April 10, 2015

A little potato, a little steak, and a vegetable boiled into submission.

The dinner plate that reigned for decades has now started to morph. As the costs - monetary and otherwise - of producing protein rise, many startups are looking for alternatives. 

"There's nothing more powerful that anyone in our generation and our lifespan can do than change out the three to four ounces at the center of the plate, away from animal protein and toward plant protein," says Ethan Brown, the CEO of Beyond Meat. His company is striving to make a product that tastes exactly the same as the burgers and chicken you're used to. 

"What we're looking at doing is changing something that people have done for over two million years," explains Brown. We're getting to a point where it's hard to produce meat more efficiently than factory production already does, he argues; but if you look at it scientifically, the elements that make meat up can be found elsewhere. 

"I would argue that what we [Beyond Meat] do produce is meat, and you just need to look at it from the perspective of composition versus origin." 

Where Beyond Meat looks for ways to produce "meat" out of plants, Bitty Foods does essentially the opposite: it takes protein and turns it into a flour-like substance, which the company can then substitute for wheat.

And the protein that CEO Megan Miller works with? Crickets. 

"We turn this cricket protein into an ingredient that can be used in all kinds of baked goods and snack foods to raise their protein content," she explains. While her products differ from Brown's, she agrees that it's tough to get people to change their eating habits.

"We're not going to be able to take whole insects and put them on Americans' plates and say, 'This is the future! Eat this!" she admits. "But if we turn it into something really familiar that can sort of slide into the diet that people are already comfortable with, that's a much better way to introduce people to this food."

Why insects? It's a product that's really sustainable, explains Miller; growing crickets uses hardly any water (especially useful for California in this time of drought), and insects can eat food that humans leave behind.

There's still probably a long way to go before veggie meat or crickets become more mainstream, but Miller is optimistic:

"I think we're still on the very cusp of the change that we need to see. There are starting to be more and more companies that are interested in innovating around protein, which is going to be the problem as our world population grows. It's the most resource-intensive nutrient in the human diet."

Funding for Innovation Hub's environmental and sustainability reporting is provided by The Kendeda Fund: furthering the values that contribute to a healthy planet.

Green, Megan Miller, food, Ethan Brown, Kara Miller

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