SAN FRANCISCO AND LOS ANGELES - In a San Francisco kitchen, chefs are re-creating everyday foods, such as eggs, mayonnaise, salad dressings and cookies from unconventional sources.
“Playing with ingredients that are totally different in the food system is a lot like walking on the moon. We’re doing things no one has ever done before so it’s challenging,” said chef Chris Jones, who heads product development at the Hampton Creek technology company.
While vegetarian foods have been around as long as there have been vegetarians, a new generation of companies, mostly from California, is using new technology to look for alternative protein sources that do not come from an animal.
Hampton Creek uses robotics to identify plants from around the world that can help re-create traditional foods substituting animal products with plant material.
“We look into the different molecular characteristics and ultimately we’re able to identify relationships between what we see on a molecular level and whether it causes a cake to rise or what makes a mayo taste good or whether it binds a cookie together or makes a nice creamy butter,” said Hampton Creek founder Josh Tetrick.
“It’s been really recent advances, both in screening methodologies as well as data science, that actually makes it possible,” said Jim Flatt, Hampton Creek’s chief of research and development.
In the lab of another company, Beyond Meat, scientists re-created a hamburger patty out of proteins from yellow peas, soy and beets for the look of blood. The scientists are breaking down the building blocks of meat and going into the plant kingdom to look for those same elements. They’re then rebuilding them into a new kind of food that uses plant-based protein to create a patty that looks just like a beef patty
“What we’re doing is we’re taking plant matter. We’re running it through heating, cooling and pressure and that’s basically stitching together the proteins so they take on the fibrous texture of animal muscle,” said Beyond Meat founder Ethan Brown
These companies say plants hold the key to solving global food problems.
“Whether it’s Asia, Africa, India, you’re seeing a very strong trend toward increasing animal protein consumption. I don’t think as a globe we can afford that,” Brown said.
“The planet actually cannot work with the way we are consuming meat because we don’t have enough arable land to create enough cereals for all the animals that we need if we are to feed the world through meat,” said Jeremy Coller of Coller Capital, an investor of alternative protein foods.
“Food security is an increasingly big issue, particularly because of climate change and some other issues. I think if you expand the number of tools we can use to feed people really well, you help to mitigate against these risks,” said Tetrick, who envisions bringing healthier, new plant-based foods, that are culturally relevant to local cuisines, to regions in the world such as Africa, where hunger is no stranger.
For now, Beyond Meat’s patties are sold in Hong Kong and the U.S. Hampton Creek’s mayonnaise, salad dressings and cookies can be found in Mexico, Hong Kong and U.S. grocery stories. Both companies are trying to improve and expand their range of products.
“How do we figure out a way to make food healthier, that’s more sustainable, to actually taste good that’s actually affordable for everyone,” explained Tetrick of his mission.
Because of this greater global goal, those who work in this industry say the subject of alternative sources of protein is not a fad, but a trend that is here to stay.