Have you ever eaten a meat or dairy substitute? The Impossible Burger? Vegan cheese? Nondairy ice cream? If so, did you enjoy it? How did it compare with the real thing? If not, would you ever try such products? Why or why not?
I spend nearly as much time talking about how I want to stop eating meat as I do eating it. I care about animals and the environment and, even more, virtue signaling about how much I care about animals and the environment. I just don’t want to make any effort or sacrifice any pleasure.
Lucky for me, a slew of venture-backed companies want to help me with my lazy altruism. They envision a world where we sit down for dinner and brag that no animals were harmed in the production of this carbon-neutral porterhouse. They want to Impossible Burger our entire diet. They want me to shift from farm-to-table to lab-to-table.
It’s beginning to work. Consumer sales of the increasingly impressive simulacra of meat, eggs and dairy products grew 24 percent from 2015 to 2020, according to the market research company NPD Group — and 89 percent of those people are, like me, not vegetarians.
I wanted to see just how realistic the lab-to-table future could be, so I decided to throw a dinner party filled with bleeding edge products that don’t bleed. The carefully chosen guest list would consist of my lovely wife, Cassandra, and our 11-year-old son, Laszlo, mostly because of the pandemic, and partly because it was going to be hard to find friends eager to consume bacon made from fungi and ice cream spit out by microflora.
It took me two months to gather the items for my party. They had to be animal-free and environmentally friendly and made in a sci-fi-impressive manner. They’d include not just food, but all the wow factors like jewelry and beauty products that could make a dinner at home with the same three people for the 300th day in a row feel like a party.
When I began shopping for our event, I learned that there are a lot of complicated methods to make basic things. You can mix together a lot of plants to approximate a pre-existing product, which is what Beyond Meat does for burgers with pea protein, canola oil, coconut oil and 14 other ingredients.
You can find a breed of mycelium (the root system of fungi) that approximates a particular meat texture and call it something like “beef fauxginoff.” Or you can insert DNA into algae, bacteria or fungi so they spit out whatever protein you want.
The newest tech is growing real animal cells the way you grow human organs from stem cells. You take different kinds of lab-grown muscle with different kinds of lab-grown fat, layer them in just the right order, and you may get, as more than a dozen companies are working on, Wagyu beef, lobster or foie gras.
You can also combine these methods, as Impossible Burger does, using soy, coconut oil and a tiny bit of heme — an iron-y, blood-like, soy protein spit out by DNA-manipulated yeast.