Fake Meat: Why Does It Taste So Bad?

The 800 or so compounds that make meat taste so delicious are hard to replicate in the lab, though scientists won't stop trying.

For many of us, Thanksgiving is a meat-lovers' paradise: there's turkey on the menu, of course, plus various servings of sausage, ham, bacon, duck or beef.

In recent years, scientists have tried replicating the taste of meat in order to come up with plant-based substitutes that will either be healthier or more environmentally conscious, while maintain the salivating savory flavors that carnivores love.

But challenges remain. The molecular structure of meat is complicated to reproduce in the lab, explained Mark Post, professor of physiology at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, and inventor of the in-vitro meat that debuted in London in 2013.

"Taste comes from proteins, sugars and aromatics in fat tissue," Post told Discovery News in an e-mail. "It is very complex and incompletely understood. There are likely up to 800 components in the protein and fat fraction that contribute to the taste."

Post's laboratory is one of several around the world trying to come up with a meat substitute. Impossible Foods, a startup in Redwood City, Calif., is promising a cheeseburger using "plant blood" by 2016; Hampton Creek, which is selling eggless plant-based mayo and cookies; and Beyond Meat, which uses a mixture of peas and plants to form a protein substitute.

These new products are going in a different direction than Tofurky, which has been selling its popular soy-based turkey since the mid-1990s.

"Soy, for instance, has a slightly bitter taste which is difficult to mask," Post said. "Other plant proteins such as lupine and pea-proteins seem to be easier to handle in that respect."

It's not just taste, but texture that is hard to mimic, said Janeal Yancey, professor of meat science at the University of Arkansas.

"There are the proteins that contribute to texture, but you also have connective tissue, or gristle, that contributes to the mouthfeel, or texture experience," Yancey said.

That mouthfeel changes with the way the meat is cooked, and how much "char," or carbonization, is present.

To our prehistoric forebears, protein was the most expensive nutrient in our diet. "You risked your life to hunt and harvest protein," Yancey said. "Our bodies are made to crave protein. It provides satiety that allows us to fill full and feel satisfied."

Meat-lovers got some bad news earlier this month, when the World Health Organization warned people that processed meat -- like sausage, bacon, hot dogs and red meat -- posed an increased cancer risk.

Eating more turkey may help, since poultry wasn't on that WHO red list.

Food scientists say the difference between turkey and beef is the melting point of the fat in each.

"Since the turkey fat is more oily and less solid in your mouth, it's more effective at delivering fat soluble flavor compounds," said Edward Mills, associate professor of meat science at Penn State's meat laboratory.

In other words, turkey is softer than beef.

As for when a meat or poultry substitute will be available that gives us the same flavor as beef, poultry or pork?

"We will continue to make progress in that direction," Mills said. "I'm not sure we will know when we get there. It strikes me that there will always be some degree of difference that is not identical."

It's very hard to make fake turkey taste like this Thanksgiving meal, mainly because there are so very many compounds in meat that make up its taste and aroma.

Ink seems so retro now that machines can custom-print myriad 3-D objects, including snacks. Here are some of the most impressive edibles to emerge from 3-D printers so far.

Cornell University’s Creative Machines Lab

is at the forefront of 3-D printed food. The lab’s Fab@Home project led by PhD candidate Jeffrey Ian Lipton uses solid freeform fabrication to print interesting snacks. Lab researchers worked with the French Culinary Institute to print this space shuttle from cheese.

3-D Printing Is Getting Ready to Explode

Printing with chocolate is a no-brainer given its consistency but what used to be a novelty has started going mainstream. Chocolate companies are using 3-D printing tech in new ways, like this


printed for Nestlé and Android KitKat’s



Using food like ink can be much trickier than generating a mold from 3-D tech. Several years ago

Windell Oskay

and his team at

Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories

custom-built a 3-D fabricator that fused sugar together into sculptures. More recently 3D Systems released the ChefJet printer to produce confections and cake-toppers.

One day the pizza question could be, Fresh, frozen or printed? The Barcelona-based startup Natural Machines printed fresh pizzas using a 3-D machine prototype called Foodini in 2013. At the same time, NASA gave a grant to the Systems and Materials Research Corporation in Austin to develop pizza-printing capabilities for space.

3D-Printed Pizza to Feed Colonists on Mars

The crew at Cornell University’s Creative Machines Lab did print thick cookies containing the letter C but German designer

Ralf Holleis

produced fewer crumbs. He collaborated with a professor at the University of Applied Sciences Coburg to print

holiday cookies

from red and green colored dough.

Printed meat doesn’t sound all that appetizing but that hasn’t stopped anyone from trying. The startup

Modern Meadow

is working on developing humane, bioprinted meat while

Natural Machines

used their Foodini to create real swirled hamburgers -- as well as the buns and cheese to go on top.

These chips might look like ramen noodles but researchers at the Cornell Creative Machines Lab printed them from corn dough. The flower shape allowed for even frying, Fast Company reported. If you want pasta, Natural Machines says its Foodini printer can serve up gnocchi and ravioli.

The Dutch consultancy T

NO Research

envisions using 3-D printing to address world hunger, although some might squirm at their proposals. Their food printer can generate nutrient-rich snacks from alternative ingredients like algae and even mealworms.

If telling kids to eat broccoli because it’s “little trees” doesn’t work, perhaps Natural Machines’ 3-D printed

spinach quiche

will. To tempt picky young eaters, the Spanish startup produced vegetable snacks in the shape of butterflies and dinosaurs using their Foodini printer.