How Technology May Help Cut Meat Consumption

Photograph by Hugo Chang

One of the most interesting—and controversial—fields in tech these days involves in vitro meat. By growing our meat in labs from animal cells—so the theory goes—we could eventually wean ourselves off our dependence on livestock as a protein source. One day, we may even be able to print our steaks and chops from a 3D printer.

There are reasons beyond animal welfare to find meat alternatives, though. If the rest of the world’s rapidly increasing population went through meat at the rate we Americans do (we consumed 92.3 billion pounds from 9 billion animals in 2011 alone), we’d soon run out of animals to butcher—or at least the space and the feed to raise them. There are also big environmental and health concerns in industrial meat production, from the run-off and greenhouse gases emanating from toxic manure to the antibiotics used to keep livestock upright.

Creating an in vitro meat supply might seem like the answer to all those problems, but we’re still years away from seeing viable, affordable artificial meat—and probably many more years from convincing the public to eat it. But what if we could use technology in other ways to cut our dependence on natural meat?

In New York this weekend, a gaggle of tech entrepreneurs, software developers, butchers, farmers, food industry executives, and health policy wonks are gathering to brainstorm the issue of meat. Held by the blog Food+Tech Connect and called Hack//Meat, the hackathon’s goal is to come up with technological answer to the problems of meat supply, processing, distribution, health, and ultimately consumption. One of big problems the group will tackle is how—simply put—to get people to eat less meat.

One of the more interesting proposals to come out of Hack//Meat is from Foodpairing, a food industry research company and app developer. Foodpairing has broken down flavor to its molecular components and has compiled databases that can match the flavor of those ingredients against other completely different ingredients. By compiling “foodpairing trees” its technology can identify vegetable or seafood ingredients that reinforce the flavor of different meats, or in some cases, can act as a substitute for a meat entirely. AS Foodpairing co-owner Bernard Lahousse wrote on Food+Tech Connect:

The flavor molecules of an ingredient are not unique to that specific ingredient. Basil doesn’t taste like basil because there is only one basil flavor, but because there is a blend of flavor molecules, many of which you can also find in other ingredients. The same is true for meats like chicken. The flavor of chicken contains about 20 important flavor molecules, some of them you can find in coffee, bread, potato, mushroom, etc.

While these kind of techniques have been applied in haute cuisine’s molecular gastronomy for a while, Lahousse is proposing that they can be applied on a mass-market scale, and not in the sense of just substituting a vegetable patty for a beef patty or tofu for a chicken strip. By adjusting recipes and cooking techniques to include ingredients that reinforce the meat flavors we love, we can enjoy the same cuisine while minimizing—if not eliminating entirely—the actual amount of meat used.

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