Flavor Failure: The Fatal Flaw of Revo’s Fake Fish (and Other 3D-Printed Proteins)

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Cut into an M&S “Plant Kitchen No Chicken Kyiv” and you’ll be greeted with a gush of garlicky, herb-flecked vegan butter (formerly known as margarine), reassuringly present and correct. The luxurious, fragrant filling and the crisp breadcrumb coating distracts from the fake “chicken” itself, which is fine, but eaten on its own, the product has an odd texture and flavor similar to a wet bagel. No matter – that’s what the breadcrumbs and garlic butter are for. My family and I wolfed it down. The fact that it neither looked nor tasted quite like real chicken made no difference. It tasted good, and that’s all that matters.

I was recently given the opportunity to try Revo Food’s new surrogate salmon product and realized that achieving the perfect taste is a fundamental point that too many mock meat manufacturers miss. That is especially true for those who use 3D printing to emphasize the appearance and texture of alt-proteins while falling short on flavor. Take Redefine, for example. By extruding protein and fat batters into strands that are then pressed together to form “steaks,” the company has been able to convincingly replicate the fibrous texture of braised beef. But it tastes like what it is: plant protein goo, yeast extract, and coconut fat.

Image courtesy of the author.

Even when covered in Bearnaise sauce, Revo’s faux salmon product, THE FILET, isn’t fooling anyone, unfortunately. More to the point, it’s not delicious. I hate to say it, but it’s a waste of time and technology. Brands such as Omni and Moving Mountains have shown that it’s possible to produce fake fish that tastes delicious, though perhaps it’s telling that most of these goods come battered or breaded, just like M&S’s Kyivs. The problem is that Revo seems to have prioritized presentation over taste, using 3D printing to make a fake salmon ‘fillet’ that looks impressive, but tastes subpar.

Image courtesy of the author.

All of these brands attempt to reverse-engineer fishy flavors using extracts, but the taste of real meat and fish is complex, and this is hard to do. Revo’s fake salmon has a slightly astringent aftertaste and an overriding aroma of geosmin, redolent of freshwater ponds. Geosmin is an important compound in the flavor of salmon, but it has to be carefully deployed, in balance with the hundreds of other compounds that make up the distinctive taste of real salmon. It’s the same with any food. A more familiar example might be cheese-flavored snacks made with butyric acid. A little bit of this and the food tastes like parmesan. Too much and it tastes like vomit. If companies like Revo genuinely want to replace real meat and fish, they have to absolutely nail these issues.

The taste issue is compounded by the fact that, sadly, Revo’s 3D printing process doesn’t actually produce a salmon-like texture. Real salmon flakes apart into satisfying chunks, separated by ribbons of delicious, melting fish fat. Revo’s alternative has a spongy meatloaf-ish texture that might be acceptable for fake chicken nuggets, but undermines the illusion of eating real fish as soon as you cut into it.

It begs the question: do alt meat manufacturers adequately emphasize getting people to eat differently, or are they too focused on new technology and enabled by venture capital? When it comes to flavor, neither the tech nor the investment are necessary. Some of the most reliably delicious meat substitutes are traditional products like yuba or Chinese mock duck, which has been around since the 7th century. Among recent meat-replacement start-ups, one of the best is Neil Rankin’s Symplicity, which creates fantastic, remarkably meaty burgers and sausages out of fermented vegetables.

It may be no surprise that the mock meat investment bubble has already burst, because so many of the products are just not good enough – and not cheap enough for consumers to buy with any regularity even the products were good enough. Sainsbury’s lists Beyond Meat mince for $21 per kilo. The company’s organic, pasture-reared beef mince is only $13.27, while the fungus-derived freezer favorite Quorn mince is just $7.45. If you’re plant-curious, there’s little reason to spring for the startups.

It could be that brands like Revo and Redefine are simply intended to be minimum viable products, proof-of-concept beta versions of something that will someday be developed into truly delicious, sustainable, and affordable alternatives for people who want to eat less meat. However, nobody will return to these products if they don’t taste as good as cheaper and/or more familiar alternatives. Their disappointment on the flavor front call into question the fundamental reason for these businesses to exist in the first place.

There is still potential for additive manufacturing to help us move away from eating animals, but that potential may not lie in piping out fake muscle fibers to form space-age simulacra of actual meat. It could be more in line with what companies like Sugar Lab or Barilla are doing: creating something new, beautiful, and unique. While RPG dice made of sugar and pasta in the shape of little woven baskets aren’t viable sources of protein themselves, there is an ethos behind them that technology should be used in ways that prioritise our sensory experience. They use 3D printing to make foods that look irresistible and exciting, and crucially, that excitement is carried through as you eat them. They taste great.

To its credit, Revo’s technology is undeniably cool and innovative – exciting, even. But the food itself – not just the engineering behind it – has to be exciting, too. And it’s awfully hard to get excited about food that tastes like mud. Particularly as Revo scales up toward mass production, I’m looking forward to when these firms overcome their fatal flaws so that I can revisit their products with more optimistic reviews.

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