"Vegetarian cutlet factory" produces endless slabs of fake meat
By Ben Coxworth
March 8, 2012
There are a number of reasons that some people choose not to eat meat - for instance, they may not want to support the slaughter of animals, they may wish to avoid the health risks associated with consuming too much animal protein, or perhaps they're not big fans of the environmental impact of raising livestock on a commercial scale. Unfortunately, if these people still want to eat meat-like foods, a lot of the meat alternatives currently available are kind of ... yucky. Germany's Fraunhofer Institute for Process Engineering and Packaging, however, is working on a device nicknamed the "vegetarian cutlet factory." It produces continuous slabs of veggie-based mock meat, which is reportedly quite similar to the real thing.
Fraunhofer is one of several groups involved in the European Union "LikeMeat" project, the aim of which is to develop palatable, cost-effective meat alternatives from raw vegetable materials. Some of the main plant sources being looked at include wheat, peas, lupins and soya.
Some previous attempts have involved a hot extrusion process in which plant proteins are mixed with water, heated under high pressure, then pushed into a die. Unfortunately, as soon as the mixture is extruded its temperature drops dramatically, causing it to release steam and foam up. The resulting souffle-like texture isn't exactly like that of steak.
In Fraunhofer's process, the plant protein and water are brought to a boil, but then allowed to cool back down. Since no sudden pressure release occurs, no foaming takes place. Also, however, as the paste cools, its molecules form into chains. This results in an end product with a meat-like fibrous texture.
This process is carried out within the prototype vegetarian cutlet factory machine, which is reportedly about the size of two table tennis tables. It is capable of creating "one endless piece of meat" that is about one centimeter (0.39-inch) thick, and that can be formed into shapes such as morsels, slices, or entire cutlets. It can put out 60 to 70 kilograms (132-154 lbs) of "meat" per hour, or 300 to 500 kilograms (661-1,102 lbs) a day.
While the consistency and texture of the meat substitute are said to be superb, the flavor apparently still requires a little work. Nonetheless, the Fraunhofer researchers believe that by the end of the LikeMeat project, in one year, that challenge will be overcome. In the meantime, interested parties might also want to keep an eye on what's happening in the field of lab-grown meat - although vegetarians beware, it would technically still be meat.