Protein-packed meat alternatives are on the rise. The top brands on the market rely on soybeans and peas for their key ingredients.
But what about mycelium -- that fibrous, web-like substratum of fungus from which mushrooms fruit? It's a perfect fit, says Huggins. Case in point: Meati Foods has devised a steak-like product made from mycelium, and touts its nutritional content as well as the environmental benefits of the production process.
Huggins likens Meati's brand-new facility in Boulder to a brewpub. But instead of fermenting beer, Meati grows mycelium in a specially-modified tank. (The company does not divulge the type of mycelium used, stating only that it's a "proprietary strain.") As the mycelium grows, it consumes sugar and nutrients. "When we take it out of the tank it kind of looks like cheese -- a cheese curd," says Huggins.
Next, the mycelium's fibers are realigned and locked into place via a proprietary process, a technical step Huggins playfully calls the company's "secret sauce." Lastly, he says, "We marinate it in flavors and colors to make the finished good." The marinade lends a similar "umami taste as some beef cuts."
Why not just make the product from mushrooms, instead of mycelium? Huggins says growing mycelium produces larger volumes of edible material with a high protein content. According to the nutrition facts label for its recently-developed steak product, a three-ounce serving contains 17 grams of protein, no cholesterol, only one gram of non-added sugar (the mycelium transforms, rather than stores, most of the sugar it consumes in the tank), and goodly amounts of niacin, riboflavin, B12, and zinc.
So far, Meati is only available on an introductory basis in Boulder. It debuted in May at SALT bistro, where cuts of what the company calls its "steak alternative" add meat-like texture to a banh mi sandwich. "I think it's very similar to a lean cut of beef, like a tenderloin," says Huggins, also noting how, texture-wise, mycelium "mimics muscle structure." The company has also been experimenting with mycelium versions of chicken, pork, and fish.
If Meati is presently microbrewery-sized, Huggins envisions "something like a Budweiser facility" in the company's future, continuously growing mycelium. He says, "We're talking about the meat equivalent of nearly 350 cows every hour, hour after hour. And this is the volume and scale we need to be at if we're truly going to make an impact in the meat category. You have to produce volume. And you have to produce it at a cost that's cost-competitive [with beef raised in feedlots]."
While Meati is expected to debut in stores by the second half of 2021 as a "premium product," Huggins says, "[U]ltimately, as we scale, we can easily be at price parity to both chicken and beef."
Huggins cites the environmental benefits to the process, compared with traditional beef production: "Our overall land use is orders of magnitude less; water use, orders of magnitude less; energy use, orders of magnitude less." He's still an occasional meat eater himself; Huggins' parents raise bison in Nebraska, and he discusses the value of regenerative land practices involving cattle.
Huggins cites his background in environmental engineering and microbioiogy, saying, "I've been studying microbes -- and ways to leverage their efficiency to solve problems -- my whole life, working on everything from plants to algae, bacteria, yeast and fungi." Meati's "mission-based" team also consists of a fellow co-founder who excels at materials science; a microbiologist; a fermentation engineer; and a food scientist with a culinary arts background.
So why hasn't a mycelium-based product been released before? Huggins answers, "It's not easy. And I don't know that the market has been ready yet. Beyond Meat -- their success [with plant protein-based products] has definitely paved the way for us. Not only from a market perspective, but from a venture capital and investment perspective."
On meat versus Meati, Huggins says, "If people are going to choose between one or the other, and they get the same experience, the same enjoyment -- but one is better for you, and also better for the environment, more ethically produced -- I think it's a clear win [for Meati]."
He adds, "There are very few opportunities in one's life to come up with a whole new food that is super-nutritious, that is affordable, and ultimately that has a much lower environmental impact [compared with standard beef production]. It's unbelievable. And I am so lucky to be here."
Challenges: "It's not a demand problem, it's a supply problem," says Huggins. "We need to keep growing as fast as we can."
Opportunities: "The market is just huge," says Huggins, and that's especially true if Meati can win over consumers of animal-based proteins. "If we can take just ten percent of [the meat] market, it's enormous. And that's another reason we need to scale and to scale fast."
Needs: "Time, money, and talent," says Huggins. "I think money will come. We just need to bring in the best talent in the world that we can find to help us be the company we want to be, and time to build it out."