Tastes Like Chicken: The Quest for Fake Meat

A team of scientists has invented a soy product that looks and feels like real poultry. Will it fly?

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Artwork by Balint Zsako. Photograph by Tom Schierlitz for TIME.

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It's at once harder and easier than it sounds. First, you take a dry mixture of soy-protein powder and wheat flour, add water and dump it into an industrial extruder, which is essentially a gigantic food processor. (You have to climb a ladder to get to the hole at the top.) At first, the mixture looks like cake batter. But as it's run through the gears of the extruder and heated to precisely 346°F (175°C), the batter firms up and forms complex striations. It took Hsieh and Huff many years to get the temperature right, and it also took years to discover how to cool the soy cake very quickly, before it could melt.

All this processing raises a question: Will vegans and other gastronomic purists buy a product that is vegetarian but highly processed? Also, what does it taste like?

On the day I visited their lab, Hsieh and Huff had arrived early along with some of the university's culinary students. The scientists and the students worked together to create three dishes: a barbecue sandwich, a tarragon "chicken" salad and a fajita. The seasoning in all three dishes was unbalanced, and none were very good. But the way the meat broke across my teeth felt exactly how boneless chicken breast does. It was slightly fibrous but not fatty. The soy wasn't mashed together as in a veggie burger; rather, it was more idiosyncratic, uneven, al dente — in other words, meatlike.

Public-health types have long yearned for a credible soy meat because soy is a great source of protein that has significantly less fat and cholesterol than animal meat. But while Missouri's fake chicken has the right consistency, it still has to be flavored — and heavily salted — to taste like meat. That's why the next green-food frontier is real meat grown in vitro — actual flesh that is sliced away not from a living animal but a petri dish and which offers all the taste with none of the livestock slaughtering.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has offered a $1 million prize to anyone who can bring in vitro chicken meat to market by 2012. As with so much of what PETA does, it is largely a publicity stunt: according to Jason Matheny, a vegetarian who runs a venture-capital firm called New Harvest, in vitro meat is "at least five or 10 years away." Meantime, Tibbott and other soy proponents, including the University of Missouri scientists, believe they can bridge the gap by offering realistic fake meats. Who knows? Maybe one day you'll order a chicken fajita at Chili's that is made with soy. You almost certainly won't notice the difference, but the planet will.

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