Blog 06.04.23

What’s the future of faux foods?

Industrial quantities of palm oil substitute are now being made in the lab. 

While this is certainly good news for Orangutans and their fast-vanishing forests, are faux products like oils and plant-based meats good for us and nature?

What seems good now is often found to be bad later, like plastic, the wonder (and still pretty wonderful) post-war invention which is clogging our waterways and infiltrating our guts. 

What’s the future for lab-produced faux food and industrial products, trumpeted as the saviours of our environment and health?  The answer lies in four interconnected areas: cost, investment, health, and public acceptance.

Glossary of the ersatz

Cultivated meat is literally grown in the lab from cells, using the basics that are needed to build muscle and fat, enabling the same biological process that happens inside an animal. This meat’s development is still very much lab-based and has yet to be scaled to industrial quantities, although that could happen well within the decade.   

Fermented foods have been produced for centuries and include everything from beer, kombucha and the commercially produced alternative protein, Quorn.  Fermented ingredients are added to recipes to create umami, such as fish sauce and miso. Lab-produced “Palmless” oil provides the qualities of palm oil and is made mainly through fermentation.  

Plant-based meat is produced in factories where ingredients, such as pea and soy protein, is mixed with a variety of ingredients to form a patty or crumble (mince) that resembles meat in texture, taste and appearance. This category includes plant-based burgers, such as those from Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat.  Plant-based milks, such as almond, soy and oat, are produced in factories with some added ingredients such as vegetable oil, salt and stabilisers. 


Fakery costs a lot and that means prices are higher for plant-based processed items compared with the natural product.  Of course, the real cost of producing beef is much higher if you include the environmental impact, but these externalities (methane emissions, deforestation, land use etc) are not factored into the current retail price.  Higher prices mean the whimsical flexitarian is easily put off – why pay extra when the real thing is more affordable?  Price is is one of the reasons given for the dramatic decline in fortunes of the leading fake meat producers, such as Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat (see more below, public acceptance) 


Developing new products, such as vegetable patties that “bleed”, is high tech and takes a great deal of ingenuity and lots of capital. Remember, we’re not talking about bean burger 2.0 here. This is high-tech processing of very complicated recipes designed to give the taste, texture and feel of meat.  And once you’ve perfected the product you’ve got to carve out a new niche in the food sector by convincing consumers to buy and eat the stuff. Big, expensive marketing and advertising budgets are essential.   

Before Impossible Foods had sold a single burger, the company had attracted investment of $183 million from venture capitalists (VCs) and wealthy personalities like Bill Gates. In 2018, Beyond Meat was valued at $1.3 billion.

Early investors were driven by the potential of disrupting the trillion-dollar a year meat industry.  The return on the investment would include, yes, money.  But successful faux meat would, for values-driven investors like Gates and Leonardo di Caprio, help reduce the negative environmental impacts of meat production.  


Faux meat has less cholesterol than the real stuff and is promoted as a healthy alternative to animal flesh. The main ingredients, such as pea and soy protein, are innocuous enough.  

But creating plant burgers that “bleed” and get stuck between your teeth (just like real meat) takes clever chemistry.  For example, Impossible Foods’ faux meat is based around a molecule designed in the lab to mimic heme, the stuff that makes meat taste and feel meaty.  The company’s founder, a biochemist, made synthetic heme (called soy leghemoglobin) through fermentation using genetically modified yeast.  

It did not take the meat industry long to point out the very long list of ingredients in faux burgers, with unpronounceable chemical names you are more likely to see on a bottle of shampoo.  Health food influencers have long made the point that it is generally unwise to eat anything you can neither pronounce nor understand. 

While highly-processed faux milks (almond, soy, oat etc) have carved out a valuable niche, their list of ingredients (including salt and vegetable oil) are neither as many nor as scary as those found on a pack of faux bleeding burgers. 

Public acceptance

Fake Meat Was Supposed to Save the World. It Became Just Another Fad.  That was the headline of a recent Bloomberg story charting the rapid rise and fall of the faux meat industry.  

The huge investment in companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods caught the public’s imagination when their much hyped products arrived in supermarkets and fast-food outlets (including Burger King and McDonald’s) during the pandemic.  Sales soared and the companies became big news.  

But it did not take long for the excitement to fade, for reasons already discussed.  And as with any fad, decline attracts negative stories that further undermine credibility and sales.  Doug Ramsey, Beyond Meat’s chief operating officer, was arrested for allegedly biting a man’s nose in a fight after a college football game.  Super influencer Kim Kardashian, Beyond’s “chief taste consultant”, was accused of not swallowing the burger she ate in a TV commercial (which she denies).  And then to put the boot in, online commentators complained that raw faux meat smells like cat food and kitchens needed efficient extraction to expel the pong.  (Although the same can be said for cooking real meat burgers!).  

Future of faux

The first phase of ersatz meat has been a commercial flop.  But the massive meat industry remains ripe for disruption.  Its environmental harms are just too damning and will eventually undermine the industry unless it reforms or shrinks.  The same can be said for dairy and marauding monocrop enterprises such as palm oil production. 

Despite faux food’s failures, innovation will continue.  We will look back at the era of bleeding concoctions that replaced the humble, mushy bean burger as, well, ham-fisted. Better faux burgers will probably come from genetic modification which seems to be less scary to many than eating an ultra-processed product with an ingredients list reading like the contents of a chemistry set.  

Meat remains attractive to most societies and the consumption trajectory appears to be ever-upward as more people escape poverty and want meat.  A vegan or vegetarian future will not happen.  Perhaps cultivated meat – grown in massive labs – will satisfy the ever-increasing demand for flesh.  But that will take time.  

The big question is how societies can meanwhile change their eating habits to reduce the ratio of meat/dairy to plants on their plates.  Animals will remain an important part of farming, playing an essential role in restorative agriculture.  And that’s good news for carnivores because someone must eat the beasts once they’ve done their job.  

But such agriculture will never meet the ever-rising demand for meat.  And the world cannot afford for the meat industry to continue its destructive, high-carbon path.  That’s why the future of faux meat looks bright – if somewhat further away than its initial investors at first hoped. 

Prepare for Impossible and Beyond 2.0.

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