warming. Beyond Meat was founded with the goal of cutting down on those environmental issues. The company's end goal, then, is not to appeal to vegetarians wanting the taste of chicken without the inhumanity. The goal is to get meat eaters to cut down on their meat intake. They'll be healthier, and, optimistically, the meat industry will cut back on production and the environment will benefit.

It's a nice thought, and if Beyond Meat's chicken is close enough to the real thing, it may even happen. Brown and a team of chefs put some samples of Beyond Meat's pre-cooked chicken strips to the test, eating them plain, putting them in burritos, stir fries. Then they chopped them up into bits, breaded them, and fried them into not-chicken nuggets. In most of the other dishes, it was obvious the chicken wasn't quite the real thing, and as it came frozen and pre-cooked, it was impossible to flavor the meat like a raw chicken cutlet. But those nuggets? They just tasted like chicken.