Plant-based meat is quickly taking over supermarket shelves. With the market share for vegetarian products on the rise, and with more and more Dutch people willing to eat less meat if given decent alternatives, supermarkets are stocking up on meat substitutes like vegetarian satay and plant-based steak. Like many outstanding developments in the food world, it all started in Wageningen.
Ten years ago, Professor Atze Jan van der Goot started researching new ways to create fibres from dairy proteins and then plant proteins. His proudest creation: a seven-kilo piece of 'meat' that’s nearly impossible to distinguish from the real thing. The only difference is that this product is made entirely of soy concentrate and wheat gluten.
Below, Van der Goot enthusiastically discusses his work and Wageningen as a breeding ground for cutting-edge food research: "We're at the forefront of ground-breaking developments."
How did your research come about?
"It all started out of curiosity. I wanted to know how molecular changes in proteins and starches could be better quantified through extrusion. That's the process used to make pasta and certain types of crisps and snacks. My research gradually shifted towards meat substitutes. Sustainability is very important to me and we all know how environmentally unfriendly meat production is. That's why I shifted my focus to plant-based meat in 2004."
Why is Wageningen University & Research the perfect place for a study like this?
"To be honest, it's the only place where this kind of research is possible. You won't find facilities like these anywhere else. Just look at the equipment and devices we use, many of which were developed in-house. Facilities like these are one-of-a-kind! We also benefit from the mutual collaboration between the university and Wageningen Food & Biobased Research. We like to use students for certain studies, while Wageningen Food & Biobased Research takes on other aspects of the process. That kind of collaboration is incredibly useful."
Did students and staff get involved in your research based on a desire to make a positive impact on society?
"They all have a certain drive, that's definitely something I've noticed. A lot of people are inspired by scientific curiosity, much like I was. That's possible here in Wageningen; you can take huge strides forward."
Wageningen's excellent reputation certainly doesn't hurt.
"Absolutely. The things we do here carry a certain weight simply because our name is attached to it. Wageningen is to food what MIT is to technology. Everyone knows us and wants to work with us."
Who do you work with at the moment?
"In the beginning there was little interest in my research, but that started to change the more concrete my research became. At first it was small businesses, like De Vegatarische Slager. Now, major food companies are getting involved as well: market leaders like Unilever, Givaudan in Switzerland and Meyn, which manufactures poultry processing machines. They're interested in producing our 'steak machine' on an industrial scale. If that happens, things will really start taking off.
I'm also approached by journalists more often these days. Last year, de Volkskrant devoted an entire article to our research. We also demonstrated our product and process to Minister of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality Carola Schouten, during a food event in Ede.
Will everyone soon be eating plant-based steak from Wageningen?
"We've more or less perfected the structure of the meat, but we still have to refine and test the taste. Then it's a matter of scaling up. It'll take some time, but I really don't foresee any major obstacles."