Lab-grown meat could soon give Impossible and Beyond burgers a run for their money.

Impossible Burger Sliders
Credit: Aubrie Pick

Once mainly the province of vegetarians and vegans, fake meat has become an increasingly popular trend on menus at large. Beyond the usual health and moral concerns, the recent fake meat boom has been driven primarily by two new factors: First, growing concerns over the environmental impact and sustainability of the meat industry has led many carnivores to realize that cutting back on meat may have more benefits than they previously considered. Second, the science behind fake meat has improved as well. The two biggest players in this new wave of plant-based meat—Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat—brag that their burgers more closely resemble real meat, both in flavor and texture, than their predecessors with their "bleeding" feature.

However, plant-based meat brands aren’t the only ones who have been using science to their advantage. And as quickly as the plant-based meat revolution has sprung up—with the Beyond Burger landing at places like TGI Fridays and Impossible Burger recently adding White Castle as the latest feather in its cap—these “veggie” burgers could soon be facing pressure from another traditional meat replacement that once sounded like science fiction: lab-grown meat—also sometimes referred to as “clean meat” because of the less creepy connotation.

Though the end results of both types of products are intended to have an identical purpose—to reduce our reliance on farmed meat—the methods used for these two products could not be more different.

Plant-Based or "Fake" Meat

Attempts to create plant-based substitutes for meat have been around since the days of tofu: Companies like Beyond and Impossible are simply leveraging new research to make their products more like real meat than ever before. Specifically, much of Beyond Meat’s innovation is built on work conducted on pea proteins at the University of Missouri (along with a bit of beet juice to create a “bleeding” effect). Meanwhile, Impossible Foods was founded by a biologist, Patrick Brown, who attempts to unlock the power of heme in his burgers (that are otherwise made from things like wheat protein, coconut oil, potato protein). Heme is a component of animal blood that supposedly lends Impossible Burgers their meat-like characteristics.

Lab-Grown, Cultured, or "Clean" Meat

Lab-grown meat brands use completely new technology that only been solidified in the past five years or so: literally growing cell tissues. As you might expect, the methods behind growing meat cells is complex, and since the technology is rapidly developing, multiple processes exists, but the gist is that some types of harvested meat cells can be coaxed into dividing and growing in a lab similar to how they would in nature. One issue with this process is that growing a group of cells is fundamentally different than growing an animal, so these products still need work to resemble the kind of meat products consumers are used to, but for now, the bigger hurdle is cost. That said, even though clean meat isn’t cheap enough to be served commercially yet, the price to produce it is rapidly decreasing.

Not that long ago, in the fall of 2016, the clean meat startup Memphis Meats spent about three weeks in the lab to create a single cultured meatball at a cost of about $18,000 per pound. As unlikely as it may have sounded at the time, the company’s CEO Uma Valeti suggested that his company’s products could be on the market within three to four years.

Now, two years later, that timeline is starting to look surprisingly accurate as a sort of clean meat “arms race” has ensued. Many companies have jumped into the clean meat market, producing everything from beef to chicken to pork to duck to salmon, and major food industry investors have recently taken notice—even some big-name “traditional” meat brands. For instance, earlier this month, Tyson Ventures—the venture capital arm of the chicken giant—co-led a $2.2 million funding round in the Israeli cultured meat startup Future Meat Technologies, a company whose founder hopes to be able to manufacture clean meat for under $5 per pound by 2020.

Assuming cultured meat doesn’t hit any sort of regulatory hurdles, we might be just a few years out from traditional meat, plant-based meat and lab-grown meat all being equally commercially viable from a cost standpoint. Suddenly, consumers would have a lot of options when it comes to meat: Both plant-based meat and clean meat would theoretically be able to lure in customers looking for a more environmentally-friendly and sustainable option. However, whereas plant-based meat would remain the only “true” vegetarian option, people who have chosen to go vegetarian for ethical reasons might see clean meat as a way to alleviate these concerns and gravitate away from plant-based meat back to “real” clean meat.

Meanwhile, since traditional meat will likely have a place on the market for the foreseeable future, the advent of affordable clean meat could potentially put more pressure on the booming but also still burgeoning plant-based meat business than traditional meat companies. As a result, could plant-based “bleeding” burgers simply be the placeholder until cultured meat has truly arrived? It’s a question for plant-based brands to be concerned about, but also one where, until clean meat patties hit Whole Foods, the answer is still up in the air.