Last month, at a dining table in a sunny New York City hotel suite, I found myself completely surprised by a strip of fake bacon. I was there to savor a new kind of plant-based meat, which, like most Americans, I’ve tried before but never craved the way I crave real meat. But even before I’d tried bacon, or even seen it, I could tell it was different. The smell of salt, smoke, and fat rising from the nearby kitchen seemed unmistakably real. The crispy bacon strips looked the part too – tiger striped in golden fat and served on a mini BLT. Then the crunch gave way to a satisfying chew, followed by a dash of walnuts and an incomparable juice of animal fat.
I knew it wasn’t real bacon, but for a moment, it fooled me. The bacon was actually made from plants, just like the burger patties you can buy from companies like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat. But it was mixed with real pork fat. Well kind of. The tenderness of the meat did not come from the slaughter of the pig but from a live pig whose fat cells had been sampled and grown in a vat.
This lab-grown fat, or “cultured fat,” is made by Mission Barns, a San Francisco startup, with one goal in mind: To win people over to plant-based meat. And it seems that a lot of people need to win. The vegan meat industry, which a few years ago seemed destined for mainstream success, is now struggling. Food analysts tell me that once the novelty of seeing plant-based protein “bleed” wears off, it’s hard for consumers to overlook the high price, mild nutrition, and agreeable flavor of plant-based meats. In 2021 and 2022, many fast food chains that previously served plant-based meats on a national platform—Burger King, Dunkin’, McDonald’s—have lost interest in selling them. In the past four months, the two most visible vegan meat companies, Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, have announced layoffs.
Meanwhile, the future of meat substitutes—lab-grown meat that’s molecularly identical to the real deal—is still at least several years away, between science fiction and reality. But we can’t wait until then to eat less meat. It’s one of the best things everyday people can do for the climate, and it also helps address concerns about animal suffering and health. Lab-grown fat may be the bridge. It’s created using the same approach as lab-grown meat, but it’s much easier to make and can be mixed with existing plant-based foods, Elizabeth Alfano, CEO of investment firm VegTech Invest, told me. As such, it will likely become commercially available much sooner – perhaps even within the next few years. Perhaps all it takes to preserve fake meat is a little bit of animal fat.
Animal fat is the magic of cooking. It creates the juiciness of the burger and leaves a buttery coating on the tongue. Its absence is the reason chicken breast tastes so bland. Chef Samin Nusrat Samin wrote Salt, fat, acid, heatA source of both rich flavor and desired texture. The fake meats on the market are definitely lacking in the flavor and texture departments. Most products approximate meat using a combination of vegetable oils, flavorings, binders, and salt, and it’s definitely meatier than the bean burger that came before it, but it’s far from perfect: food blog Serious eats, for example, has indicated impermeable flavoring, at least prior to cooking, including coconut and cat foods. At the molecular level, vegetable fats are not adapted to mimic their animal counterpart. Coconut oil, common in vegetarian meats, is solid at room temperature but melts under relatively low heat, so it spills into the pan as it cooks. As a result, the texture of vegetarian meats tends to be more fatty than luxurious.
Replacing those vegetable oils with cultured animal fats, which retain their structure when heated, would maintain the flavor and juiciness people expect from real meat, Audrey Gere, innovation specialist with the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit organization that advocates for meat alternatives, tells me. . In a sense, the technology of using animal fats to flavor plants is not new. Chicken schmaltz has long provided rich nourishment to potato latkes; the introduction Gumali It is what gives the classics amatriciana his juiciness. The vegetable bacon enhanced with pork fat follows the same culinary traditions, but is very high-tech. Fat cells from a live animal are grown in massive bioreactors and fed with plant-derived sugars, proteins and other growth ingredients. Over time, they proliferate to form a mass of fat cells: a soft, pale, strongly flavored solid, the same white substance you might see surrounding a cut of pork or a cut of steak.
From the bioreactor, the fat is “a bit like margarine,” Ed Steele, co-founder of London-based cultured fat company Hoxton Farms, tells me. It’s a complex process, but much easier than engineering cultured meat, which involves many types of cells that have to be coaxed into tough muscle fibres. Fat includes only one type of cell and is most useful as a shapeless bubble. As in the human body, all it takes is time, space, and the continuous distillation of sugars, oils, and other fats, Eitan Fisher, CEO of Mission Barns, tells me. The bacon I tried was made by layering vegetable-protein cultured fat, curing and smoking the loaf, and then cutting it into slices that looked like slices of bacon. Mixing just 10 percent cultured fat with vegetable protein into the block, Steele said, can make the product taste and feel like the real thing.
Already, cultured fat products are within sight. Mission Barns plans to incorporate its own cultured fats into its plant-based products; Hoxton Farms hopes to sell its fat directly to existing plant-based meat processors. Others, such as Belgian startup Peace of Meat, Berlin-based Cultimate Foods, and Singapore-based fish-focused ImpacFat, are making their own versions of cultured fat. Theoretically, the fat could be mixed into any type of plant-based meat — nuggets, sausages, pâté. In the US, the way to market is already being paved. Last November, chicken grown by Upside Foods in California received FDA clearance. Now it is waiting for additional approval from the Ministry of Agriculture. Pending its own regulatory approvals, Mission Barns says it’s ready to launch its product in a few supermarkets and restaurants, which also includes the masked vegan meatballs I’ve also tried to taste. (Because of the pending approval, I had to sign a liability waiver before digging.)
I’m left tasting with the animal fat on my lips and a new conviction in my mind: At the right price, I’m going to buy this bacon over the regular stuff. Since cultured fat can be made without harming animals—the fat cells in the bacon I tasted came from a happy, free-range pig named Dawn, the PR rep at Mission Barns told me—it might appeal to flexibility enthusiasts like myself who want to eat just less meat.
While there’s no guarantee it will taste as good at home as it does when prepared by a private chef at Mission Barns, with its realistic texture and flavor, cultured fats could solve the main problem plaguing plant-based meats: They just don’t taste good. . . Trans fats are “the next step in making eco-friendly foods more palatable to the average consumer,” Jennifer Partachos, packaged food analyst for Bloomberg Intelligence, told me.
But cultured fats still face some of the same problems that prevented plant-based meats from being used in America. The current products on sale are not particularly healthy, and cultured fats are not going to change that fact. Building consumer confidence and knowledge can also be an issue. Some people are wary of vegan products because they’re confused about what they’re made of. The more sophisticated idea of implanted fat may be just as unappetizing, if not more so. “We still don’t know exactly how consumers will feel about the implanted fat,” Gere said. Finding a catchy name for these products would certainly help, but I had a hard time finding a term less weighty than “vegetarian meat flavored with cultured animal fat” to describe what I ate. Unless cultured fat companies really endorse their marketing, they can go down the “blend meat” route — a mixture of plant-based protein and real meat introduced by three meat companies in 2019, which was “a bit of a marketing failure,” Gere said.
Above all, the price in relation to the price of traditional meat. The high cost of plant-based meat has been partly blamed on the industry’s slump, and products that contain cultured fats will likely not be cheaper in the near future. None of the founders I spoke with shared specific numbers; Fisher, of Mission Barns, said only that the company’s small scale of production makes it “fairly pricey” compared to traditional meat products, while Steele said he hopes companies using Hoxton Farms-grown fat in their vegan meat recipes “must win.” To spend more than they are spending now.
Despite these hurdles, cultured fats hold promise for the struggling vegan meat industry due to the fact that they are so delicious. The implanted fats could “lead to a new round of innovation that draws consumers back,” Bartachos said. After all, vegan and real meat could reach cost parity around 2026, at which point more companies may want meat alternatives. Cultured fat may warm us to the future of fully grown meat. With enough time, battered chicken breasts can get just as boring as regular chicken breasts.
Enthusiasm about cultured fats, and fake meat in general, has a distinctly optimistic flavor, as if convincing all meat-eaters to embrace plants slathered with bacon fat would be easy. “Our goal is ultimately to beat the current traditional meat prices, whether it’s meatballs or bacon,” Fisher said. But even though the problems with eating meat are becoming more apparent, meat consumption in the United States has continued to rise. Globally, meat consumption in countries like India and China is expected to rise dramatically in the coming years. At the very least, cultured fats provide consumers with another option at one time when eating steak for one meal and then choosing plant-based meats the next can be considered a gain.
Since the tasting, I’ve often thought about why eating the bacon made me so baffled. When I bit into the crunchy, golden edge of one of the slices, I knew I was eating real bacon grease, but my mind still wrestled with the idea that it didn’t come directly from a piece of pork. I only knew a world where animal fat came from butchered animals. This is changing. If cultured fats can push the plant-based meat industry to make lab-grown meat a reality, these new products will do their part. In the meantime, we may find that it is already good enough.