For those watching their meat intake, there were two particularly interesting projects featured in last month’s Beazley Designs of the Year showcase.
The first was the Impossible Burger 2.0 – the latest iteration of the popular plant-based patty, which boasts as much iron and protein as a comparable serving of ground beef. The second was the Ouroboros Steak, a “DIY meal kit” for growing gourmet steaks from (one’s own) human cells.
One of these projects, naturally, has more mass appeal than the other. But the presence of both in such a forum points to the fact “alternative” meats, their development and production, are increasingly not just a scientific mission. Rather, there is value to be added to the cause by designers, whether it’s through sensorial experience, industrial production or even branding.
Taste buds “hate to be misled”
The first and most obvious challenge involved in developing alternative protein sources is taste and texture. As food designer Laila Snevele explains: “having the right sensory input can make us love food.”
Snevele’s practice is focused on the sensorial design of food. That is, exploring how the likes of colour, shape, texture, temperature and sound impact our connection to food. Her work is often sought by companies looking for “speculative or realistic future scenarios” of products.
According to Snevele, knowing what goes into a “likeable sensation” is the first hurdle. But managing expectations is also a huge part of the task – call a plant-based alternative a burger and a frame of reference is instantly set for what it should taste like. If the sensorial experience hasn’t been designed right, if it’s too grainy or dry for example, this leads to disappointment.
“When our mind is set on meat expectations, our senses are ready to receive and enjoy, but oh how they hate to be misled!” says Snevele.
Design can help “shorten the distance between R&D and the consumer”
Currently wheat-protein and soy are the two main materials used to create plant-based meat alternatives; and extrusion and shear cell technology are the most common methods of manipulation, according to food designer Chloé Rutzerveld.
Extrusion involves using high pressure to push pulp through a machine to create textures like minced beef and chicken. These products are “highly processed, textured, already flavoured” and only require heating before consumption, Rutzerveld says. Meanwhile shear-cell technology manipulates the density of fibres of a plant-based material and can produce products like tenderloin or steak, which behave “more or less” like the real thing, she adds.
The production of these meat alternatives feels pretty far within the realms of science and technology. But as Rutzerveld explains, value can be added to this process with design. Her own work is focused on how product and industrial design can dovetail with technology and science. Her aim is to “shorten the distance between R&D and the consumer”, by explaining what different technologies are in an understandable and accessible way. Her book Food Futures: How Design and Technology can Reshape Our Food System, delves into this topic in more depth.
“We’re very dependent on industry”
As a designer and a long time vegetarian, Rutzerveld questions how such technology can be pushed forward for the benefit of the consumer.
“Over the years I’ve tried a lot of meat replacers, and I do think they’re getting better all the time,” Rutzerveld says. “But I also think we’re very dependent on industry.”
One area she is keen to see developed is technology that bring these methodologies into the home and out of exclusive control of laboratories and experimental kitchens. Industrial designers would of course be helpful here.
“Why aren’t there any home appliances that can bring texturisers and shear-cell machines into the home?” she asks. “This is something we could really help bring about, designing the products themselves, interfaces and programmes.”
Putting this control in the hands of consumers, Rutzerveld says, could “speed up the novelty” of meat alternatives and make diners more comfortable experimenting for themselves.
“In order for consumers to buy them, they have to feel familiar”
But beyond the actual eating experience, she says designers have a huge role to play in the storytelling around meat alternatives. Like Snevele explains, expectations are a big challenge.
“We want these alternative products to be sustainable, healthy and surprising and for consumers to buy them they have to feel familiar,” says Rutzerveld who is explaining why meat alternatives are so often found in the shape of their animal equivalents.
However, she adds this also involves more than just fitting within the semantic visual codes of meat products. The rationale as to why we should be eating them should also be part of the experience. If the ultimate goal is to encourage consumption of less meat because of health, environmental and animal welfare concerns, then that story needs to be told to consumers.
“If people feel they understand how it’s made and why it’s a better product than conventional meat, fish and dairy – you can intrinsically motivate people to make different food choices,” she says.
“The general public are easily spooked”
Part of this storytelling will come from branding. This can be a tricky tightrope to walk, according to Studio Koto founder and creative director James Greenfield. Studio Koto recently unveiled the branding for Dutch lab-grown meat company Meatable, and Greenfield explains a balance between the still-developing science and the “fear factor” was needed.
“A lot of people think what Meatable and other alternative meat companies are doing is unnatural, and at the same time, like to think of the food on their own plate as grown rather than ‘made’,” he says.
For this reason, the branding for Meatable avoided being “too scientific”, instead leaning on an aesthetic Greenfield calls “retro futurism”. The idea, he says, was to use a visual language from a time in the past where the future was “perceived more positively”, as opposed to now where mistrust of governments and big tech companies makes us feel more cautious than optimistic.
“One thing that we’ve found, having worked in this new sector and others like AI, is that if you go in too focused on the future, people just end up relating it back to science fiction,” Greenfield says. “And because of these associations can be negative, our concern was to avoid those connotations because the general public are easily spooked.”
“Is it a meat alternative, or is it meat?”
This ends up posing an interesting duality – how can branding tell the story of a new and technologically advanced product like this, without resorting to science clichés?
The overall look for Meatable is a natural one, Greenfield says, which uses real photography of cows alongside earthy colours. This was a way to side-step sci-fi associations, while offering a realistic look into how the brand operates today. As Greenfield explains, Meatable is still a few years off from being on the shelves as a food product, so depictions of burgers and sausages wouldn’t be reflective of the brand’s capabilities right now.
As more and more brands look to occupy the meat alternative space with Meatable, Greenfield says it will be interesting to see how such visual language develops.
“One thing that I find fascinating is that in the traditional world of meat production, brands tend to use soft, cartoon-like imagery of animals,” Greenfield says, giving the example of the seemingly ubiquitous cartoon chicken imagery found in fast food restaurant branding. “So I think there will be an interesting point to find out how animals are represented, if at all.
“There’s going to be a lot of interesting stuff to think positioning-wise, along with plant-based alternatives too. Where will it sit in the supermarket? Is it a meat alternative, or is it meat? It’s going to be very interesting to watch this unfold.”