Why 3D printing is best placed to replicate animal meat
Almost all we eat in a whole cut of meat is animal muscle, and to replicate it requires tackling its complexity through a new approach – and a fundamentally different way of thinking
The impact of the meat industry on the environment has been amply discussed, and Covid-19 exacerbated the issue even further. The pandemic exposed the fragility of the current food supply chain, causing widespread shutdowns of slaughterhouses due to large-scale outbreaks. In turn, interest in alternative meat has risen, but the lack of products tasty enough to convert meat-lovers still prohibits the industry from truly taking off – and driving any meaningful change in global meat consumption.
Trailblazers Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have made great strides in this area, but a substantial gap still exists. Data from a report by the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) show the growth of the meat industry still hugely outpaces the alternative meat market.
With years of R&D and billions of dollars of investment to date, you would be forgiven for asking what exactly is stopping the industry from moving forward? Or why have we not been able to replicate animal meat by now? The answers are far from simple.
The ability to replicate the taste, texture and appearance of animal meat has long been heralded the holy grail of alternative meat – a milestone that has still not been fully achieved.
To effectively replicate animal meat requires understanding what it is that makes meat. Indeed, the biggest function in meat, and the one that contributes the most to our sensory appreciation of it, is the fact that almost all we eat is animal muscle.
While this is widely-acknowledged across the industry, understanding the composition and behaviours of animal muscle structure has yet to be tackled, as well as the muscle structure’s function in texture, flavour, and mouthfeel.
The complex muscle structure of animal meat
The structure of meat is sophisticated and intricate in its composition, evolving over millions of years and perfected by cross-breeding agricultural sciences. One can argue that meat, in the form of muscle, is the most complex food product that exists.
This complexity is apparent in many forms – in the raw status of meat, the transition during cooking, and finally, during the complex sensory process that takes place in our mouths when we eat meat.
All of these elements together deliver an experience that is not only tasty and enjoyable but one that is truly special to meat. It’s also why the challenge in recreating it is so big and cannot be simplified to one magic formula. After all, the one carrying all the load in making meat is an animal, with its biology, life and movements.
This challenge is especially notable with steak and other types of meat we consume whole, and the very reason why it has been virtually untouched by the alternative meat industry to date – products in the market replicate minced meat.
In products like hamburgers or sausages, a butcher or meat processor destroys the original complexity of meat and simplifies things. Instead of structure, interactions and complexity, we have homogeneity. Instead of muscle, we have mass.
The list of attributes that are necessary to create a ‘perfect steak’ is far more extensive than a hamburger, including stiffness, fibre structure, cohesiveness, colour gradient, heterogenetic structure, changes in heat, smell, flavour and many more. There are so many parameters that we do not know how to quantify or articulate – one bite into our favourite cut of steak, and we definitely feel them.
Tackling this challenge requires a new approach and a fundamentally different way of thinking when it comes to alternative meat – embracing complexity, not avoiding it.
Developments are being made in several areas, but one technology that has drawn a lot of attention in the past year is 3D printing. Beyond the hype, the reality is that the technology’s inherent attributes may hold the most compelling proposition for alternative meat production today – it’s not a replicator making food out of the air, but a real solution to specific needs.
Replicating meat from the ground up
3D printing is generally considered relatively new technology, but it’s been around for over 30 years. Today, it plays a key role throughout the design and manufacturing process of many industries, from automotive and aerospace to consumer goods and electronics, dental and healthcare.
3D printing enables companies to optimise product development and reduce time-to-market. Crucial to this is 3D printing’s ability to create complex geometries unachievable with traditional methods.
When parts are built layer by layer, there are virtually no limits on how complex the part can be. This enables designers and engineers to have total freedom of design to produce parts with no geometric restriction.
New multimaterial 3D-printing technologies have been introduced in recent years, taking freedom of design to the next level. And it’s here that lies the greatest potential for alternative meat production in replicating the complex muscle structures of animal meat – in contrast to simpler processes used in the food industry today to make plant-based burgers.
Multimaterial 3D printing provides engineers and innovators with the unique capability to create products comprising multiple different materials all in a single process.
Take a pair of sunglasses, for example. Manufacturers are 3D-printing the rigid frame, the interior rubber lining to sit on the ears, and the transparent lenses simultaneously in one print – something previously unimaginable.
For Redefine Meat, applying a similar approach to multi-material food printing (MMFP) has been integral to cracking the compositional challenge of steak.
Meat: A digital structure
Designed especially for producing
Redefine Meat uses a 3D printer designed especially for producing the company’s Alt-Meat, laying down blood, fat and protein simultaneously at a voxel-level according to the digital structure mimicking that of animal meat.
Furthermore, these ingredients can also be precisely combined on-the-fly during the printing process itself to create entirely new digital materials designed to replicate a specific animal composite.
This advanced capability is what allows Alt-Meat to go beyond just taste, but also replicate texture and mouthfeel. It’s the same approach that is being used today to try and mimic human tissue in bioprinting, so why not extend this capability to replicate a much simpler target, such as slaughtered animal tissue.
Additionally, MMFP enables alternative meat producers to address the current lack of product variety. Using the same 3D printer, companies can print different meat types (beef, pork or lamb) and other meat cuts (tenderloin, sirloin, rib-eye) by simply changing the digital file.
This level of flexibility in production helps alternative meat producers to provide the same variety of products, cooking methods and culinary applications we would expect from a traditional meat aisle or restaurant.
Alternative meat: Print, test, repeat
As with any development process, the ability to test and iterate designs quickly – commonly known as rapid prototyping – can determine the speed at which the final desired product can be achieved.
3D printing has become an essential tool for prototyping, enabling companies in various industries to iterate their product’s design significantly faster than ever before at greatly reduced cost. These same capabilities are being applied by companies such as ours to accelerate the development of Alt-Meat and overcome the limitations of traditional food industry methods.
Traditional food production processes, such as extrusion, enable alternative meat producers to modify ingredients and test new formulations during product development, but it requires a large quantity of material and long production cycles to test each new formulation.
Modifying the structural composition of meat using these analogue processes is even more challenging.
Heavy machinery needs to be reconfigured, a step that can take days or even weeks, and typically a very costly process. And much of the variable in the process remains a form of art more than science, making it much more of a trial-and-error effort than structured endeavour.
These are inherent barriers within alternative meat that naturally slow down developmental breakthroughs in achieving the structure and texture of the final product.
MMFP, however, brings the benefits of rapid prototyping and digital production to the meat industry.
The foundation of 3D printed meat is based upon digital building blocks that are precisely allocated and assembled during the printing process, which crucially enables engineers to go beyond just the manipulation of ingredients, including meat’s structure and texture.
During the development phase, new design iterations to the meat’s structure can be made digitally via software within minutes, and several new sample ‘meat prototypes’ with different structural parameters can be printed and compared almost immediately.
This process of ‘print, sample, repeat’ offers unprecedented speed in product development and a significant competitive advantage in tackling the complexity of replicating animal meat structure – especially when cracking steak.
This approach also opens the door to advanced AI and machine learning technologies that can further optimise the alternative meat experience for consumers.
With the ability to learn consumer habits, likes, dislikes and more, these learnings can be fed through into development and refinement of meat production – further enhancing the product to consumer requirements.
For example, if consumer feedback data suggests the meat is too fatty, digital files can be optimised using computational methods to restructure the distribution of fat to address the issue.
While 3D printing’s inherent attributes offer a compelling proposition for alternative meat, there’s still a long way to go if the industry is to take animal meat head-on. If we are to convince mass meat lovers to embrace meat alternatives and reduce their animal meat intake, the complex composition of animal muscle still needs to be truly replicated.
It’s clear that innovations are required at a technology and process level to achieve this, but understanding the fundamentals of what makes meat will be critical throughout this journey. And to do that requires industry-wide collaboration – no one company can do it alone.
Technology developers and food companies need to work closely together with chefs, butchers, meat scientists and other key stakeholders across the industry to share their expertise and learn from each other.
I have no doubt that the industry can develop alternative meat products that are as delicious and satisfying as any meat coming from an animal. But if we are to make a meaningful impact on global meat consumption, then we will do by working together – the journey will be much longer than it has to be otherwise.