Where's the Meat? With plant-based protein products becoming a bigger commodity every day, Seed World wanted to get the skinny on how plant-based foods look so much like their meat counterparts.

Plant-based proteins. Just mentioning the idea can stir up a room — immediately, people take sides. Pro meat, neutral or pro plant-based. It’s hard not to have an opinion on them, even though many people haven’t had the chance to taste these proteins.

However, according to the website Plant Based Foods, there’s been a 14.7% growth of plant-based proteins since 2014, and by 2020, the global plant-based protein market is projected to reach $5 billion. While there might be strong opinions about plant-based proteins, there’s also an increasing curiosity amongst the global market.

“In the past few years, there’s been a growing global awareness in the U.S. and over the world. People are starting to understand that we live in a finite world and resources matter,” says Udi Lazimy, senior sustainability and sourcing manager at JUST, a company based in San Francisco, Calif., that has been researching and working with plant-based foods and cultured meat.

“We wanted to look at how to make the food system better, and we think that plant-based solutions offer a path to solve a lot of the problems within our current food system,” he says.

Nick Halla, senior vice president, International, Impossible Foods agrees. After growing up on a dairy farm and working at General Mills, Halla believes our current food system isn’t working.

“From the economic challenges in agriculture and the resource pressure, there’s plenty of problems popping up in our land resources,” Halla says. “The life we grew up with doesn’t exist anymore — instead, we need to change the system and how it’s run.”

Both companies saw different answers to this problem and created two different, unique products.

Impossible Foods saw a huge problem in the fact that animal agriculture occupies almost half the land on Earth and consumes a quarter of our freshwater. Their solution? Let’s not use animals again, and instead, create a copycat beef product made of these plant proteins. And thus, the Impossible Burger was formed.

JUST Egg gets its unique texture from mung beans, which scramble like real eggs.

JUST saw that the food system’s tools were limited, and there were a lot of underused foods that could provide tremendous benefit to them instead of the core ingredients that big food companies use: soy, corn, processed sugar and animal protein. After a lot of exploring, JUST created JUST Egg, a plant-based, protein-packed product that cooks up and tastes like real eggs.

“Animal protein isn’t necessary to create really good food,” Lazimy says. “We’re looking to use plant protein to replace things like eggs and dairy, because they aren’t necessary if plants can function the same way. We think it’ll make everything much more sustainable.”

To produce these products, both companies had to think outside of the box when it came to ingredients.

The Impossible Burger mixes a few different proteins together: soy protein to get the “chew” right, potato protein for the form and texture, and heme, which is found in all meat products, to give it the flavor. To make the Impossible Burgers sizzle like meat, they’ve included sunflower oil to create the fat.

“You have to look at protein production in different leaves and seeds to see what would help mimic the meat look and taste,” Halla says. “We’ve learned that some of these crops are incredibly difficult to grow — that’s why there’s a lot of widescale corn, wheat and sorghum production. They’re so robust.”

To get its meaty flavor, the Impossible Burger uses a molecule called heme.

“These protein rich seeds are excellent to use — in JUST Egg, we’ve found that when we isolate the mung bean protein in a raw state, it behaves just like an egg protein when you scramble it in a pan,” Lazimy says. “Unlike soy, mung bean has very little evidence of deforestation and it has low water use.”

But the real question we want to know… Are these plant-based proteins considered to be healthier than their meat alter-egos?

“We do believe plant-based products are healthier,” Lazimy says. “There’s a lot of scientific background that shows people have a difficult time digesting red meats. Our egg protein has zero cholesterol, unlike regular egg products. With a plant-based diet, everything can still be healthy and you still get all the nutrition you need, but of course, a balanced diet is most important.”

Impossible Foods hasn’t stopped trying to make the Impossible Burger healthier — in January 2019, they released a new recipe for the burger that cut the sodium 30% from the original recipe, as well as reducing the saturated fat by 40%.

“As we keep thinking of ways to improve the Impossible Burger, nutrition is on the top of our mind,” Halla says. “We’re constantly looking to make it healthier, and that’s what we’re hoping the Impossible Burger version two accomplishes.”

Both companies truly believe that to feed the world’s population by 2050, farmers, seed companies and food companies need to work together to change our food system. For them, plant-based proteins mean the future of agriculture’s value chain.

“Change can be scary,” Halla says. “But there are huge opportunities in the space of plant-based proteins. If we can add more value back into the value chain, then we can have a much more diverse and sustainable world.”

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