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Where’s the Heme? A New Generation of Innovators Create the Future of Meat

Innovators big and small are challenging the all-too-powerful establishment of the food industry with a simple, yet equally powerful premise: replace the animal flesh on people’s plates with a plant protein that tastes delicious and saves the animals and the planet. And now, plant-based, animal-free meat has gone mainstream. We take a look at some of the most exciting brands on the market today and discuss the implications of Big Ag and fast food now wanting their cut of the cash cow, too.

April 1, 2021

Words — Cort Cunningham
Illustrations — Ini Neumann

Meat is here to stay. There’s no stopping it. As long as this planet remains habitable, people’s insatiable appetite for meat will survive. It may in fact be the last thing standing. As the world’s population continues to grow, so is the consumption of animal flesh – projected to grow +58% by 2050 [1]. Trends that scientists and environmentalists have been warning for years have become even more apparent, even if news coverage wanes more quickly than a smoldering forest fire stops burning. We are losing about 80,000 acres of tropical rainforest daily, and significantly degrading another 80,000 acres every day as well. This means the loss of some 135 plant, animal and insect species every day—or some 50,000 species a year—as the forests fall [2].

Taking the Animal out of the Food Equation

According to the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), tropical deforestation rates are 8.5% higher this decade alone. Two of the biggest causes? You guessed it: Agricultural expansion and livestock farming. In fact, livestock farming accounts for 77% of agricultural land, including grazing land and feed production [3]. The vicious cycle is all too telling: Man clears forest to grow soybeans to feed cows on razed land to then kill the cows for man to eat. The collective we tweets #SaveAmazonia then eats a beef burger the very next day claiming it’s the natural, superior source of protein. People may fane concern, but even when the math points to a different answer, for most the equation remains the same.

“Affecting really difficult problems by changing out the protein at the center of the plate is a powerful idea.”

Yet, in laboratories, factories, kitchens, and fields around the world, plant-based and lab-grown meat is taking the animal out of the equation before it’s too late. Before California-based start-up Beyond Meat was even on most people’s radar (let alone 2019’s stock market IPO darling), their founder and CEO Ethan Brown set the goal: “If you think about affecting really difficult problems all at once by changing out the protein at the center of the plate, it’s a pretty powerful idea.”

Around the world, entrepreneurs, scientists, and chefs are operating with a simple premise. If people won’t care enough to break their habits, maybe they don’t have to – we just have to give them a better option. The inspiration for that better option is one we’ve been looking to for years: the plant kingdom. Beyond, and their Silicon Valley neighbor Impossible Foods, operate with the basic thesis that the components of meat—amino acids, lipids, trace minerals, carbohydrates, and water—don’t reside exclusively in the animal kingdom. While Beyond has looked to restructure amino acids from peas and Impossible the iron containing compound heme from soy, they’re both identifying a plant-based equivalent of the taste and texture of animal-based protein.

Where's the Heme? – About the Future of Meat & Veganism - Antagonist

Combining nature and science to disrupt the food industry is squarely where Björn Witte of venture capital firm Blue Horizon is placing his focus. “Now is the opportunity to really get it right—tasty, healthy, and planet-friendly food at large scale.” Blue Horizon has made it its mission to invest in all of the major game changers in this space, and Björn acknowledges this isn’t an easy category. “Food has very real offline problems that require huge efforts to solve. At the same time, the potential opportunity is massive—from both a karma and a business perspective. He also acknowledges it’s near impossible to stop the rising demand for meat or meat-like protein in the world. “It’s not about changing people; it’s about changing habits. That only works if we provide a better choice.”

Offering choice has proven successful for Like Meat, another fast-growing meat alternative popular throughout Europe. Schnitzel, pulled pork, gyros strips, chicken chunks… a selection impressive for ist range and depressive for highlighting meat’s ubiquity in most diets. Timo Recker, Like Meat’s Founder & CEO, shared, “We have 15 products. It’s not just one burger.” Like Meat uses both pea and soy protein in their products, but in addition to being organic, their story is quite different than the Silicon Valley start-ups. Timo inherited the family food service business from his father. Gyros was their top seller. Sales started to erode and they realized they needed to reinvent to stay current.

“We have to ask ourselves if it’s truly necessary to stick to old habits.”

“Technology enabled us to produce really meat-like fiber. We positioned ourselves mainstream and have won over the meat lover. It was definitely the right product at the right time.” Like Meat’s top seller now? Gyros.

This moment in time is what vegans and vegetarians have been advocating for a long time—plants as the healthier way to feed the world and cure its ails. We finally get to imagine more concretely a day when the flesh of an animal corpse is no longer on the center of people’s plates. Yet, it’s also a moment where we find ourselves in an unusual dilemma. How should we consume and promote these new meats that are essentially not for us?

For years relegated to sides and staples, it’s tempting to have a vegan sausage fest on the regular. But lest we forget this is still meat—protein already plenty abundant in our diets. Registered dietician nutritionist Shani Mara cautions, “I love the idea of plant-based as it’s where we need to go, but I believe that a lot of it is processed. When you read the ingredients of the Impossible burger, it’s not a whole, fresh real food.” Vegan chef Gaz Oakley shares a similar concern with people not necessarily knowing the ingredients but concluded: “I think it’s exactly what we need. I would love to get into this way more, maybe even start my own company. I mean, if you put a Beyond burger next to a beef burger and a non-vegan would try both, he couldn’t tell any difference. The texture and taste are just excellent, and it definitely helps save the planet.”

Björn makes clear that he believes in clean labeling and high-quality ingredients. “At the same time,” he continues, “we have to ask ourselves if it’s truly necessary to stick to old habits and how to define ‘whole food’.” It’s also worth considering what processed even means.

Let’s define “Whole Food”, shall we?

Let’s compare: In a clean, hygienic facility, Impossible selects the heme molecule found naturally in the previously overlooked roots of soy plants and creates a meaty, tasty burger that mostly consists of soy protein, water, coconut oil, sunflower oil, and natural flavors. On the other hand, a typical beef company fattens cows with an engineered high-oil corn, confines them to crowded feed lots, then transports them in trucks to a slaughterhouse where often sick and stressed cows await their deaths. That’s just the process of getting the animal to become “meat”, never mind the bleaching of the flesh to remove contaminants or treating it with carbon monoxide to appear fresh for longer periods. So, which process is more whole? An alchemy of nature and science that builds meat directly from plants, or an inhumane and inefficient engineering-killing-butchering practice that costs valuable lives and resources?

Lab-grown meat heightens the debate even more. Companies such as Netherlands-based Mosa Meat and Berkeley-based Memphis Meats are creating “clean meat”, cultured from the stem cells of an animal with no genetic modification. Yes, the cells need to be extracted from the muscle tissue of an animal, but from one sample about 80,000 quarter pounders are produced as the world’s first slaughterfree meat. Time will tell whether consumers will embrace lab-grown meat.

“Lab-grown meat is vegan because it doesn’t cause any suffering to sentient life.”

Bas Kast, renowned journalist and author of Der Ernährungskompass (The Diet Compass), pointed out on the podcast Alles gesagt?: “I think it’s funny how skeptical a lot of people are: ‘Ugh, lab grown meat? Would you eat that?!’ They would rather eat the flesh of an animal that was tortured and (raised) in unhygienic circumstances. They would probably throw up if they had to witness what happens in that chicken house. But they block it out so they can keep eating it. But when it’s from a lab, where everything is clean, hygienic, no antibiotics, nothing, it triggers revulsion: ‘That’s from a laboratory, that’s not natural, who knows what’s in there!’ When in reality, the meat we eat has absolutely nothing to do with nature, either.

Where's the Heme? – About the Future of Meat & Veganism - Antagonist

Not surprisingly, there’s debate within the vegan community as well, given the cell extraction requirement and that one is in fact eating the flesh of an animal, albeit sans animal suffering and environmental degradation.

Ed Winters, the animal rights activist known as Earthling Ed, is on the fence. “Veganism is a philosophical teaching that says we should avoid harming others wherever possible. So in its truest meaning, lab-grown meat is vegan because it doesn’t cause any suffering to sentient life. I think it’s up to a vegan to decide to eat or not to eat it. I don’t think I would. There is a part of me that is really happy because it could end animal farming. It would need about 95% less energy, less water… On the other hand, it’s such an extreme thing to have to create. It annoys me that we have to get lab-grown meat to stop people from eating animals. There are so many delicious vegan products already, so it upsets me that society is in such a place that that’s the only way for people to change. I’m really happy and excited, but also really disappointed at the same time. And maybe, when lab-grown meat comes to the market, it could already be too late because climate change has moved so far in the meantime. I have conversations where people are like, ‘I’ll go vegan when I have lab-grown meat.’ What about now? What about every day until that point?”

“If we are ever to make veganism normal, we need two things: the how and the why.”

With plant-based meat on the other hand, Ed is in full support. “I think it’s amazing.” He continues, “If we are ever to make veganism normal, we need two things: the how and the why. For me it’s the why. I try to give people the reasons to go vegan. Companies like Beyond Meat or Impossible are giving people the how. So, when they go into a supermarket, they probably want to try this stuff. What I have learned over the years, is the power of food. The power of giving someone a burger and they like it, that sometimes has more credibility and is more important than a conversation with them. If this is leading them to watch a documentary or to think about vegan options, it’s just great. If you can accomplish making vegan products tasty and accessible in supermarkets, you’ve overcome two of the biggest barriers. Although it’s the why for me, the how is maybe even more important in terms of making people go vegan. If there are two options, one is fine, the other one bad because it harms animals – people will choose the fine one.”

Quit the Bull, Achieve No Evil

Two modern plant meat brands on the market have focused on both the why and the how since their origins. Their unique take on the market is named for what they aren’t—No Evil Foods and No Bull Burger—and delivers on what they are: tasty, wholesome. Sadrah Schadel and Mike Woliansky started No Evil in their home kitchen in Asheville, North Carolina with non-GMO seitan, aka the original wheat meat since the Middle Ages, crafted in small batches with simple ingredients. Their packaging alone feels different in the food industry. It feels accessible and has personality with a bite, reminding you that eating plant meat is a good way to save animals and fight climate change. One bite of their smoky pit boss or no chicken and you realize their focus is on taste first and foremost to attract everyone to their plant meat regardless of persuasion. “When food tastes good, it’s for everyone,” Sadrah says.

No Bull Burger claims to be the true veggie burger. A family recipe turned thriving business based in Charlottesville, Virginia, they have created a burger without the bull—the animal and the meat imitation. Protein from green lentils, brown rice, and garbanzo beans and you have a burger in your hands that’s as close to the earth and the holy grail of whole food as possible.

“It’s easy to shudder at the thought of doing business with companies who have done so much harm.”

While No Evil and No Bull may represent two of the unsung heroes of the plant meat movement, it’s still the likes of Impossible and Beyond that seem to be getting all the attention lately as they continue to partner with brands many of us once campaigned against.

The Impossible Whopper has become immensely popular in the U.S., placing it on Burger King’s menu across the country. Beyond Chicken debuted at a KFC and sold out in five hours. Beyond Meat since expanded into a larger partnership with KFC’s parent company Yum Brands (which includes Taco Bell and Pizza Hut), announced at the same time of a partnership with McDonald’s. At first glance, it’s easy to shudder at the thought of doing business with companies who have done so much harm. Yet, it’s also possible to consider the benefits of promoting adoption of plant-based meat in the most unlikely of places, if it means more people are choosing to eat fewer animals.

Where's the Heme? – About the Future of Meat & Veganism - Antagonist

Isa Chandra, owner & chef of Modern Love pointed out, “Wow, if vegans promoted vegan restaurants half as much as they’re promoting Burger King right now.” She has a point (and backs it up with her perfectly charred veggie burger that beats anyone out there). The more Burger King sells the Impossible Whopper, sales of the beef version increase right along with it. They, just like KFC and others, are in this game for the profits and the ability to modernize their increasingly less relevant brands. As these new plant-based meats rise in popularity among the masses, it will mean greater access to vegan options and a very tangible way for people to connect veganism with the idea that you can eat great-tasting food to the benefit of more than just yourself. We just can’t forget the vegan businesses who are in it for more than just the money. Vegans are the ones who started this trend, and we’ll need to do everything it takes to ensure the accessibility of plant meat and to finally turn the tide to the favor of the animals and the planet.

The vegan Bandwagon is leaving the Station

Everyone is not jumping on the bandwagon, however. With meat alternatives reaching $700 million in U.S. sales last year, Big Ag is fighting back to save their profits and keep the slaughter going no matter what it takes. In addition to relying on government buy-backs of unwanted meat and dairy, Big Ag has convinced many states in the U.S. to introduce labeling laws attempting to wipe the word “meat” off their new competitors’ packaging by banning the use of the word on products not derived from slaughtered animals. We’ve seen this type of distraction before from the old dinosaurs predictably resisting change and lawmakers acquiescing to the powerful meat (and dairy) lobby. The arc of the moral universe may be long, but we’re running out of time.

“The arc of the moral universe may be long, but we’re running out of time.”

In a perfect world, society would have listened to our ethics and changed their eating habits a long time ago. But ingrained habits and complacency pervade every aspect of our societal norms. Bas Kast reminds us, “It’s pretty much proven that we do not need to eat animals for our health. We do it because we’re used to it.” We are also just now seeing the kind of exciting developments in plant-based meat that removes the animal from the equation without sacrificing taste—what matters to most anyone as they gather around food. At the same time, we are fighting a massive, industrialized food system that continues to cause enormous animal cruelty and environmental degradation.

Changing the food system to a plant-based, animal-free one will take time and will require the support of each new innovation on the horizon. (Have you had the porterhouse steak from Herbivorous Butcher yet? Or heard of Gold & Green’s pulled oats about to hit the market?) Timo of Like Meat shares, “It’s a matter of time. It won’t happen overnight. It takes generations.” Björn of Blue Horizon goes further, “It needs a lot more action at all ends. More money invested, more support from governments and institutions, more consumer action, and better campaigning for conscious capitalism.”

That doesn’t mean we should abandon the specialty food case at our local co-op nor stop chowing down the delicious veggie burgers handcrafted by chefs at our favorite vegan restaurants. If we abandon the people who got us to this point in the first place, when we’ve lost our way. But that doesn’t mean we can’t have our macrobiotics and eat our Impossibles, too. The future of meat is upon us, and we’re here for it. This is what we’ve been fighting for all along.

[1] United Nations Food & Agriculture Organization
[2] World Resources Institute
[3] Food and Water Watch


On our Plates: Some of our favorite plant-based meat options right now.

The popular burger, sausage, and ground beef founded by Ethan Brown. Look Ma, we’re eating our peas!

Heme is the secret ingredient in this burger, which is decidedly the most meaty of the plant-based burgers around.

Family-owned, Germany company that offers an incredible selection of meat substitutes for any recipe, dish, or sandwich.

Tasty pulled pork, chicken, and sausages that are good on their own or in a favorite recipe. Made with simple ingredients and in small batches.

New school burgers made the old school way. Based on a family recipe with nutritionally-dense and legume-rich ingredients.

Ahimi made from tomatoes. The taste and texture is uncannily like bluefin tuna in an effort to save them from extinction.

Pork substitute from the Hong Kong start-up Right Treat, making a mainland China push to address rising meat consumption in Asia.

Versatile range of meats in different varieties created for “Free Range Humans” by chef Anders “The Duck” Linden.

Mouthwatering vegan jerky in a variety of flavors. Between these and the jerky from Louisville Vegan Jerky Co. and we’re channeling our inner Quechua on the regular.

Dog & cat food with clean protein and without any animal ingredients.

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