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20 years of research lead to soy chicken strips that taste like, have texture of meat

Tuesday, August 21, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 10:03 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, August 21, 2012
Justin Fuller holds the meat-free chicken made of soy protein Wednesday in the Agricultural Engineering Building. The meat-free chicken has received national attention for not only tasting like chicken but for having a similar texture as well.

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.”

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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.


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Comments

Richard Saunders August 21, 2012 | 10:52 a.m.

George Jetson approves.

Me, I'll stick with real food while I watch the rest of the world adjust to a GMO soybean diet disquised as food.

And by adjust, I mean suffer the unknown consequences.

(Report Comment)
Kevin Gamble August 21, 2012 | 11:59 a.m.

@Richard, I hope your "real food" includes organic, locally-sourced whole foods in responsible balance (i.e., meat not being remotely the majority of your intake). You don't specify, but what a lot of people consider "real food" is unsustainable at best and unhealthy at worst.

I like the concept at work here - exploring alternative sources for nutrition. No matter how much horrible companies like Monsanto tell us otherwise, I don't think it's a substitute for sustainable local agriculture, but it's a good technology to have available. So long as it's not reliant on GM ingredients and massive industrial monoculture.

As for this particular product - I'm somewhat disappointed that it's based on soy. With the health concerns around soy protein isolate, I expect trends to go away from soy over time (I've cut it out of my vegetarian diet entirely). And as far as replicating chicken goes, this product will have to truly excel to top Quorn, which still sets the bar for me when it comes to meat substitutes.

Best of luck to this group in developing the most healthy and responsible product it can.

(Report Comment)
Richard Saunders August 21, 2012 | 2:15 p.m.

@Kevin, I'm building my own farm, and as for a diet, I'm going Grok.

www.marksdailyapple.com

(Report Comment)
Robin Nuttall August 21, 2012 | 3:52 p.m.

Go Grok!

Lots of mounting evidence that not only excess soy very bad for you, our GMO, big ag funded FDA food pyramid is contributing heavily (pun intended) to our obesity epidemic. Fat and meat are NOT unhealthy. Chemical and additive laced soy frankenfoods are not better for you than organically raised grass fed beef (just the opposite).

For a lot of information on getting back to a healthy diet; one high in healthy animal and nut based fats, protein, and lots of whole vegetables and fruits, www.marksdailyapple.com is a great first step. He has many links to peer reviewed research. And a recent large study found that of diets based on calories and the food pyramid (low fat, high carb), a low glycemic diet, and an atkins type very low carb high protein/fat diet, the Atkins dieters both saw the best health benefits and the largest weight loss.

(Report Comment)
Kevin Gamble August 21, 2012 | 4:09 p.m.

@Richard - fantastic, and good luck!

What you & Robin are talking about seems to be very sympathetic with the ideas and findings of the Weston A. Price Foundation (http://www.westonaprice.org/), which go back even further.

I'm a vegetarian for ethical reasons, but support these concepts for others, especially when they're done on smaller/sustainable scales (and my reference to meat was mainly about its incredible unsustainability when done at the industrial-farm level, and the lacking nutrition that results - not nearly as much the case in responsible, small operations). Important to also note that not all carbs are created equal and can have their own benefits, if you choose the right ones.

(Report Comment)
Robin Nuttall August 21, 2012 | 6:11 p.m.

@Kevin, we do need carbs in our diets. However, grain-based carbs are pretty bad for us, especially highly processed grains such as white flour. It's been shown that as many as one in 3 people have gluten sensitivity.

Soy presents particular problems because of phyto estrogens. A diet high in soy is thought to be one of the reasons why adolescent girls are reaching puberty far too quickly and adolescent boys get breast development. It is not a benign super food by any means. I'm not an expert on the subject but what I have read has been pretty scary.

(Report Comment)

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