Perfectly replicating the texture of red meat is the ultimate goal for the plant-based sector. With a bit of high-tech help from some clever scientists, this local company reckons its jerky is getting pretty close.
Meat has played a starring role in the evolution of the human diet. While studies suggest that for around four-and-a-half million years, early hominids survived on a plant-based diet, 2.6 million years ago, our ancestors began hunting meat to add to their feeds. Fast-forward to 2021 and meat remains omnipresent in most of our diets – though not without controversy.
That controversy, focused on the impact meat consumption has on the environment and animal welfare, has seen the rise of a new generation of “fake meat” that harnesses modern technology to create increasingly accurate replicas of the real thing.
A local company, Off-Piste, has created what it describes as New Zealand’s first “cut” of red meat based on protein sourced from fava beans and peas – as opposed to the prevalent ground-up format of many plant-based meats. The jerky, which comes in three flavours, is uncanny in the way it approximates all the sensory attributes of the real thing. “We wanted to do a piece of meat you couldn’t really disguise, it had to be just a bit of meat,” says Jade Gray, the founder of Off-Piste.
The venture exposes an interesting paradox. On one hand, it’s an explicit critique of animal farming – particularly its environmental impacts. On the other, those behind the brand aren’t attempting to alienate omnivores. In fact, they see them as their main customer base.
Originally from Twizel, Gray ran a cattle feedlot in China for 20 years. In 2010, while still in China, he co-founded a pizza restaurant brand called Gung Ho! Pizza. The chain became the first pizza brand in China to offer vegan cheese and vegan pepperoni. Its plant-based offerings were all made in-house across the brand’s 15 restaurants.
Upon returning to Aotearoa a couple of years ago, Gray honed in on using what he’d learnt about plant-based foods to help address what he sees as the country’s biggest climate change challenge – greenhouse gas emissions from livestock.
With New Zealand’s economic reliance on animal protein exports, Gray believes plant-based meats are a key part of shaking up New Zealand’s agriculture sector. Fortunately, he says, New Zealand has a very supportive food innovation environment. Off-Piste obtained a $200,000 grant from MPI to pre-seed the project and a $20,000 grant from the Foundation of Arable Research – a fund created by growers of crops.
The project began two years ago, but Off-Piste’s partnership with Massey University, the beginning of the food technology and science side of the project, kicked off in November last year. The science was headed by Allan Hardacre, senior researcher at Massey University’s Food and Advanced Technology Department in Auckland, “who is kind of like the godfather of plant-based meats in New Zealand”, says Gray.
With patents still pending, the details of the alchemy behind the product – necessarily – remain somewhat elusive. But Gray draws parallels between his experience in pizza making where “you can take flour and water and yeast and before you know it you’ve got this incredible creation”. It’s a very similar process, he says.
To make the jerky, they take dry protein products and liquids, then apply mechanical pressure in a way that’s similar to kneading bread to stress the molecules, as well, of course, heat. Just like pizza dough, the result is stringy and tough, and their patented process produces robust fibre shreds that can be ripped apart.
High-profile alternative meat brands like Impossible and Beyond have attracted backlash amid criticisms their products are hyper processed, unhealthy and don’t address resource usage. Off-Piste was keen to counter this with its product. Their commitment to recreating the chewy mouthfeel of meat while also using nutritional ingredients you’d find on the shelves of a local health store didn’t come without challenges, however. As well as that, they’re aware of the risk of encouraging monocrops in our agriculture sector and are keen to avoid the next wave of palm oil, soy or maize. It meant relentless trial, error and problem-solving – particularly on the part of the scientists.
But when lockdown hit in August this year, Gray and his colleague Alex Radley were left to carry on the experiments without the help of the scientists at the FoodBowl facility in Māngere, which is operated by New Zealand Food Innovation. Going more than two months without haircuts meant they had the mad-scientist hair-dos to match. “We were just in there working with some pretty high-tech equipment, and really having to feel our way through it,” he says.
It meant starting their days at 7.30am to test the experiments of the previous day that had been left to dry overnight. “After about 60 days of eating jerky for breakfast, you’re just looking at each other going, ‘really, is this what climate action looks like?’,” he says.
It’s paid off though, says Gray. “And now we’ve got a label we’re really proud of.”
The majority of plant-based meats you’ll find in the supermarket are in the form of mince, sausages or patties. In this way, a replica of a hunk of red meat could be seen as one of the final frontiers for the plant-based sector. Gray describes cuts of red meat like jerky as a step up on the red meat hierarchy – with fillet steak as the pinnacle, and a goal he’s keen to work towards.
There’s a growing interest in supporting plant-based products among both consumers and the agriculture sector, says Gray. “There’s a general acceptance that this is a really exciting sector that solves a lot of our challenges, whether it’s for waterways, greenhouse gas emissions, soil quality.”
This runs alongside a more general recognition that plant-based meats no longer need to be relegated to some kind of woo-woo fringe.
In July, Gray spoke in front of 300 farmers at Lincoln University about his plant-based venture. While these interactions can often be both challenging and emotional, Gray says there seems to be a growing understanding that this is the direction the world is going. “We’ve got a long way to go in terms of the uptake of it,” he says. “That requires trust, it requires vision, it requires investment.”
Far from anti-farming, he views the possibilities of plant-based foods as providing a much-needed transition for the sector. Researchers have found that although meat consumption has on average increased globally, locally our consumption seems to be trending downward.
Reflecting on the rise of man-made fibres that decimated our local wool industry in the 1980s, Gray says, “the same could quite easily happen to meat and dairy if we don’t take note”.
Plant-based meat that mimics meat in such an exact manner is a vital part of making plant-based alternatives viable, he says. Simply put, lots of us quite enjoy meat.
“I’m not hiding it,” he says. “We are trying to imitate every sensory experience of meat.”
The jerky is so similar that vegans are often put off. Because of this, Gray says, “it’s actually geared towards meat reducers and flexitarians”.
When it comes to the market, it makes sense – there are a lot more flexitarians and reducitarians than there are vegans or vegetarians. “If we’re going to have an impact on greenhouse gas emissions, it needs to be in that demographic,” he says.
There’s a primal element to our enjoyment of meat, one that Gray believes we should embrace even as we shift away from the animal-based product. “To think that there’s not some deep-seated motivation to eat meat is, I think, ignoring evolution,” he says.
Consider quintessential meals across various cuisines. For most New Zealanders, proteins – whether it be meat or seafood – make up core parts of dishes, especially when we’re celebrating. A meal that lacks it can feel less esteemed, less complete and less generous.
At the moment, the team behind Off-Piste has 10 products in the pipeline – each at various stages of development. For now, they’re focusing on the snack category with products like biltong and bier sticks, but they’ll be delving into new categories in the new year. The breakthroughs they’ve made in developing the mouth feel and aesthetic of plant-based meats might be a game-changer for the development of future high-end plant-based meat cuts such as steaks, ribs and cutlets.
Beyond potentially being more delicious, more sustainable and more affordable, Gray believes the project opens up possibilities to surpass the nutritional qualities of traditional meat too. Perhaps replacing those negative aspects of red meat like trans fat or cholesterol with ingredients that are good for us.
Rather than playing catch up with “real” meat, Gray is adamant that plant-based meats should and could surpass the desirability of animal meat. “Really there should become a point where our product is actually superior to meat,” he says. “I mean that quite sincerely.”