COLUMBIA — Harold Huff has more fun at work when he can make his own lunches using the chicken-free strips he produces in his lab at MU's Agricultural Engineering Building.
“You can try chicken fajitas, chicken tacos and chicken salads," said Huff, a senior research specialist at MU. "I certainly eat chicken fajitas more than anything else.”
Huff has been working for 20 years with MU biological engineering professor Fu-Hung Hsieh to create the alternative chicken product, which is made from a mixture of soy powder, carrot fiber, gluten-free flour and other ingredients. Using a large extruding machine that transforms the mixture in only one minute, they can produce in one hour the same amount of "meat" that would come from 50 to 100 real chickens.
The technique of producing chicken-free strips that have the taste and texture of chicken was licensed by MU to Beyond Meat, founded by Ethan Brown, in 2009. Beyond Meat has been distributing the products through Whole Foods in northern California and Washington, D.C.
Consumer feedback has been positive, and the company plans to sell the chicken-free strips across America by 2015. Beyond Meat also expects to invest $5 million in a food production facility in Columbia this fall and employ more than 60 people here within five years.
Looking back over the past 20 years, Hsieh said serendipity drove him to do research on alternative chicken products.
“There was a product called textured vegetable protein in the ’70s," Hsieh said. "TVP was made by extrusion of soy flour or soy concentrate under low moisture conditions. The beauty of TVP was it is protein-based and does not contain saturated fat.”
Textured vegetable protein's nutritional value made it a popular product in school lunch programs, hospitals and supermarkets during the 1970s. But it has drawbacks. The product must be rehydrated, and flavor has to be added. Plus, it lacks the fibrous appearance of whole muscle. Hsieh said it left a lot of room for improvement.
The effort to produce veggie strips that tasted, looked and felt like real chicken was unsuccessful in the beginning. “We did not see true fiber formation in the first few years,” Hsieh said.
Off and on, the project ran slowly because of a lack of funding. “The ingredients are not expensive on a per-pound basis. But when we talk about hundreds and hundreds of pounds to run a trial, the large quantity caused them to become expensive," Hsieh said.
That meant the researchers could only afford to pour small batches of ingredients into their $250,000 food extruder, which conveys, mixes and heats the concoction to produce the strips.
Huff and Hsieh were persistent though, constantly searching for the most favorable temperature, pressure and moisture levels for the mixture. A breakthrough came in the mid-'90s, when they began to see a fibrous texture that matched that of muscle tissue. That helped them get an $80,000 research grant from the Illinois-Missouri Biotechnology Consortium and $320,000 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The soy-based mixture is powdery and has an off-white color. Soy powder is the main source of protein. The carrot fibers and the gluten-free flour help absorb water and promote fiber formation.
It took Huff and Hsieh years to get the proportions of the ingredients and the extrusion process exactly right.
“It was a bit rubbery in the beginning,” Hsieh said of earlier versions of the strips. Now, however, they look exactly like cooked chicken breast meat. Pulling it apart, it is tender, stringy and moist. It's OK to eat once it comes out of the extruder, but its taste is plain. That's why they add a mixture of spices to give it flavor.
Hsieh, who was trained as a chemical engineer and food scientist in Taiwan and the United States, said he enjoys his research at MU.
“We have pleasant surprises from time to time in the laboratory," Hsieh said. "Initially, we were not sure how long it would take us to make it happen. In addition, we had many other active research projects at the same time.
"Sometimes results are great, but sometime results are not as expected. But bad results are still useful because we learn a great deal from our mistakes, and we know what would not work.”
Hsieh said there's always been a market for alternative meat products. “When you go to any supermarket’s organic foods section, you could find veggie meat products from several suppliers. They are pricey. But you would be surprised how people are willing to pay for it.”
Indeed, the Global New Products Database reports that 110 new meat substitute products were introduced in 2010 and 2011.
Huff noted that the chicken-free strips are not only a healthy vegetarian substitute for chicken, but they also help relieve the food scarcity pressure by supplying the world with another source of protein.
“Demand for protein increases with world population," Huff said. "No one can say for sure: Would we still be able — 60 and 70 years from now — to have enough animals to meet the food demand of the entire population?”
Huff sees the alternative chicken strips as a way to ensure sufficient protein in people's diets. “The protein is never a replacement for meat, but, in my opinion, it helps lower the meat demand and provides us a nutrition base.”
Over the years, around 10 MU master's and doctoral students have helped with the research and published several academic papers related to the project.
Justin Fuller, a master’s student in biological engineering, has been part of the research for 2 1/2 years. He works in the lab from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. every weekday to continue refining the product and the extruder's production rate.
“Different ingredients, different temperatures, different production rates — there are a lot of variables to investigate,” Fuller said.
Huff and Hsieh say they'll continue working on the chicken-free strips. “We are always looking for better blends," Huff said, "and anything that would enhance the product’s quality and functionality.”
Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.