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Plant-based food space shows promise at 2018 Good Food Conference

Ricardo San Martin speaks during the “From Field to Fork” discussion at the Good Food Conference on September 6.

Intrigued by the idea of a burger patty that looks like meat, smells like meat, and tastes like meat, but is actually plant-based?

So are hundreds of specialists in the plant-based food space, many of whom gathered at the Good Food Conference at UC Berkeley’s Clark Kerr Campus on September 6 and 7. In the hallways, representatives from sustainable food companies set up booths advertising their products, while various speakers took to the stage to participate in panel discussions about the plant-based food industry.

At the Sutardja Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology, the Alternative Meats Lab allows students to work on plant-based food products as class projects. Ricardo San Martin, research director of the lab, said he noticed that in order to encourage people to buy into plant-based foods, researchers need to recognize the cultural implications of replacing real meat with synthetic food.

“Food has meaning for people. It’s not like an app, not like a new cell phone,” San Martin said. “I have seen it in my class — it’s hard to change behaviors. At Cal, we can leverage not only the STEM part of the equation, but the non-STEM part to really work on these topics.”

To replicate the taste of actual meat, Impossible Foods uses heme, a compound which gives meat that bloody, satisfying flavor. However, heme has come under fire recently for possibly increasing the risk of cancer and damaging DNA. During the “From Field to Fork” discussion, President of the Preventative Medicine Research Institute, Dean Ornish, questioned whether it was right to include heme despite health concerns.

Celeste Holz-Schietinger, research director at Impossible Foods, said that heme is the most biologically-available iron and contributes to making meat replacements more desirable for consumers. Heme has also been approved by the FDA, four years after Impossible Foods voluntarily submitted their product for testing.

Holz-Schietinger added that the company’s focus was on making synthetic meat that tastes identical to real meat, in order to satisfy customers and drive them towards more sustainable food.

“People don’t eat meat because they like the fact that an animal was slaughtered — they eat it in spite of that,” Holz-Schietinger said. “People will come if you have the product.”

Part of selling the product involves packaging and marketing, which is a company’s “hardest working media,” according to Sergio Eleuterio, general manager of Springboard Brands at The Kraft Heinz Company. A good packaging design definitively states what the company is in a way that’s easy to understand for the typical consumer.

Eleuterio pointed towards a flexitarian lifestyle, which is where he said the plant-based meat industry is seeing the fastest growth. According to Eleuterio, flexitarians are much more focused on the culinary aspect of the foods that they purchase, as they enjoy cooking from scratch; in order to appeal to flexitarians, packaging should emphasize that with specific recipes and encourage adding a “personal touch.”

“The people that are consuming are different and have different needs,” Eleuterio said. “You have to be very mindful of that.”