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Thursday, July 18, 2024

Reimagining meat alternatives

It’s time to reimagine meat alternatives for a sustainable food revolution, writes Nick Dormon


Emotions play a huge role in perceptions of meat as the centrepiece of our meals. From Thanksgiving turkey to Easter roast lamb, these dishes capture the warmth and conviviality of a family coming together to feast on a beast that is succulent, aromatic and tender.

But no meat alternatives have ever even been able to contend with or displace it – yet. Beyond that, there is status to the concept of ‘bringing home the bacon’ – where meat, a once ‘luxury’ item, was dined upon just a few times a week in those frugal eras where home cooking was the norm and ready meals were as novel as an astronaut’s freeze-dried spaghetti.

The food industry has given birth to many innovations since the famous advent of sliced bread, radically changing how many common foods are sensorially experienced – from the way they look and taste to how they feel on our tongues. From the crackle of a rice puff as it dissolves in our mouth to the creative forms of a Turkey Twizzler; food inventions come in all shapes, textures and sizes. However, despite these experimentations in form and flavour, a proper food ‘revolution’ is yet to occur. As yet, no innovation has impacted the world positively since mechanised production transformed local farms into international industries and reduced global hunger.

As crop yields become increasingly affected by climate change and the demands of meat production continue to perpetuate the environmental crisis, a food revolution has never been more urgent. This presents an exciting and important opportunity for food engineers, designers and brand consultants to work collaboratively and develop a palatable solution that can nourish, tantalise and crucially short-circuit humans’ innate prejudices and fears (of which there are many) of certain sustainably sourced foods for the betterment of our health and that of the planet.

A hundred years from now, will futuristic diners be lovingly passing down traditional family recipes for Uncle Tony’s sweet and sticky teriyaki grasshoppers or Nonna’s comforting cricket ‘bacon’ carbonara? Food innovators certainly have their work cut out for them. If this is to be done successfully, they must learn to emotionally connect with the consumer, understand the part that emotions play in eating, and develop new and positive associations with sustainable food that is currently maligned, ridiculed and snubbed.

Navigating disgust and consumers’ double standards

What are the food alternatives that can initiate a food revolution? Insects, widely touted as “the future of food” remain, as yet, too strange and disgusting to gain meaningful traction with the mass market. For now, only the bold and the brave will choose to consume a packet of Wasabi-dusted meal worms over a standard packet of Wotsits. Not that humans hold much regard for the welfare of insects but the concept of eating a juicy, earthy, grub once writhing contently under a log in the undergrowth can be too much for one to stomach.

This is quite incredulous when we think about the narratives we assimilate to justify our consumption of lamb, chicken and beef – idealistic stories of massaged cows grazing on lush grass, plump and proud hens roaming happily and freely on the farm, lambs playfully bounding across the Chiltern Hills. If these narratives whet the appetite for meat, why then is it non-transferrable to grubs and common critters?

It seems illogical, but then emotions can sometimes feel devoid of logic. How else would we reconcile eating livestock but not insects? Consumer double standards are inherent and replete. Brand narratives can play a critical part in persuading the sceptical consumer to create new ideals that can, with some coaxing, broaden the palate.

Then there’s the form of the food itself. Many products within this category still feature these little insects in all its entirety, with little eyes and tiny legs still in view, fixed hard and fast by frying. Diehard carnivores might not be disgusted by a whole roast hog, head and trotters intact, cooking slowly on a spit roast but eating whole critters may be a touch too far. Again, the contradictions are astounding but much of the food we consume is so aesthetically departed from its original form that we are often forgetful of its sentient provenance. And perhaps we do want to forget; for forgetting assuages any moral conflicts we might hold of animals suffering to satisfy our palates. Equally, with insects, we don’t want to be reminded that these edible critters are actually creepy crawlies we would rather squash.

If insect-based food products are to penetrate the mass market meaningfully, producers and food designers must work sympathetically with consumers’ disgust reflexes and innate suspicion of food radically alien from its original form to navigate these tensions successfully. It calls for a re-design; a different presentation from its more visually unpalatable format.

Designing dinners

The issue with designing food is that it infers artificiality; of undergoing a process that far removes it from its natural state. Processed food has long been maligned as injurious to health, responsible for a multitude of ills – from IBS to obesity. Indeed, part of this bad rap is justified. High-profile incidences – such as the orange juice that turned a toddler’s skin yellow to beef meatballs containing horsemeat – have only reinforced consumer distrust of large food manufacturers. But, again, consumer double standards around processed food compound the issue. Pasta, in all its fantastical shapes and formats, is singularly the oldest processed food we consume – dating as far back as the 4th century B.C. Then there’s the crisps market, which – through the magic of marketing – has successfully convinced consumers that an aerated corn structure, fashioned into weird and wonderful shapes, still belongs in the chip isle despite being so radically divorced from its wholesome corn provenance. We will happily allow our children, and ourselves to eat these snacks with little thought about the health implications.

The irony is that plant-based food – a once flourishing category largely touted as a guilt-free, healthy alternative to meats – is the product of design and processes that we love to hate. But rather than leveraging the aesthetic codes of natural food, plant-based meat alternatives are deliberately formulated to ape the real deal. From making soya ‘bleed’ as if it were a seared rare steak to recreating the coarse grizzle of sausage meat in a vegan sausage roll, the artificiality of the food is unabashed – as if its ‘plant-basedness’ gives it concessions for looking so processed.

The plant-based meat market is now in decline. Perhaps this is, in part, due to recent studies showing how plant-based alternatives may not be better for our health (or the environment) than the real thing after all. And perhaps this is in part due to manufacturers failing to cultivate new and unique characteristics for plant-based proteins that have the potential to whet the appetite, if only its authenticity were allowed to shine.

It’s difficult to think what will replace counterfeit meat; another imitator borne from a petri dish or some soy derivative made to replicate the colour and flavourings of our favourite beast? With so many contradictions, double standards and cognitive dissonance to navigate, one thing is certain: design will be central to the paradigm shift relating to food production and consumption.

Unfortunately, design has often been overlooked in key discussions about the future of food. This can no longer afford to happen. Design will be central to a new solution for sustainable and healthy food; to espouse the sensory traits that make it delicious and visually appealing. Design can nudge us into new and positive behaviours so long as these derive from an empathetic and human-centric place.

The opportunity to create is here. It’s time to exonerate processed and designed food – because they may well be key to the next food revolution.

Nick Dormon is the founder of Echo

Nick has transversed design from engineering, product and service to branding and been active at critical global transitions prompted by technology and social change. His early career was spent with Silicon Valley companies taking advantage of the computing revolution. Back in London he helped the BBC launch digital radio. He now works with FMCG brands on 360o design programmes.

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