Playing chicken: Turning pea protein into fake fowl

Shama Lee, chief executive of Sunfed Meats, the Auckland-based company developing 'meat analogues' from vegetable proteins.
Chris Skelton/Fairfax NZ

Shama Lee, chief executive of Sunfed Meats, the Auckland-based company developing 'meat analogues' from vegetable proteins.

IT LOOKS like chicken and it tastes like chicken, but the "meat" in this stir-fry comes from Canadian yellow peas – and it could be in supermarket butchery aisles by July.

Auckland businesswoman Shama Lee wants to change the way the world eats protein.

"There are going to be nine billion people on the planet by 2050, and meat consumption is increasing at 6 per cent a year. It's going to move faster as people in developing countries move into the middle class, because meat really is a middle class luxury. Where is this growth going to come from? And at what cost?"

The 'raw' product - pea protein, turned into steamed chicken by Auckland start-up Sunfed Meats.
Chris Skelton/Fairfax NZ

The 'raw' product - pea protein, turned into steamed chicken by Auckland start-up Sunfed Meats.

Plant protein, says Lee, is the answer.

Sunfed Meats, the company she co-founded in January with her husband Hayden, is partnering with Massey University in a pilot programme to develop what scientists call a "meat analogue" – fake meat, based on proteins extracted from plants.

The company is on its third iteration of a steamed chicken-like meat and the next step is a commercial-standard trial run at The Foodbowl, the open access test facility operated by NZ Food Innovation Auckland.

Spot the chicken: stir-fried pea protein successfully masquerading as chicken.

Spot the chicken: stir-fried pea protein successfully masquerading as chicken.

Lee is in discussions with an American investor, working on labelling options (she wants to be on the same shelves as regular chicken) and is aiming to be in the local market, at the same price point as the flesh and blood free-range equivalent, this winter.

The cost so far?

"Our life savings have gone into this ... It's a risky project, as all innovations are – but I couldn't sit back and wait for someone else to do it."

According to Lee there are only a "handful of other players in the same league as us, and they're all overseas".

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She points to the United States, where Beyond Meat is backed by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, and Europe's Like Meat, a multi-country collaboration with EU Commission funding.

"We can do it better," says Lee. "I seriously believe that."

Think plant protein, think tofu – polarising slabs of bland made from coagulated soy milk.

"It's such a stigma," says Lee. "Blind tests are the only way we can tell people 'no, we don't taste like tofu'."

Lift the lid on a sample pottle of Sunfed chicken and it has the faint smell of toast. But there's no wheat, no gluten, zero cholesterol and less than 5 per cent carbohydrates and fat. It contains between 25-30 per cent protein per 100 grams (regular chicken breast comes in around 18 per cent).

The texture is stringy, exactly like the steamed chicken it's meant to be simulating. Unadorned, there is no taste and the lack of chicken aroma definitely takes some getting used to. But add garlic, ginger and soy sauce and this is stir-fry as the time-poor and health-conscious mid-week eater knows it best.

The key to edible analogue meat, says Lee, is the technology that allows protein to be extracted from plants. New Zealand currently has no expertise in this area and intellectual property around the process is fiercely guarded. So far, Sunfed is relying on extracted protein imported from France.

"Bringing that technology and skill-set here would be great, because this is the future. Plant proteins are most definitely the future. And if we rely too much on just meat and dairy, we're going to lose out, because everyone else is investing in this area."

Sunfed first experimented with soy and wheat. "And it's really good. You eat it, it's chicken. But that's not what we want to go to market with. We want a non-allergenic, clean product."

Lee is reluctant to talk absolute specifics, but among the ingredients in the Canadian yellow pea formulation are water, sunflower oil, water and vegetable powder. A small amount of taste-testing has been conducted, in-house, at Massey.

"It's really important to us that it has the same texture, and that it cooks like meat. That's really important, otherwise no-one is going to buy it.

"The path to market is nurturers and we do want to be in the supermarkets, starting off in New Zealand and Australia, but we don't want to forget developing countries."

Fijian-born Lee topped her country's high school leaving certificate scores. She had planned an Australian tertiary education, but the Fijian coup caused the withdrawal of academic scholarships to that country.

"New Zealand kept theirs, and I am so grateful."

She fell in love with the country, and, eventually, a Kiwi. She married and began working in software development.

"All the while I was doing that, I felt a bit unfulfilled. I was really trying to figure out what I wanted to do, and having numerous existential crises.

"What were my values? What did I stand for? I had a conundrum with meat, I read profusely on the meat industry, I really wanted to know how those animals were treated.

"I think when I was younger, I was a bit too preachy, too judgmental. As you grow older, you realise everyone's trying to do the best they can, and if you really want to make a difference, then give them better options."

There was another, more subtle pressure.

"I feel very privileged to live in this country, where I can speak, where I have the right to start my own start-up that I can invest in, and get government support for. It's incredible. If I was somewhere else in the world as an Indian woman, I wouldn't have these things. I've always had this pressure on me – you're privileged, what are you going to do with that?"

What she's not doing (so far) is having children: "Women entrepreneurs have to think about how much you put into your business. Am I going to have a family? Right now, Sunfed is my baby and, I don't know, I feel like the labour pains are constant!"

Home is a husband, a dog, a cat and two chickens.

"I eat cruelty free, which means I do eat clams and oysters and mussels, because they don't really have a complex nervous system and they can't really suffer.

"I exclude dairy and commercial eggs – when the chickens feel like laying eggs, I eat them."

Her husband eats pest meats; wild and introduced deer, rabbits, pigs and goats.

"He's one of Sunfed's biggest testers. We need someone with a meat palate!"

Older generation textured vegetable proteins, says Lee, were often dry in their formulation.

"We use a lot of water ... it's really high in moisture, so when you cook it, it'll do the thing you need it to do."

Selling points include its "clean" credentials.

"The meat industry, unfortunately, has a dirty footprint. Because it's so intensive, it's one of the key contributors to climate change ... pardon the pun, but it's a water hog and a feed hog. The majority of the feed grown in the world is redirected to livestock, as opposed to humans.

"We know meat is linked to heart disease, to certain cancers and it does cause obesity as well. And then zoonotic diseases are a real issue for every human – avian flus, swine flu, mad cow diseases – they're all born in intensive meat production."

Lee says supply chains are compromised. Consumers are questioning what animals are fed, how they're treated and how they're slaughtered.

"The question I put to myself was can we make meat directly from plants and skip the animal?"

Last year, according to OECD Meat Consumption charts, New Zealanders ate 34.2 kilograms of chicken, 15.9kg of pork, 5.8kg of sheep and 15kg of beef and veal meat per capita. Our national dish is roast lamb and our summers smell like steak and charcoal. Are we ready for meat made from peas?

"The primary buyer is mothers and women," says Lee. "They want something with a good amount of protein, that's safe, they can trust, and after coming home after a hard day's work, they can cook and the kids will eat. It can't just be healthy, but taste awful.

"That market of super-green and ethical really is very niche, very specialised and unfortunately products cost a lot. We don't want to be placed like that, we want to be a true alternative to meat."

 - Stuff


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