The alternative meat sector has grown exponentially over the past few years and the pursuit is on to create meat products that are not only much more sustainable than animal meat but as delicious. The inherent advantages of 3D printing make it a perfect fit for solving some of the most complex challenges in replacing animals as a source of meat and the key to cracking the challenge of replicating beef steak. This is Redefine Meat’s goal.
While the impact of meat on the environment has been much discussed in recent years, COVID-19 has only exacerbated the issue even further, exposing the fragility of the current food supply chain and causing widespread shutdowns of slaughterhouses due to large-scale outbreaks. Interest in alternative meat has certainly risen, but the lack of products tasty enough to convert the mainstream majority of meat lovers still prohibits the industry from truly taking off and driving any meaningful change in global meat consumption. While trailblazers Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have no doubt made great strides in this area, the reality is that a substantial gap still exists. In fact, across the globe, the numbers show that the growth of the meat industry still hugely outpaces the alternative meat market.
With years of R&D and billions of dollars of investment to date, you would be forgiven for asking yourself the question – “So what exactly is stopping the industry from moving forward? Why have we not been able to truly replicate animal meat by now?”. The question is simple to answer, but the answer is far from simple.
The complex muscle structure of animal meat
The ability to replicate the taste, texture and appearance of animal meat has long been heralded the holy grail of alternative meat and is a milestone that has still not been fully achieved. To effectively replicate animal meat means first understanding what it is exactly that makes meat, ‘meat’. Indeed, the biggest function in meat, and the one that contributes the most to our sensory appreciation of it, is the fact that almost all “meat” we eat is actually an animal muscle. While this is widely-acknowledged across the industry, understanding the composition and behaviors of animal muscle structure has yet to be tackled, as well as the muscle structure’s function in texture, flavor and mouthfeel.
Having evolved over millions of years through evolution, and perfect for millennia by cross-breeding agricultural sciences, the structure of the meat is highly sophisticated and intricate in its composition. In fact, one can argue that meat, in the form of muscle, is the most complex food product that exists. This complexity is apparent in many forms – in the raw status of meat, the transition during cooking, and finally, during the complex sensorial process that takes place in our mouths when we eat meat. All of these elements together deliver an experience that is not only tasty and enjoyable but one that is truly special to meat. This is also why the challenge in recreating it is so big and cannot be simplified to one magic formula. After all, the one carrying all of the load in making meat is an animal, with its biology, life and movements.
This challenge is especially notable with steak and other types of meat we consume whole, and the very reason why it has been virtually untouched by the alternative meat industry to date, with products replicating minced meat. In products like hamburgers or sausages, a butcher or meat processor actually destroys the original complexity of meat and simplifies things. Instead of structure, interactions and complexity, we have homogeneity. In other words, everything averages out and instead of muscle, we have mass. The list of attributes that are necessary to create a ‘perfect steak’ is far more extensive than a hamburger: stiffness, fiber structure, cohesiveness, color gradient, heterogenetic structure, changes in heat, smell, flavor and many more. There are so many parameters that we as humans do not know how to quantify or articulate, but when we bite into our favorite cut of steak, we definitely feel them.
Replicating meat from the ground up
Accurately replicating the complex muscle structure of animal meat is key to creating alternative steak products desired by meat lovers. Above is Redefine Meat’s Alt-SteakTM produced using multi-material food printing.
Tackling this challenge requires a new approach when it comes to alternative meat – embracing complexity, not avoiding it. While developments are being made in several areas, the inherent attributes of 3D printing make it such a compelling proposition for alternative meat production. Crucial to this is 3D printing’s ability to create complex geometries unachievable with traditional methods. When parts are built layer by layer, there are virtually no limits on how complex the part can be, and it is the same for recreating meat structure. 3D printing enables the precise composition of the meat layer by layer to bring every fiber of real meat to fruition in a way that conventional alternative processes cannot.
However, in recent years, we’ve seen the introduction of new multi-material 3D printing technologies that take this freedom of design to the next level – and it’s perhaps here that lies the greatest potential for alternative meat production in replicating the complex muscle structures of animal meat. Especially when tackling steak, in contrast to existing alternative meat processes used today to only make plant-based minced meat products, such as burgers.
Multi-material 3D printing provides engineers and innovators the unique capability to create products comprising multiple different materials all in a single process. If you take a pair of sunglasses for example, today manufacturers are 3D printing the rigid frame, the interior rubber lining to sit on the ears, and the transparent lenses simultaneously in one print – something previously unimaginable. For Redefine Meat, applying a similar approach to multi-material food printing (MMFP) has been integral to cracking the compositional challenge of steak. Designed especially for Alt-Meat, the Redefine Meat 3D printer lays down blood, fat and protein simultaneously at a voxel-level according to the digital structure mimicking that of animal meat. Furthermore, these ingredients can also be precisely combined on-the-fly during the printing process itself to create entirely new digital materials designed to replicate a specific animal composite. This advanced capability is what allows an alternative-steak to go beyond just taste, but also replicate texture and mouthfeel. After all, this is the same approach that is being used today to try and mimic human tissue in bioprinting, so why not extend this capability to replicate a much simpler target – slaughtered animal tissue.
Multi-material food printing allows meat producers to create a diverse range of steaks and whole muscle cuts – such as tenderloin, rib-eye or sirloin – by simply changing the digital file.
Additionally, MMFP enables alternative meat producers to address the current lack of product variety witnessed today. Using the same 3D printer, companies can print different meat types (e.g. beef, pork or lamb) and different meat cuts (tenderloin, sirloin, rib-eye etc.) by simply changing the digital file. This level of flexibility in production helps alternative meat producers to provide the same variety of products, cooking methods and culinary applications we would expect from a traditional meat aisle or restaurant.
Print, test, repeat
As with any development process, the ability to test and iterate designs quickly can very much determine the speed at which the final desired product can be achieved. While traditional food production processes, such as extrusion, enable alternative meat producers to modify ingredients and test new formulations during product development, it requires a large quantity of material and long production cycles to test each new formulation. Modifying the structural composition of meat using these analog processes is even more challenging – heavy machinery needs to be reconfigured, a step that can take days or even weeks, and is often a very costly process. These are inherent barriers within alternative meat that naturally slow down developmental breakthroughs in achieving the structure and texture of the final product.
MMFP, however, brings the benefits of rapid prototyping and digital production to the meat industry. The foundation of 3D printed meat is based upon digital building blocks that are precisely allocated and assembled during the printing process, which crucially enables engineers to go beyond just the manipulation of ingredients and actually manipulate the meat’s structure and texture. During the development phase, new design iterations to the meat’s structure can be made digitally via software within minutes, and several new sample ‘meat prototypes’ with different structural parameters can be printed and compared almost immediately. This process of ‘print, sample, repeat’ offers unprecedented speed in product development and a significant competitive advantage in tackling the complexity of replicating animal meat structure – especially when cracking steak.
The benefits of rapid prototyping and digital production provides unprecedented speed in alternative meat development – key to cracking the holy-grail of beef steak
This approach also opens the door to advanced AI & machine learning technologies that can further optimize the alternative meat experience for consumers. With the ability to learn consumer habits, likes, dislikes and more, these learnings can be fed through into the development and refinement of meat production – further enhancing the product to consumer requirements. For example, if consumer feedback data suggests the meat is too fatty, digital files can be optimized using computational methods to restructure the distribution of fat to address the issue.
While 3D printing’s inherent attributes offer a compelling proposition for alternative meat, there’s still a long way to go if the industry is to truly take animal meat head-on. If we are to convince mass meat lovers to embrace Alt-Meat and reduce their animal meat intake, the complex composition of animal muscle still needs to be truly replicated. While it is clear that new innovations are required at a technology and process level to achieve this, understanding the fundamentals of what makes meat, ‘meat’ will be critical throughout this journey.