Much like cracking digital codes on security locks or breaking deadbolts guarding vaults or well-protected buildings, unlocking the secrets of plant-based meat and other alternatives to animal foods requires a large set of keys. . At UC Berkeley’s Alternative Meats X-Lab, scholars, researchers, students, and entrepreneur-led incubator partners arrive at the front door of the burgeoning food business with a variety of credentials and a range of motivations, interests and expertise.
Originally started to study the reproduction of animal meat with plant resources, the Alt Meat Lab housed at the Sutardja Center for Entrepreneurship & Technology at the College of Engineering is also developing alternatives to eggs, dairy and seafood. Courses offered to undergraduate and graduate students from multiple disciplines feature hands-on, rigorous, science-based projects. Simultaneously, the lab functions as a hub connecting students with entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and industry leaders working in the field.
Lab co-director Celia Homyak’s initial connection to plant-based foods began 10 years ago when she eliminated animal foods during a self-imposed 100-day experiment without processed foods.
“I stuck to it for health reasons and eventually learned the agricultural and animal impacts of eating meat,” she said. “Understand: I grew up in the Midwest, on a farm, eating the 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 vegan. He began to wonder what the world they will inherit will look like.
“I wanted to know why my kids thought being vegan would help the planet,” he said.
Although there are multiple reasons driving the field – climate crisis, human health, animal welfare, sustainable agriculture, fascination with food culture, entrepreneurial innovation, interest in chemistry, the economics involved and more – Homyak thinks the concerns environmental issues regarding the impact of agriculture and easier access to plant-based foods for the general public are the main drivers.
“Now it’s the climate crisis – and it’s easy to introduce plant-based foods into your life. You can walk into any grocery store story and try it.
San Martin presents a more complex overall position.
“Energy is geo-dependent on where you are on the planet. In the United States or in Africa and other countries and regions, the motivation is different. For people in the class (at the ‘UC Berkeley), this often relates to the feeling that the planet will soon collapse. There is urgency. But again, it depends on where you are. (In) some countries like Mexico, you better eat beans and rice because you won’t find processed plant-based foods.
Courses provide students with information covering a range of topics and applications: nutritional comparisons of plant protein sources with key animal-based ingredients and how components work in a product; chemical treatment, cost analysis; development of prototypes; evolving FDA guidelines; marketing and packaging; and business ethics related to transparency, to name a few.
Principals say students should not only learn the methods by which peas are ground into flour and made into isolate or the building blocks of plant protein that distinguish them from animal muscle, they should respect science, their craft and ultimate industry customers: consumers.
Students come to the lab from business, economics, and other fields — not just biology, chemistry, technology, agriculture, or environmental science. According to San Martin, misconceptions about the nutritional value and production costs of plant-based products need to be dispelled and some MBA students come in believing that “a wonderful PowerPoint and a confident pitch will be enough to win investors over.”
Coursework emphasizes the limits of science and understanding the boundaries of what is true and what is not.
“They can get money, but the science is getting very complex. It’s easier to start with someone who has a highly technical knowledge base and then teach them about marketing and scaling,” he says.
Homyak says the project-focused lab has students partnered with people in industry, a practice that effectively exposes a lab expert to interface with investors and the market as they make a very complex product understandable. As the lab expands beyond plant-based meat substitutes, a market-savvy approach is the frame of reference.
“The beverage and milk line is crowded and growing more slowly than other areas,” says Homyak, explaining why expanding into new ingredients for plant-based dairy products like cheese opens up more possibilities. “Existing plant-based cheese has deficiencies that make it far removed from the texture that melts (dairy) cheese on a burger or in a sauce.”
Plant-based products always lack the flavor and creamy flavor of dairy cheese.
“One cheese I tasted tasted like throwing up. Another tasted chemical, another tasted like butter. Parmesan has the closest flavors, so they put it in cheddar, which means that ‘It doesn’t taste like cheddar anymore,’ says Homyak.
Harnessing nature by identifying how plant proteins are changed during fermentation – a natural process – or other means can unfold into less processed techniques in the mix-and-match game. San Martin insists, however, that a prominent “enemy” of innovative progress is America’s preoccupation with oversized fast food.
“Here you have the biggest brew, the tower of the Whopper. Everything is huge. With this culture, how can a plant-based product impact the overall sustainability of the food industry? Culture is not sustainable. You go to McDonald’s and get a vegan burger, but you have the same plastic wrapper, it’s all disposable.
The World Resources Institute, as reported in Time Magazine, states that “reducing beef consumption in high-consumption countries by 1.5 burgers per week per person could lead to significant climate gains.”
In the current large-scale scenario, San Martin predicts that plant-based foods will have limited environmental and health impacts. He says his hope will be restored, however, if change in the massive food industry happens that respects the health of humans, animals and the planet. A cultural shift could mean that the projects incubated at the lab are key to unlocking the gateway and the 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.