We’re entering the third wave of meat alternatives. First, there was the Gardenburger — a hockey puck-like object that made it less annoying to be a vegetarian at a barbecue. Next came the meat substitutes that really tried to replicate the look, feel, and experience of meat, like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat. Now lab-grown meat, once the stuff of science fiction, is on the horizon, edging towards feasibility. After billions of dollars spent, will any of these alternatives help to solve the climate, environmental, and ethical problems with meat? Dan and his pal Jacob Goldstein, host of the podcast What’s Your Problem?, meet in the Sporkful test kitchen (aka Dan’s home kitchen) to cook their way through the past, present, and future of meat alternatives.
What’s Your Problem? is the show where entrepreneurs and engineers talk about the future they’re trying to build – and the problems they have to solve to get there.
The Sporkful production team includes Dan Pashman, Emma Morgenstern, Andres O'Hara, Tracey Samuelson, and Jared O'Connell, with additional production help this week from Jacob Goldstein and Edith Rousselot.
Interstitial music in this episode by Black Label Music:
- "Clean" by J.T. Bates
- "Feel Real Good" by William Van De Crommert
- "On The Floor" by Cullen Fitzpatrick
- "New Old" by J.T. Bates
Photo courtesy of Sherry Heck/Eat Just.
Jacob Goldstein: Dan Pashman, host of the Sporkful podcast.
Dan Pashman Jacob Goldstein, host of the podcast What's Your Problem?
Jacob Goldstein: I am here in your kitchen, in the Sporkful test kitchen.
Dan Pashman: Welcome. So we're old friends. We've collaborated back when you were at Planet Money. And you're more like business tech, economics reporter guy, and I'm more nerdy food guy.
Jacob Goldstein: Yes. And we found a story that is the crossover podcast event of 2023. Right?
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS]
Jacob Goldstein: And the story is this. So …
Dan Pashman: We'll go with that. Sure.
Jacob Goldstein: We'll go with that. Come on?
Dan Pashman: Yeah. [LAUGHS]
Dan Pashman: This is The Sporkful. It's not for foodies, it's for eaters. I'm Dan Pashman. Each week on our show, we obsess about food to learn more about people. And I'm coming to you for my kitchen with my friend Jacob Goldstein, host of the podcast, What's Your Problem?.
Jacob Goldstein The show where entrepreneurs and engineers talk about how they're gonna … change the world! The show where entrepreneurs and engineers talk about how they're gonna change the world once they solve a few problems.
Dan Pashman: You gotta work on memorizing your own tagline, Jacob.
Jacob Goldstein: Yeah, I'm kind of anti-tagline at this point. Like, people know what the show is. They push play.
Dan Pashman: Yes, yes.
Pashman: Today Jacob, we’re going to talk about the past, present, and future of alternatives to meat.
Jacob Goldstein: Meat from animals is clearly a problem in the world right now. Right? It's a huge driver of climate change, a huge driver of land loss, of biodiversity decline. And so, this is a real high stakes problem in the world, and people are spending billions of dollars to try and come up with new technologies to give us meat without animals. And I know a lot has been said about this, but I really feel like we have interesting new big stuff to say here.
Dan Pashman: That's right. Things have changed in the past year. Some of the things that looked very promising are struggling. Some of the things that felt like pipe dreams are becoming more real. So we're gonna get into all of that.
Jacob Goldstein: The moment that sort of sets the stage for our story really, hippies essentially. Right? Hippie vegetarians.
Dan Pashman: Right.
Jacob Goldstein: And there is this chef who is kind of hippie adjacent. His name's Paul Wenner and in the seventies he has this restaurant in Portland, Oregon. It's called The Garden House. And he wants to figure out what to do with his leftover food at the end of the day. And, you know, he's got rice pilaf, he's got just sort of random veggies, and he tries a few things. And he comes up with basically making it into a patty and cooking it and putting it between two buns. And he calls it "The Gardenburger". This Gardenburger that he invents in his restaurant, becomes the garden burger that was the go-to veggie burger in the eighties and definitely in the nineties.
Dan Pashman: But it wasn't a high end thing. It was almost the kind of thing where like when a bowling alley wanted to offer something vegetarian, they would have the garden burger, you know, or a chain restaurant or like a one level above a diner type place.
Jacob Goldstein: Yeah. And you could also buy it at the store and you can't get the Gardenburger anymore. Just last year actually, it got phased out. But I think you got sort of the closest thing, right?
Dan Pashman: That's right. Let me step over here to my freezer. [OPENS FRIDGE] And I have [TAKES OUT PACKAGE] Morningstar Farms Garden Veggie Burgers. Frozen.
Jacob Goldstein: Let’s cook one up while we're talking about it, yeah?
Dan Pashman: Let's do it.
[GAS STOVE TURNS ON]
Jacob Goldstein: So let's just say before we even put it in, the veggie burger starts out brown.
Dan Pashman: It looks to me — actually, it looks kind of like a hash brown.
Jacob Goldstein: Right.
Dan Pashman: It's got a brownish, almost like pureed potato type vibe.
Jacob Goldstein: Unlike meat. Right?
Dan Pashman: Right. [LAUGHS]
Jacob Goldstein: Like, it's not really supposed to be like meat. Right? It's supposed to be a thing you can eat between a bun when your friends are eating meat.
Dan Pashman: So now we're gonna put the veggie burger into the pan. Let's see what kind of sound it makes. [SIZZLE] Oh, there's a little bit of sizzle, but not much.
Jacob Goldstein: Yeah, I think ... I think the sizzle is just like cause it's maybe a little icy from the freezer?
DAN: So what happens to Paul Wenner and his restaurant in Portland?
Jacob Goldstein: In the 80s he he winds up closing the restaurant, but "The Gardenburger" turns into this product. He turns the gardenburger into this thing you can buy at the grocery store, that restaurants buy to have a sort of token option for vegetarians. You know, it fills a need. In the nineties, if you wanna get something for vegetarians at the barbecue, you pick up a pack of Gardenburgers. It's the go-to veggie burger of the era.
Dan Pashman: Right. It's functional.
Jacob Goldstein: That's a great word for it. And that's why Gardenburger gets so big. It's doing a job in society. And this company, blew up. It did great.
CLIP (NARRATOR): Gardenburger is sprouting up everywhere!
CLIP (NEWS ANCHOR): The stars eat them. The president may eat them and millions more are joining in. Tonight, meet the main man of meat ...
CLIP (PAUL WENNER): Millions and millions of Gardenburgers in thirteen countries and it still amazes me. I used to know everybody that ate Gardenburgers. So ... [AUDIENCE LAUGHS] ...
Jacob Goldstein: In the nineties, the Gardenburger's a big deal. The company actually has an IPO, it goes public. They sell stock. This chef who ran a vegetarian restaurant in Portland is like a multimillionaire from it.
CLIP (NARRATOR): His home, an extraordinary collection of art deco treasures. But he shows off with the enthusiasm of child.
Jacob Goldstein: And maybe peak Gardenburger comes in the late nineties. It's huge. The stock is doing well. They advertise on the Seinfeld finale.
Dan Pashman: Wow.
Jacob Goldstein: Which is like, you don't get more nineties than that.
Dan Pashman: That's like Super Bowl ad level.
Jacob Goldstein: Yeah.
CLIP (NARRATOR): [MUSIC] Oh no! Edna wants something tasty and healthy. Yum. Gardenburger. The burger with no meat. Edna Squeals with delight.
Jacob Goldstein: So they were big time. And Samuel L. Jackson ...
Dan Pashman: That's huge.
Jacob Goldstein: Narrating their kind of strange Seinfeld ad
Dan Pashman: Yeah. So the instructions say that we should heat burgers 7-8 minutes turning frequently throughout heating time. So, I've got my spatula ready. I'm going to turn the burgers periodically and while we hang out and cook Jacob why don’t you continue your story.
Jacob Goldstein: So now it's the 2000s and the Gardenburger isn't the only mediocre veggie burger game in town anymore.
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHING]
Jacob Goldstein: There is enough competition that you can't just get by on being the one anymore. And Gardenburger eventually goes bankrupt in 2005.
Dan Pashman: And if I remember correctly, Kellog’s purchased Gardenburger, and they kept selling these patties for year. Like they discontinued them last year. But Kellogg's also owns Morningstar, which is the company that makes this Gardenburger adjacent patty that we have on the skillet right now.
Jacob Goldstein: And it looks like it's done, actually. Should we eat it?
Dan Pashman: Yeah. We have ketchup, we have mustard, and then I have my burger sauce, which is basically Shake Shack sauce.
Jacob Goldstein: I'm in your hands.
Dan Pashman: All right. Let's do the shack sauce then.
Dan Pashman: You know, they don't give out the recipe for the Shack sauce, but I don't know if you know the recipe developer, Kenji Lopez-Alt, Jacob? …
Jacob Goldstein: You will not mistake it for a hamburger.
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS] No.
Dan Pashman: And just kind of like mushy. With that being said, eating this does take me back. It's got a little more of a pepper taste than I remember, but just that sort of that texture, that kind of crispy edges and mushy interior. It still scratches a nostalgia itch for me, I gotta say.
Jacob Goldstein: Not for me. I'd rather like eat Cheetos or something if I want nostalgia food.
Dan Pashman: Right.
Jacob Goldstein: Gardenburger and the similar burgers, they are, veggie burger 1.0 the sort of basic puck. You can eat like a burger if you don't eat meat. And so around 2010, we get the start of this really different new era in veggie burgers. You know, the old one was hippies, vegetarians, natural. The new one is Silicon Valley, high tech like engineered in a lab. And there are two companies in particular that get founded in Silicon Valley. You know what they are? Say the names.
Dan Pashman: I'm gonna go with Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods.
Jacob Goldstein: Very good. And I have to say, I have been a big customer of these companies. My wife doesn't eat meat, my daughter doesn't eat meat. And our definite preference in our house is for Impossible.
Dan Pashman: And I can say having tried both, I agree that I like the Impossible better.
Jacob Goldstein: So partly because of that, I talked with Pat Brown, the founder of Impossible. He does not come from a food background. He was not a chef. He was a Stanford biochemist who spent his career studying the genome. And then, one day as one does, Pat Brown thinks to himself, let me think about what are the biggest problems in the world that I might work on. And he decides not to start a podcast, but rather [DAN PASHMAN LAUGHS] he decides that the biggest problems in the world are climate change and the decline in biodiversity. And he decides the way to fight those for him personally is to start a company that can make fake meat that's as good as real meat without using animals. And so his goal in starting this company and starting Impossible is to entirely replace real meat with fake meat.
CLIP (PAT BROWN): This industry is supported by people who love meat. Okay? And for us to compete them out of existence, we have to give them exactly what they want and do it better than the animal. I love vegetarians and vegans as much as next guys, but we don't accomplish anything by making better meat for vegans.
Dan Pashman: And that's a completely different project.
Jacob Goldstein: And it requires technology and science, right? So he's thinking about meat as a scientist. And in particular, he thinks about all the amazing things that happen when you cook meat.
CLIP (PAT BROWN): One of the striking characteristics of meat in general is that it behaves like an active chemical system. It starts out with one flavor profile, which is relatively not very strong, mostly bloody kind of, and when you cook it in a matter of minutes, it completely transforms. And in the process it produces this explosion of aromas that weren't there at the beginning.
CLIP (JACOB GOLDSTEIN): That’s why a barbecue smells so good, right?
CLIP (PAT BROWN): Exactly. Exactly. And you'll notice that you don't, you don't get any similar behavior if you barbecue broccoli.
Jacob Goldstein: You also don't get similar behavior when you cook a Gardenburger.
Dan Pashman: Right.
Jacob Goldstein: Right? It doesn't transform. It looks at the end, basically like it looks at the beginning.
Dan Pashman: Right.
Jacob Goldstein: And so, Pat Brown knows that he needs to capture that magic transformation that happens when you cook meat. And Pashman, I know you bought a couple of Impossible burgers also for us. Maybe we should start cooking those here.
Dan Pashman: Yeah, let's do it. All right, you wanna crack these open, Jacob?
Jacob Goldstein: [OPENING PACKAGE] Yeah. We've got two Impossible burgers here. And just to compare 'em to the Gardenburger, right? Like, the gardenburger looked brown like a piece of bread. These look red with little fleck of white, like ground beef.
Dan Pashman: And it was also interesting to me, you know, these are all the little details — the garden veggie burger, you keep it in the freezer. The instructions say keep frozen until cooking. The Impossible Burger label says, "Treat this just like meat. If you're gonna cook it, defrost it first." In practice, if the end result is good, in theory, it shouldn't really make a difference how it starts. But it made me feel like, oh, treat it like meat. It made it feel that much more like meat to me.
[STOVE AND COOKING]
Dan Pashman: That's a real sizzle. [SIZZLE] And you can see that the bottom of the burger, the part touching the pan is browning and changing color as it would for any normal burger.
Jacob Goldstein: Right. So it goes in red, burger color, and yeah, it looks not exactly like a burger but a lot like a burger.
Jacob Goldstein: So just to go back to the story of Pat Brown, he wants to capture that incredible smell and color and texture change that you get when you cook meat. And he thinks about this molecule called heme. Right? Heme is a naturally occurring molecule. There's a ton of it in meat. We also have it, right? You may have heard of hemoglobin in our blood. That's heme.
Dan Pashman: Hematologist is a blood doctor.
Jacob Goldstein: Very good.
Dan Pashman: Heme is in animals. It's a big part of what makes meat taste like meat. So Pat Brown has gotta a way to get heme into his burgers without animals. There’s a version of heme in soy, right?
Jacob Goldstein: Soy legheomglobin. It's a version of heme that occurs naturally in the roots of soybeans. It's very molecularly similar to the way heme occurs in meat. They decide to genetically engineer yeast cells to produce soy leghemoglobin. So this genetically engineered version of soy leghemoglobin works and it becomes essentially the secret sauce in Impossible meat.
Dan Pashman Should I prep these up?
Jacob Goldstein: Yeah, lets eat.
Dan Pashman: Gonna warm the buns.
Jacob Goldstein: So you cut in in half for us to split, and it is — what would you call this? Medium rare, I would say.
Dan Pashman: I would say medium rare.
Jacob Goldstein: There's a little line of pink in the middle.
Dan Pashman: Yes, that's right.
Jacob Goldstein: Okay, let's eat it.
Dan Pashman: The fact that this thing reacts like meat from the second you take it out of the fridge and that you can cook it medium rare and that it's even reminiscent of a burger is pretty amazing. That being said, you still wouldn't fool me in a taste test.
Jacob Goldstein: And can you, as a professional describer of food, like talk about why you still like the burger better?
Dan Pashman: So the things that this does have: It has a little bit of a crispy edge, like you get on a good burger. It has the texture down very well. It has a meatiness, but it's still a tenderness, like you would get with a good burger. It's still missing that hardcore beef note.
Jacob Goldstein: Yeah. Right.
Dan Pashman: It's like a band without a bass player.
Jacob Goldstein: I like it. So not bad, but the — you kind of miss something. You miss something that's important.
Dan Pashman: There's like an oomph. There's like a deep guttural oomph that isn't quite there.
Jacob Goldstein: Yeah. So let's go back to the story sort of on that note. So Pat Brown is making the Impossible Burger. The people at Beyond are making the Beyond Burger, and they come out in the teens, in the 2000 teens, and then there are a big moment, the real sort of rocket ship blast off, turns out to be the pandemic. It turns out to be 2020. I talked about this with Laura Reiley. She covers the business of food for the Washington Post.
CLIP (LAURA REILEY): A lot of us, you know, let's say March of 2020, through the end of that year, a lot of us had a lot of time on our hands. We were panic eating frequently, and we were looking for new things to do. So a lot of us at least dabbled in the whole kind of alt meat space.
Jacob Goldstein: Also, the Impossible Whopper. The Impossible Burger comes out at Burger King just before the pandemic in 2019. And during the pandemic that wound up being big for my family. Obviously, we weren't going out to restaurants, but drive-throughs were still open. Not everybody in my family eats meat. And I have to say that is my favorite version of the Impossible Burger is the Impossible Whopper.
CLIP (LAURA REILEY): It was pretty successful. I mean, it wasn't a smash, but what every fast food restaurant wants to do, and they've tried all different things over the years, salads, et cetera, they wanna remove veto power. So you have a family of four and mom says, "I don't feel like a burger." So, you know, that's what you're always trying to do. You wanna have enough menu items that you can appeal, you can find something for that person who would veto it.
Dan Pashman: You know, what's interesting about that is that's actually the same motivation as the Gardenburger. You know, we have one person who we can't please with the regular menu, so we're gonna have this thing in the freezer.
Jacob Goldstein: And it is also not the dream of Pat Brown at Impossible Foods. Not the dream of Beyond. Right?
Dan Pashman: Right. Right.
Jacob Goldstein: It's, again, not quite there yet. But it's good enough, right, that in 2020 it's new. That is like the big boom for fake meat. Both, you know, the Impossible Whopper, people are, are buying at grocery stores. Everything's great. It feels like we're in this new era of fake meat.
Dan Pashman: Until we get to 2022, which is when everything changes.
Jacob Goldstein: Just last year is when really the kind of air starts coming out of the fake meat bubble and you see this in a lot of different ways. One place you see it is the most important fast food restaurant, McDonald's, which in early 2022 comes out with its McPlant Burger, which is a, a collaboration with Beyond.
CLIP (LAURA REILEY): They were massively late to the game. And they debuted it in the SF Bay Area, the McPlant, and also in Dallas Fort Worth.
CLIP (JACOB GOLDSTEIN): So they roll out the McPlant in early 2022 and what happens?
CLIP (LAURA REILEY): It bombs.
Jacob Goldstein: And they basically — they cancel the McPlant. So okay. So the failure of the McPlant, that's like piece of bad news number one in 2022 for this new era of fake meat. But there's more bad news. One thing that happens is just the growth really stops, right? This sector had been growing, growing, growing at the beginning of the pandemic, and now it's not growing anymore, essentially. One theory of why that happened is that people tried it, it was a novelty, and like, kind of like you, it sounds like. They were like, yeah, it's pretty good. I would eat it. But I don't like it enough to like keep buying it. But I actually think the most important thing that hurt fake meat last year was inflation. Food inflation was particularly high and fake meat, crucially, big problem, they haven't solved yet. Not only is it not quite as good as real meat, it's way more expensive and people are feeling acutely higher prices at the grocery store. It's like, no, I'm not gonna pay more for this thing that's not quite as good.
Jacob Goldstein: Laura Reiley, the Washington Post reporter, she says, "We do need another sort of technological leap forward. In the same way that there was a leap from the Gardenburger to the Impossible burger, we need the next one of those. We need the next technological leap."
CLIP (LAURA REILEY): What's been launched so far is mostly patties or nuggets. What we need next in order to kind of grow the category is we need things that are really thought of more as ingredients. You know what I mean? Like that I'm making — I'm having friends over tonight and two of them are veg. So I'm gonna make a stir fry with this plant-based sliced chicken. The boneless, skinless chicken breast is beloved by home cooks.
Dan Pashman: We need to get to whole pieces of meat.
Jacob Goldstein: Yeah exactly. We need meat.
Dan Pashman: Well coming up, Jacob, we're gonna hear about people growing meat right now. And we'll hear from our friend Sean Rameswaram who went out to California and tasted lab-grown meat.
Jacob Goldstein: Can't believe Sean scooped you on cultured meat.
Dan Pashman: I know. Well, he was willing to go to California.
Jacob Goldstein: [LAUGHS] He's still got that edge.
Dan Pashman: Yeah. The no kids edge …
Jacob Goldstein: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS]
Dan Pashman: Welcome back to The Sporkful, I’m Dan Pashman. And if you missed last week’s show, you missed a big on. I announced that I have teamed up with Sfoglini once again, and we have produced two new pasta shapes that are on sale right now!
Dan Pashman: For these two shapes, I went deep in the pasta shape archives, looking for obscure shapes that I wanted to share with the world. But before I could do that, I had to convince some of my toughest critics ... my family.
CLIP (DAN PASHMAN): All right, first ever taste of this pasta shape quattrotini.
CLIP (BECKY PASHMAN): It’s perfect in all three categories, like no offense to cascatelli.
CLIP (JANIE PASHMAN): I love it. I just hope it doesn’t take away from cascatelli sales. Cause I does it — eating it, it all three, right? Forkability, sauceability, toothsinkability.
CLIP (DAN PASHMAN): I think there’s room in the world for more than one great pasta shape.
Dan Pashman: Listen to last week’s episode to hear the story of these shapes and buy them now, only through Sfoglini's website. That's also where you'll see a link to buy these new cascatelli clutch purses, limited edition, by a designer named Julie Mollo. They're really cool and they're just for Valentine's Day. There's only a couple hundred of them. You can get all these things at at Sfoglini.com. That’s S-F-O-G-L-I-N-I.com
Dan Pashman: All right, I’m back in my kitchen with my friend and collaborator for this episode, Jacob Goldstein, host of the podcast What’s Your Problem? and we are talking about the past, present, and future of alternative meats.
Dan Pashman: Now, for the next and final stop on our journey, Jacob, I’ve been looking into cultured meat. Okay? This is where you take cells from a real animal, you take them into a lab and you grow meat using those cells. So in theory, if it works, it will be real meat. But you won't have raised or killed an animal to get it. Now the underlying technology here is not so new. Okay? The idea of like growing cells in a lab has been around for many decades. I mean, this is how they made the polio vaccine. What's new is using this technology to create something you might eat. Okay? [LAUGHS] Now, the first success with this was when a Dutch professor made a lab grown burger. That was in 2013. Okay?
Jacob Goldstein: 10 years ago.
Dan Pashman: Right.
Jacob Goldstein: Okay. So we're 10 years out in this new kind of era.
Dan Pashman: Now, just in the last few months, it's gotten a lot more real. Especially here in the U.S., because in November the FDA declared cultured chicken from one company, Upside Foods, to be safe for human consumption. That's a major milestone. Now it's still not gonna be in stores quite yet. It's gotta get past the USDA. And even when that happens, it's gonna be, you know, expensive and in just a few places. So it's still early days, but I mean, we talked about this in the Sporkful a few years ago, and my impression then was like, this is space age stuff. So the fact that it could be coming to any kind of stores soon seems like a major development to me.
Jacob Goldstein: I mean, I know sort of on the business tech side, there has been a ton of venture capital investment into fake meat, not just Beyond and Impossible, but to these kind of next generation cell culture, fake meat.
Dan Pashman: Although I would say, Jacob, I would not call it fake meat. It might not be a whole animal, but I think it's meat. And one company working on making cultured chicken and beef is called Eat Just. They already have a product in grocery stores you may have seen called Just Egg. It's a plant-based egg. And now they're getting into growing their own meat. To be clear, this is not the company that got the FDA approval, but they are one of the big players in this space. Their headquarters are in Alameda, California, just across the bridge from San Francisco. I wasn't able to visit, but my old friend, Sean Rameswaram, host of the excellent daily news podcast Today, Explained, he went there and saw it himself. Here's how he describes the setup at Eat Just.
Sean Rameswaram: And there's all these tubes. There's very serious scientists hard at work. There's like big chamber and fridges and steel, this and that, and rows and rows of lab equipment. It looks like, you know, there's like a billion covid tests going on at once with like, little droplets of this, going into little droplets of that.
Jacob Goldstein: I don't know that covid test is the metaphor I want for my cultured meat.
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS] I think he's saying, you know, there's that generic news reel footage that we've seen on TV 10,000 times now. Anytime they talk about covid and tests, you see those people in the coats with the droplets, and that's what it looks like.
Jacob Goldstein: It's sciency.
Dan Pashman: So after all these droplets that Sean described, the cells go into a bioreactor that speeds up their growth. And the bioreactors as they're described to me, they're like giant steel cylinders. They look like a brewery. You ever been to one of those restaurants that's also a brewery? You see the big steel tanks.
Jacob Goldstein: Sure.
Dan Pashman: It's like that. So to find out what happens next in those bioreactors, I talk to a scientist who works there.
Vitor Santo: So my name is Vitor Santo. I am the senior director of Cellar Agriculture at Good Meat, which is a subsidiary of Eat Just.
Dan Pashman: So Vitor Santo trained as a tissue engineer. In past jobs he worked on using cell cultures to regenerate human bone and cartilage. So he was in biotech and pharmaceuticals. Now he's growing meat. So once the cells are in the bioreactor …
Vitor Santo: We feed them a solution, so it's in a liquid form, and it's a combination of different nutrient. So think of protein, amino acid, fats, vitamins, fats ...
Dan Pashman: Like Miracle Gro but for meat.
Vitor Santo: [LAUGHS] Pretty much. Think of what you would feed [DAN PASHMAN LAUGHS] a chicken, like the solid feed [Dan Pashman: Right.] of a chicken, but you just turned that into a cultured broth.
Dan Pashman: But when the cells come outta that bioreactor, they're not done yet.
Vitor Santo: A lot of times people expect you to see a full steak or a chicken breast coming out of the bioreactor, but that's not really what happens. What you see is more like — think of a slurry or a concentrate, which doesn't have yet a lot of structure.
Dan Pashman: So, not that they asked, but my tip to them would be stop using the word slurry to describe any part of your process. [LAUGHS]
Jacob Goldstein: We don't want a slurry. We don't want bioreactor.
Dan Pashman: Right? [LAUGHS]
Jacob Goldstein: Like, basically, don't let a scientist talk to you. Just show me the chicken.
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS] Yeah. Like I don't want to eat meat. That at any point was a slurry.
Jacob Goldstein: No.
Dan Pashman: But so, they get the slurry and they need to make it into a chicken breast. And to do that, they need to add what they call scaffolding. All right? This is plant protein extract that is formed into 3D model of a piece of meat that the cells can then attach themselves to, in order to get the shape and the texture of a chicken breast. Now I know it sounds very sci-fi, but Vitor says it's not as far out as you might think.
Vitor Santo: And what we're doing in the bioreactors, to be honest, is just mimicking the natural process. We're just feeding instead, let's say, of having cells growing in tissues and organs and having blood circulating through them in the animal body, we're mimicking them but inside of a stainless steel bioreactor with this mixture of nutrients.
Dan Pashman: Now as we’ve been saying Jacob, the goal is to get whole cuts of meat, like a chicken breast. Right? But they had to start with a simpler project: the chicken nugget. And Vitor still remembers the first time that they made a chicken nugget that actually had the taste and texture of a chicken nugget.
Vitor Santo: It was a turning point, I would say, at Eat Just. It was a little like touching the moon [LAUGHS] ... almost.
Dan Pashman: In December of 2020, Singapore became the first country in the world to approve lab grown chicken for sale. And Eat Just began selling their chicken nuggets in one fancy club in Singapore. And since then, now it's another restaurants and places in Singapore. Now Eat Just is moving on to whole cuts of meat like chicken breasts.
Jacob Goldstein: Which seems like profoundly harder than a chicken nugget, right?
Dan Pashman: Yeah. I mean, you can kind of throw anything into ground meat or a chicken nugget and — you know, to mimic ...
Jacob Goldstein: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: The quote unquote ... I mean like, what's real in an original chicken nugget? Who knows?
Jacob Goldstein: Yeah. Yeah.
Dan Pashman: But when you're talking about an actual chicken breast, there's so much about the eating experience that you might not even consciously know, but you're gonna know if it's missing.
Jacob Goldstein: I mean, that feels like a bigger leap. If we think of the leap from the Gardenburger to the Impossible burger, like that's big. But going from a fake chicken nugget to a fake chicken breast that feels like an even bigger leap.
Dan Pashman: It's huge. You think about it like a chicken breast has those kind of — you ever pull apart a chicken breast? It has those sort of striations?
Jacob Goldstein: Yeah. The sinews. Right. You have to chop across 'em when you're cutting it. Yeah.
Dan Pashman: Exactly. Right? And like the idea of creating that in a …
Jacob Goldstein: Out of a slurry!
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS]
Jacob Goldstein: How are you gonna make a slurry into that? Yeah.
Dan Pashman: I mean, our friend Sean Rameswaram, he — when he went there, he got to taste their chicken skin and their chicken breast.
Sean Rameswaram: We started with an appetizer that looked something like a pork round. It was like chicken skin on top of a sort of mix of vegetables. And you know, because it was crispy ... it was sort of hard to tell what the difference was. And so it was hard to be like, wait, is this chicken or is this, is this not chicken? It tasted just like the real thing.
Dan Pashman: What do they serve to you next?
Sean Rameswaram: Next up was the piece de resistance, I suppose. It was another mix of vegetables over like a muscular, fatty piece of chicken that felt like akin to a piece of chicken breast, but again with skin on it. And as much as I wanted to doubt, I was very impressed. It was — you know, it had the texture. It had the taste, and it had the flavor of the genuine article. It was legit.
Dan Pashman: So it sounds like you went in skeptical?
Sean Rameswaram: Totally.
Dan Pashman: And you were impressed.
Sean Rameswaram: I was impressed with the product. Now, I remained skeptical that this is going to happen anytime soon.
Dan Pashman: Jacob, what, what Sean's alluding to is like, yeah, they made tremendous advances on the taste and the texture. What they're struggling with is the cost.
Jacob Goldstein: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: Okay? Right now Vitor says it costs them about $50 to make one chicken nugget.
Jacob Goldstein: Better be an amazing nugget.
Dan Pashman: Yeah. I mean, yeah. So they got a little ways to go here before this is going to be a big product. In fairness, that's way cheaper than it was a few years ago. They're doing better but they still have, obviously, a long way to go. They gotta scale up, they gotta get costs down. They need to find a way to grow more cells per batch faster and without spending so much to feed the cells. But it's a constant struggle. Vitor tells me. Because if they push too much in that direction, the quality of the product can suffer.
Vitor Santo: That has an impact on the flavor of the cells. Maybe they don't taste as much as chicken anymore, or they — or the flavor maybe is a little less powerful.
Jacob Goldstein: Yeah. I mean, this is a really interesting, profound question, right? Like, making things get cheaper and better, or at least equally good is like a core technological problem in history, right? And maybe the most important thing in the world economy for the last 56 years has been the way computing power has gotten better and cheaper, right? There's this famous thing, Moore's Law, that every two years, computers basically get twice as good. And that has been this huge driver of everything in Silicon Valley, right? And this is very much a Silicon Valley universe. You have venture capitalists. This company is in the Bay Area. They're pouring money in, and what they want is a computer-like outcome, right? They want it to get twice as good at half the price constantly. And it's not obvious that just because it worked with computer chips, it'll work with cultured meat. It doesn't work in every domain, but I have to hope that it will. Right? I have to hope that all this money will pay very clever people who are motivated, who will make cultured meat, meat without animals, that is at least as good as meat from animals and at least as cheap.
Dan Pashman: I think it's cool that they're trying and it's exciting to hear Sean say that they're as close as they are. And I'm excited for the day that we can really take this technology to the next level, Jacob. Okay? Because Vitor says that once they get the template, they can make almost anything.
Vitor Santo: As long as you have the equipment, infrastructure, and the means, like the culture composition to feed the cells, you can essentially grow any type of meat.
Dan Pashman: Any type of meat, Jacob. Okay? Are you thinking what I'm thinking?
Jacob Goldstein: Human beings?
[DRAMATIC SOUND EFFECT]
Dan Pashman: No!
Dan Pashman: No, Jacob! Jurassic Park! This is this like almost the same technology from that movie. Okay? They got the dinosaur DNA, they made dinosaurs. And in fact, there's a company in Belgium right now that says they're developing wooly mammoth burgers. You know, in foodie circles there's all this talk about your burger blend. Like, oh, we do like, you know, 40% chuck, 20% short rib, 20% brisket or whatever, and every chef thinks they have the best blend or whatever. I cannot wait to go out to a restaurant and be like, I'll have the half dodo bird, half stegosaurus burger, please.
Jacob Goldstein: I'm in. If it costs the same as a hamburger, it'll work.
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS] Oh, come on Jacob. You wouldn't pay an extra dollar for a stegosaurus burger?
Jacob Goldstein: I’d pay an extra dollar.
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS]
Jacob Goldstein: Does it come with fries?
Dan Pashman: Sure. I'll throw in the fries for free.
Jacob Goldstein: I’m in.
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS] I think the big question here with the cultured meat is even if it does taste the same, will people eat it? It still feels weird.
Jacob Goldstein: I hear what you're saying, but a couple things. First of all, think about all the stuff in the whatever, freezer aisle, of the grocery store. I think basically most people don't care. Right? And if you think about today, the way some people care a lot. You can imagine those kind of meat eaters, some, you know, small percentage of people who will always want their meat. But I think if you have something that is indistinguishable from meat and the same price or even a little cheaper, let's dream big, I think people will get the cheaper thing that's basically the same.
Dan Pashman: I also think that these things may be somewhat generational.
Jacob Goldstein: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: You know, so like if you are — had you been eating cultured meat from the time that you were five, then it doesn't feel weird to you. I think that I would probably — I'm more excited about cultured meat than about the plant-based. I think they have a better chance of getting to the true, what I would call taste-parity. It sounds like, from what Sean said, that they're already there, in some respects. We agreed with the Impossible Burger, as impressed as we were, it's not quite there. And to me, I feel like I'm in the target audience for this because I'm not a vegetarian, but I care about the environment and animals. I try my best to buy meat that's been raised ethically. I don't always succeed, but I try. So if you said to me, hey, here's a thing that would check all those boxes and it tastes the same and it's the same price, I would go for that.
Jacob Goldstein: I think we agree. Fake meat, cultured meat, whatever you want to call it, meat without the animals, it's not there yet, but it really sounds like it's getting there. And if they can get the price down, I think that'll do it. And I hope it happens.
Jacob Goldstein: Pashman, this was great, man. Thank you for having me in the Sporkful test kitchen with you.
Dan Pashman: It was my pleasure. Anytime. And let's tell folks real quick. So your podcast, Jacob Goldstein, is called What's Your Problem?.
Jacob Goldstein: And actually we've been doing a few food shows now. We did a whole interview with Pat Brown, the Impossible Food guy, who you heard a little bit from in this show. We have a whole interview with him. We did another show recently about this app Slice that's trying to help mom and pop pizza shops compete with Dominos. So lots of food content as well as other kind of business and tech stuff.
Dan Pashman: Jacob, thanks for coming to the Sporkful test kitchen, a.k.a my kitchen.
Jacob Goldstein: Thanks for having me.