Much like cracking digital codes on security locks or busting deadbolts guarding well-protected vaults or buildings, unlocking the secrets of plant-based meat and other alternatives to animal-based food requires a hefty set of keys. At UC Berkeley’s Alternative Meats X-Lab, scholars, scholars, students and entrepreneur-led incubator partners arrive at the front door of the burgeoning food sector with a variety of credentials and a range of motivations, interests and expertise.
Originally launched to investigate replicating animal meat with plant-based resources, the Alt Meat Lab housed at the Sutardja Center for Entrepreneurship & Technology in the developing College of Engineering is also egg, dairy and seafood alternatives. Courses available to undergraduate and graduate students from multiple disciplines feature hands-on, rigorous, science-based projects. Simultaneously, the lab operates as a hub connecting students with entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and industry leaders working in the field.
Lab co-director Celia Homyak’s original connection with plant-based food began 10 years ago when she eliminated animal-based foods during a self-imposed, 100-day, no-processed-foods experiment.
“I stuck with it for health reasons and eventually learned about the agricultural and animal impacts of consuming meat,” she said. “Understand: I grew up in the Midwest, on a farm, eating meat that we raised. My main drivers are the environment and my health.”
Co-director Ricardo San Martin wanted to better understand his two children, who are both vegans. He began to wonder what the world they inherit will look like.
“I wanted to find out why my kids thought being vegan would help the planet,” he said.
Although multiple reasons energize the field — climate crisis, human health, animal well-being, sustainable agriculture, fascination with food culture, entrepreneurial innovation, interest in chemistry, the economics involved and more — Homyak believes environmental concerns about the impact of animal-based agriculture and easier access to plant-based foods for the general public are primary drivers.
“Now, it’s the climate crisis — and it’s easy to introduce plant-based foods into your life. You can go into any grocery story and try it out.”
San Martin presents a more complex, global position.
“The energy is geo-dependent on where you are on the planet. In the US or Africa and other countries and areas, the motivation is different. For the people in the class (at UC Berkeley) it often relates to a sense that the planet will collapse sometime soon. There’s an urgency. But again, it depends on where you are. (In) some countries like Mexico, you’d better eat beans and rice because you won’t find plant-based processed foods.”
Courses equip students with information covering a range of topics and applications: nutritional comparisons of plant-based protein sources to animal-based, key ingredients and how components perform in a product; chemical processing, cost analysis; prototype development; evolving FDA guidelines; marketing and packaging; and business ethics related to transparency, to name a few.
The directors say students must not only learn the methods by which peas are ground into flour and processed into an isolate or the building blocks of plant proteins that cause them to differ from animal muscles, they must respect the science, their craft and the industry’s ultimate clients: consumers.
Students come to lab from business, business, and other fields — not economic from biology, chemistry, technology, agriculture or environmental science. San Martin says misinformed notes about the nutritional value and production costs of plant-based products must be dispelled and some MBA students enter believing “a wonderful PowerPoint and a confident pitch will be enough to gain investors.”
Course work emphasizes the limits of science and understanding the boundaries of what is true and what’s not.
“They may get the money, but the science is getting very complex. It’s easiest to start with someone with a highly technical knowledge base and then teach them about marketing and scaling up,” he says.
Homyak says the project-driven lab has students partnering with people in the industry, a practice that effectively exposes a lab expert to interfacing with investors and the marketplace as they make a very complex product understandable. As the lab expands beyond plant-based meat alternatives, a market-savvy approach is the frame of reference.
“The beverage and milk line is crowded and growing slower than other areas,” says Homyak, explaining why expansion into new ingredients for plant-based dairy items like cheese offers more possibility. “Existing plant-based cheese has deficiencies that leave it very far from the texture that makes (dairy) cheese melt on a burger or in a sauce.”
Plant-based products continue to lack dairy cheese’s creamy saltiness and flavor.
“One cheese I sampled tasted like barf. Another had a chemical taste, another like butter. Parmesan has the flavors closest so they put that in cheddar, which means it doesn’t taste like cheddar anymore,” Homyak says.
Harnessing nature by identifying how plant proteins are altered during fermentation — a natural process — or other means can unfurl into less processed techniques in the mix-and-match game. San Martin insists, though, that a prominent “foe” to innovative progress is America’s super-sized, fast-food preoccupation.
“Here, you have the biggest beverage, the tower of the Whopper. Everything is huge. With that culture, how can a plant-based product impact the general sustainability of the food industry? The culture is not sustainable. You go to McDonald’s and get a vegan burger, but you have the same plastic wrapping, everything is throw-away.”
The World Resources Institute, as reported in Time Magazine, states that “reducing beef intake in high-consuming nations by 1.5 hamburgers per week per person could achieve significant climate gains.”
Under the present-day, super-size scenario, San Martin predicts plant-based foods that will have limited environmental and health impacts. He says his hope will be restored, though, if change in the massive food industry arrives and respects the health of humans, animals and the planet. A cultural shift could mean the projects incubating at the lab are key to unlocking the front door and full potential of equitable, sustainable, plant-based food to feed the world.
Lou Fancher is a freelance writer. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.