Fake food starts ups in Silicon Valley envisage a future where omelets are made without breaking eggs, meat is produced without killing, and ersatz edibles are the new normal. Investors like the co-founders of Twitter, and Bill Gates, have put their money where their mouth is, by putting venture capital into transforming the food industry. What Google did to information, and Apple did to phones, they plan to do with what we eat.
Hampton Creek Foods is one of the new companies using science to cook up new methods of food production – not in fields or on farms – but in a laboratory. They are calling it “transformative agriculture.” Founder Josh Tetrick, 33, is passionate about breaking dependency on factory farming. He hates the way that chickens are packed into cages so tight that they cannot flap their wings, and that they never see the sunlight or feel the ground under their feet. Inside these rows of cages are birds pumped full of antibiotics, corn and soy. He thinks there has to be a better way.
To this end, he is on a mission, not so much to crack, as to hack, the egg. With his team, he has set out to discover and de-code all the unique properties of an egg from foaming to coagulating to making muffins rise and beyond. He admits that as an “unbelievable miracle of nature” the egg is a hard one to beat, but the system used to supply them is unsustainable. However there is an insatiable marketplace out there. Factory eggs are valued at $213.7bn in the US alone.
Tetrick’s reinvented egg product, named Beyond Eggs, has a fan and investor in Bill Gates. The Microsoft boss tasted it at a Khosla Ventures conference, where he was unable to tell the difference between blueberry muffins baked with and without. He has also put money into fake meat and substitute salt. He was vocal in his support for all three products when he spoke at The Future of Food. Gates said we were on the brink of a new major innovation, and that protein-rich diet was what was needed by millions of peoples worldwide.
The actual science is secretive at this stage, for obvious patent reasons, but the food tecchies are using plant proteins and putting them through a process called gel electrophoresis, which is the same technique used in analysis of DNA. When the proteins are isolated they are then put through a mill.
They say the processing is not that intensive although there have been questions asked about hexane, used to bathe soy beans, which has toxic emissions. Hampton Creek Foods do not use soya beans, but lots of the fake food start-ups do, especially in the creation of fake meats. Hexane is not regulated by the FDA do the longer term implications of consuming its residue remain unknown.
Beyond Meat, who are not a sister company of Beyond Eggs, use soy in their substitute chicken but they say they don’t use hexane. Lots of consumers want to lower their meat consumption, and many more are advised by their doctors to do so. “With 9 billion people on the planet to feed,” says Amol Deshpande, spokesman for Kleiner Perkins who fund Beyond Meat, “we have to think more broadly.”
Vegetarian meat-lookalike options have been around for a long while, but the trouble with a lot of them is in the taste. It is very difficult to replicate the mix of fat and protein that is found in animal meats. The fat in real meat gives it flavor and as the proteins are broken down by cooking they make a texture almost impossible to mimic. Herbert Stone was on the food science team for the first Apollo space quest and he became the president of the Institute of Food Technologists. He says that the problem lies with the soy protein most often used, which is fat-free. Veggie burgers never taste like burgers, and never have the teeth-tearing consistency of muscle.
Stone, and others, now believe that Beyond Meat might have broken through this barrier. Their lead scientist is Fung-ho Hsieh, and he has been working on the issue for ten years now, based out of the University of Missouri. He has developed a way to break down all the proteins in soy and peas and then reassemble them again, so that they resemble flesh. Their fake beef crumbles will go on sale this year. They are not trying to make dull dutiful patties. They want to fully resemble the taste and texture of real meat.
Beyond Eggs will also be hitting more shelves. Their mayonnaise, made without breaking eggs, has been available in WholeFoods since last September, and with another$1m investment from Founders Fund, they also claim to be working alongside Heinz. Founders Fund were one of the first to ever put money into Facebook and Napster.
Last August, another Silicon Valley giant, Serge Brin, the co-founder of Google, showed off the world’s first lab-grown burger, a project which cost a quarter of a million dollars to develop. The initial tasting was live-streamed and watched all over the world. It got a reasonably good reception from the food critics, although they were still missing the fat content. That burger was evolved from the blood of fetal calves so would not have been suitable for vegetarians.
Many consumers intrinsically dislike the idea of food that originates from a laboratory, and there is strong opposition in many corners to the (unrelated) efforts by some governments to introduce genetically modified crops. However, much of what we consider to be “real” food may not be. A recent haul by a council run laboratory in West Yorkshire, England, found vast numbers of products that were not what they claimed to be.
They found pizzas with “ham” on them, that was no such thing, instead it was a compound of so-called “meat emulsion.” Either that or it was poultry stained pink. They found herbal teas containing neither tea nor herbs. The tea was glucose powder missed with an obesity medication available only on prescription. That was bad enough, but the obesity medicine was 13 times the recommended dosage. Frozen prawns were 50% water glaze. Beef mince contained high proportions of pork.
In this one sample 4o percent of the 900 food products were falsely labeled and misleading. Experts fear that widespread budget cuts have led to manufacturers cutting corners to save costs, and then hoping to get away with it. Fruit juice was found to contain a flame retardant, and vodka was made with antifreeze.
No wonder consumer trust in the food industry is at an all-time low. Food scandals like these are becoming quite common. If “real’ food is so fake, there is more of a chance that real “fake food” might catch on. Europol seized “thousands of tones” of fake food in an Operation called Opson III which took place across 33 countries, including the US last month. 685 tonnes of that haul was seafood which had been poorly preserved. The head of Interpol said that people would be surprised if they knew how much food and drink was being counterfeited.
Will Silicon Valley once again ride to the rescue with their world-changing ideas? Khosla Ventures certainly thinks so. As well as backing Beyond Eggs eggless eggs and Beyond Meats meatless meat, it is behind Kite Hill, a chesseless cheese. These are nutmilk cheeses. Kite Hill are also already in WholeFoods and their dairy-free cheeses are going down well with vegans, vegetarians and regular cheese-addicts. 60 percent of their buyers are not lactose intolerant.
All these Silicon Valley innovators are proving that there is an alternative to intensive farming. In the future, it will almost certainly be possible to make an omelet without breaking eggs, and without any caged chickens having had to suffer.