Amid lifestyle changes toward wellness and health, as well as an inclination of industries to adopt disruptive technologies, the 3D printed plant-based meat industry could go from niche to mainstream in the next decade. Even though meat-eaters today make up more than 90 percent of the world population, a fake steak that imitates the unique mixture of protein and fat while producing aromas as enticing as real meat could have a great appeal to human taste buds. To satisfy this segment, a handful of startups have turned to 3D printing to make real-looking burgers and steaks produced from customized combinations of plant protein, vegetable fat, and natural coloring. One of them is Tel Aviv’s Redefine Meat. Last Tuesday the company revealed the world’s first industrially 3D printed vegan meat product using customized technology that can scale up production for commercialization in 2021.
After two years of developing a technology that can print 50 meatless steaks per hour, Redefine is also getting ready to start market testing the new Alt-Steak at selected high-end restaurants later this year. To learn more about the development of its flagship product and the potential success of Redefine’s technology, 3DPrint.com asked co-founder and CEO Eshchar Ben-Shitrit to share his unconventional approach to alternative meat.
What was the process behind the creation of Alt-Steak?
We started working on our 3D printing process two years ago. Just a small team, working on the fundamentals of the technology: ideation, screening, feasibility, and IP. For a long period, we didn’t have anything concrete, but we thought that the idea was compelling and important enough to continue on our path. Early on, we were able to produce a really tasty meat product, but not ‘steaks’. It was following last year’s significant investment that we were able to scale up our team and development dramatically. In the last nine months, we have gone from a team of seven to 25 and made significant iterations to our steak product.
What sets you apart from other food companies in the industry?
We have been obsessed with beef and with steak from the first moment we founded the company. In any industry where 3D printing already plays a role, it is first and foremost a fast prototyping tool. In the early days, we used our unique approach to 3D printing meat to test how changes in the meat’s composition—using digital accuracy and control—improve the texture, color, flavor, and cooking behavior of our Alt-Meat products. We can still iterate, improve, and learn faster than any food company that doesn’t have such digital capabilities. However, the coveted achievement of 3D printing in any industry is creating a product that no other technology can. That’s the glass ceiling of most 3D printing applications, and we believe our Alt-Meat smashes it: going from rapid prototyping to advanced manufacturing. If you can do something which is better than the alternative, without a massive cost premium, you can really disrupt an industry.
What was the most challenging part of making Alt-Steak?
Unlike all existing Alt-Meat products, real meat is an extremely complicated product, where much of the sensory experience—taste, flavor and their interactions—comes from the structure and composition. Meat seems like a random combination of factors, but it is a very ‘planned’ product, where planning is related to how nature designed the animal’s muscle. Beef, especially, is a product that has been ‘built’ for years by the cow. Our 3D printer is the only technology we know of that can replace the role of the cow in making meat.
When can we expect to see Alt-Meat products around the world?
Our Alt-Meat products will hit select restaurants later this year, initially in Israel, Germany and Switzerland. Upon successful market-testing, we will scale up globally. Our goal is to work with experts who can give us feedback on our product quality, which is why we are targeting professional chefs with vast experience in handling and cooking meat. We will start shipping our industrial 3D printers to large-scale meat distributors in early 2021, who will, in turn, start rolling the meat out into restaurants and other food service players. They have the existing supply chains and relationships with restaurants and other foodservice players to roll out our Alt-Meat products. We are already in talks directly with retailers, but supermarkets and food stores will come after the first phase.
Can you give us some insights into the 3D printing process and technology used to make the imitation steak?
We use a proprietary, multi-material, high viscosity 3D printing process where three ingredients are printed simultaneously to form the product, our plant-protein Alt-Muscle, plant-fat Alt-Fat and natural color and flavoring Alt-Blood. Our machine performs a specific and separate technological process (coming from food-engineering) for each of them and then combines them according to the 3D model in the print software. In addition, we print a ‘full’ product—unlike plastic 3D printing that prints just the shell—so we don’t need any additional materials to support the product while it is printed. More importantly, we can use a 3D model of an entirely different meat product with the same machine, process and ingredients, whereas traditional food production technologies have to change entire formulations. We can also iterate a steak to be softer, harder, juicier with less fat, and much more—all with a simple click of a button.
How will Redefine compete with the meat industry?
Tackling a 1.5 trillion-dollar industry that has been around for so long is an immense challenge, and part of that challenge is winning over meat-loving consumers who feel like [meat alternatives are] a poor substitute to the real thing. So, one of our main focuses has been to replicate the sensory experience of eating meat. And here, the toughest aspect is to balance hundreds of different parameters that all come together in a single food product. For example, many people believe that mimicking the texture of the meat is the biggest challenge. However, texture can be defined quite easily and measured in precise ways. We discovered that, even when you have the perfect texture from an analytical perspective, if you don’t get the color right or have a slight variation in flavor, consumers will not give the product’s texture a high score. This is why we have to ensure that we excel on all parameters at once: texture, flavor, and color.
In terms of ingredients, what products are you using to develop Alt-Meat?
We use natural, approved-for-consumption and sustainable ingredients. At this point ,we can’t share more than that. However, we are working with leading companies. Our most important strategic partner is global taste expert Givaudan, who supports us in developing the flavor of our meat, which is comprised of taste and aroma.
How many prototype steaks were created before finally deciding on the winning formulation?
Our steaks are our digital creations. We improve them every day and will continue to do it for the coming decade at least. Since founding the company, we have a monthly record we are breaking—so far, in each month that passed, we produced more 3D printed meat than in the entire human history.
What is the potential of Alt-Meat in the Israeli market for plant-based products?
Historically, and at present, Israel is leading the demand for plant-based meat. We have a huge share of vegan and vegetarians, as well as a Kosher restriction that, in some cases, makes carnivores prefer Alt-Meat over animal meat. In addition, we have an experimental and innovative culinary culture, so people are always willing to try out something new. Moreover, one of the biggest innovators in this field is originally an Israeli company: Tivall, who is now a part of Nestle.
Can we expect an imminent change from meat-products to the 3D printed substitute meat market? What is the long term vision for Redefine?
The current pandemic has accelerated many long-term processes, including the realization that humanity needs to be prepared for the future and not just enjoy the present. This alone has pushed a massive wave against the outdated, wasteful, and unsustainable means of producing meat. The modern food supply chain was resilient during the crisis, where the meat industry is practically collapsing. We see a demand from more countries, more potential partners, and even more meat companies coming to us for those reasons. However, and perhaps more importantly, once the waves caused by COVID-19 pass, the world will have to look at where another pandemic might come from – and the meat industry will be the natural risk. We are hoping that investments, incentives, and talent will naturally flow into the relatively small Alt-Meat industry, transforming it into a huge one within the next five years. Why not? It is good for the planet, good for people and can help feed a growing population. All while restoring some balance to the world.
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