Is this the wonder meat of the future?

Scientists may have found a breakthrough in using plants to make meat. According to a new report, mushrooms have been used for some time to make burgers, but not currently in the form that…

Scientists may have found a breakthrough in using plants to make meat. According to a new report, mushrooms have been used for some time to make burgers, but not currently in the form that you’d know. But researchers say they’ve found a way to create a meat substance with great versatility. The report includes a tantalising glimpse at a meat product that sounds like Frankenstein: a compound out of fungi called anaerobotulinides that when heated produces a substance that, when mixed with soybean oil, produces the illusion of meat.

This new meat substance comes in many forms, the authors say, but this does not mean that we’re reaching a meat-free panacea just yet. The new project is at least a step in the right direction, they say, but it will take a great deal of work on improving the product. We still haven’t even scratched the surface in terms of structuring new proteins. “Hopefully in the near future we can make the most efficacious, nutritious, plant-based meat product on the market,” says professor Sumeet Chugh, the study’s lead author and professor of microbial evolution at University College London.

What this new meat product looks like. Image: Sumeet Chugh/Institute of Food Research

But this is no reason to panic if you’re currently in the market for a meat substitute. There are a number of burgers and other meatless products on the market. The products, though often marketed as vegan and including a little meat in their nutritional content, tend to be more of a mild substitute. Despite the lack of meat in them, they often contain preservatives and lots of soy and wheat flour, making them cheaper than actual hamburgers and hamburries.

Still, the new report is promising in that it shows that this structure could be tailored for different purposes than marinating in soybean oil. It could be used for chewing gum, in a tea bag, or in a tea, and in the future, to keep food fresh. The authors also say it may prove a good candidate for adding calcium to our diet.

Recently, there has been a trend in Western Europe and the United States of making these kind of meat substitutes by adding plant substances to soy. These products are intended to mimic the taste and texture of meat, but are usually cheaper than meat. But considering the gut-digesting benefits of knowing that you’re eating something cooked by plants, these new strains may provide some food for thought to those of us who say we’re getting too dependent on meat.

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Our health — mostly our skin — is in the microcosm of our history as humans. The authors of this new study say that as we’ve evolved, both in our bodies and our cooking techniques, our digestive systems evolved with us and as our lives in general have changed, they say the ability to assimilate protein from plants has become stronger.

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We see plenty of examples of this movement in other areas as well. In various cultures, they say, humans have chewed on certain wild foods like grasses and rice, or cooked on plants like squash. And the fact that a hair today is a part of our immune system against bacteria and parasites, and that the many fields we’ve studied rely upon plant material, is not just a quirk of history. The authors of this study call this the “hedonistic altruism hypothesis,” a theory that suggests that our evolution is driven by our mutual dependence on others, and is reflected in our absorption of other groups’ food.

Hedonistic altruism. I may be eating you up. Image: Ecology London Center/HRL Publications

“We’re a complex social group with a complex biology, because our bodies have evolved to share our resources,” Chugh says. “The first person we ate we ate that person’s genetic material, as well as his or her body cells. In fact, the oldest premastication was, as far as we can tell, around thirty thousand years ago.” It’s also likely that humans could well have evolved before this, but they just don’t have the kind of documentation that is available today.

That means that the study has not proven any actual correlation between the diet and our current health concerns — dietary fiber alone has not been linked to decreased risk of cardiovascular disease. But the belief may be convincing enough for some.

It may be time to reconsider the relationship between our bodies and our food.

[European Journal of Cancer]

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