Eshchar Ben-Shitrit's world changed when his oldest son was born five and a half years ago.
As he became a father, he realized he now had a bigger role to play in shaping the world, both for his family and his son. And he did something he once thought impossible: He gave up meat.
While Ben-Shitrit has changed what he put on his plate, he told Food Dive his tastes have not changed. He still truly wants to eat a good steak. Which is why, on the day his second son was born two and a half years ago, he quit his job as a product manager in the 3D printing world. Soon after that, he founded a company to solve that problem: creating a plant-based steak that can be made with a 3D printer.
His company, Israel-based Redefine Meat, has done just that. Last month, the company announced the Alt-Steak — a plant-based product with the texture, flavor and appearance of the real thing — would be tested at some high-end restaurants in Israel, Germany and Switzerland later this year. The company plans to make the Alt-Steak widely available at restaurants in Europe starting in 2021, and in the U.S. at the end of 2021.
Redefine Meat has worked with butchers, chefs, food technologists and flavorings company Givaudan to create a product that replicates the look, taste, texture and cooking behavior of steak. The company says there are more than 70 sensorial parameters incorporated into the product. The company's proprietary 3D printers take three plant-based ingredient blends — known as Alt-Muscle, Alt-Fat and Alt-Blood — and put them together to create a multi-layered plant-based steak.
The company, which raised $6 million in a funding round last year, has been working to disrupt the meat industry since its inception.
Not only is Ben-Shitrit ready to eat the steak his company produces, but he also thinks consumers want it. In the years since the company started, he said he's seen a big shift in consumer attitudes toward meat alternatives and the technology to produce them.
"I think that now people understand, with climate change and ... COVID-19, suddenly ... the notion of 3D-printed meat makes sense to them," Ben-Shitrit told Food Dive. "When we started, which was not so long ago, it didn't make sense. People told me, 'So why do we need meat not coming from an animal? Why would somebody want something that looks like meat?' And today, it's more, 'How efficient is it going to be? Is it healthy or not? Is it affordable or not?'"
An actual solution for an actual problem
Just a few years ago, 3D printing was seen as the next big thing in food technology. Trendwatchers said it could be used to amp up personalization of food, creating customized snacks, confections and decorations.
Fast-forwarding to today, the technology exists, but is not in wide use. Trends have moved more toward functional ingredients, alternatives to products that come from animals, and enhancing taste and texture.
The vast potential of 3D printing in the food world is part of what drew Ben-Shitrit to creating plant-based steaks.
In order to be successful, he said, the use of 3D printing "needs to be specific to a problem to solve a problem. In 3D printing of meat, you can solve problems. Thinking of snacks, OK. For chocolate, there's not really a problem to solve."
3D printing is really the only way to create a plant-based steak, he said. A conventional meat steak has different textures and juiciness, as well as fats that marble through different cuts. And even if a flavorist can perfectly replicate the taste of a steak, the appearance, texture and experience of eating steak are necessary for anything to serve as a convincing substitute.
Several other plant-based food companies that don't use 3D printing have tackled steak substitutes, and in some parts of the world, there are many choices on the market. European consumers can find many options at the grocery store, including one from Dutch manufacturer Vivera and one from Harmless Foods, a store brand at U.K. vegan grocer GreenBay. In the United States, both Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have said they were working on developing steaks.
"When we started, which was not so long ago, it didn't make sense. People told me, 'So why do we need meat not coming from an animal? Why would somebody want something that looks like meat?' And today, it's more, 'How efficient is it going to be? Is it healthy or not? Is it affordable or not?"
Founder and CEO, Redefine Meat
The printer that Redefine Meat has designed uses the three plant-based ingredients that mimic different components of steak and can print in dots tinier than a millimeter. They are used to create a multi-layered matrix that reproduces a conventional steak. Ben-Shitrit said the printer has made a single piece of meat that weighs about five pounds. It can produce a steak in about an hour, he said.
It took a lot of time and R&D to get to a product that is good and replicates a steak, mostly because eating is the most complex human behavior, Ben-Shitrit said. There is texture, scent, flavor and sight involved. The company put together high-tech machines and algorithms to try to determine the perfect balance of all of those aspects. A couple of months ago, Ben-Shitrit said, they found something that worked.
"It's an ongoing cycle of optimizing so many parameters," he said. "This is where we use our technology. ...The computer, the algorithm, can live with far greater complexity than what human minds can live with. If we just [designed meat ourselves], it would take us millions of years."
Many food scientists, as well as conventional meat butchers, were vital in the development of the Alt-Steak. Redefine Meat's scientific team dug deep into the chemistry of what makes steak. The company has then found plant proteins that form the same amino acids, creating close to the same profile of the meat itself, fatty acids and blood in the red meat.
The ingredients to make up Alt-Steak components are relatively common plant-based ones. The main ingredients are soy and pea proteins, coconut fat and sunflower oil, natural colors including beetroot, water and natural flavors. Ben-Shitrit said that despite the chemistry deep dive used to create the ingredients, the company has not formed any novel ingredients — mainly so there are no impediments in getting to market, he said. New ingredients take time to be cleared by regulators.
Eating is believing
The Alt-Steak is not only plant-based, but it is also healthier than its conventional alternative, Ben-Shitrit said. It has no cholesterol, less fat, less saturated fat and more fiber. And, he said, there's no potential dangers of being exposed to antibiotics or meat-related contamination.
However, he said, most people who eat steak are not doing so to be healthier. They're doing it out of enjoyment.
"But I think it is a healthy option," he said.
So far, Ben-Shitrit said his company has had a good relationship with conventional meat. Redefine Meat is working with several conventional butchers, both to get cuts, textures and blends right and for wisdom on how to make the best products. Ben-Shitrit said the company and the idea of plant-based steak has so far been embraced by the butchers.
"They don't see it as a threat. They see an opportunity there, and they also think that this will happen," Ben-Shitrit said.
The ingredients and technology for an Alt-Steak give it a market price comparable to a high quality animal-based steak, and Ben-Shitrit says that's where he's aiming to price it. Unlike CPG plant-based meat, which producers are working to get to price parity with the conventional version to drive consumer adoption, the Alt-Steak targets consumers who are willing to pay for a dining experience, Ben-Shitrit said. He also is focusing on product quality rather than production economy, which drives a premium price.
Perfecting the Alt-Steak and growing it in foodservice is Redefine Meat's sole focus right now. Ben-Shitrit said the company is not going to be working on any other kind of meat in the near future. He said the company experimented with tuna filets in the past, but they haven't done extensive work on that product. Any other products are a couple of years away.
"What we're trying to achieve is to have a product in the market and to have a big presence to have an impact, and also to support the company," he said. "And we believe that focusing on beef now makes a lot of sense. It's so big, it's so challenging. The opportunity's so big. So why confuse ourselves?"