Could AI help to create a meat-free world?

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The more meat and animal products we eat, the quicker we deplete the Earth’s resources. Could artificial intelligence devise new ways to make meat-free foods that taste great as well?

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Remember the last burger you really enjoyed – try to summon up its rich, juicy taste in your mind and its chewy, firm-yet-soft-yet-crunchy texture. Try to recall how the taste filled your mouth with flavour as you bit into it. Remember the smell. Remember how satisfying it was.

Now think about how it might have tasted without any meat in it. Farming the meat for beef burgers takes a hefty toll on the environment around the world. But would you have been happy with the spongy substitute some vegetarians enjoy? What if there was another way of recreating the sensory extravaganza of a burger?

A group of entrepreneurs are now turning to artificial intelligence to find the answer. They want to produce something so similar in taste and texture to a real beef burger that it would be impossible to tell if animals were involved in its production.

Karim Pichara, Matias Muchnick and Pablo Zamora created NotCo in 2015 (Credit: NotCo)

Karim Pichara, Matias Muchnick and Pablo Zamora created NotCo in 2015 (Credit: NotCo)

Meat is not their only target: mayonnaise, cookie dough, cheese, chocolate, and pretty much every other food produced using animal-based ingredients are in their sights. Their dream is to make the world’s diet vegan by default, to make a plant-based option the easiest, cheapest and most convenient one on the menu.

Of course, the idea of replacing animal-based food is not new. But AI is offering a more powerful and promising way of doing this. It is allowing food scientists to explore new ingredients, to develop surprising recipes, and to find innovative ways of replicating all the tasty fats and proteins that eggs, milk, and meat bring to our food.

Crazy food

“The way we eat today is, mostly, crazy,” says Josh Tetrick, the founder and CEO of food start-up Hampton Creek, who are among those using AI to develop new foods. “Six billion people are just eating really bad food.”

Despite being a strict vegan who would prefer a kale salad rather than a muffin, Tetrick is convinced that today a “healthy and sustainable food only works for a tiny slice of the population”. He imagines a future where choosing to be vegetarian or vegan is not something only open to the better off in society. He wants to reach those who don’t get to choose.

His quest started in a very unsophisticated fashion – he just scouted for plant-based food, adding them to a basic database. “I had no idea of what machine learning was,” he says. “I had no idea of what computational biology was.”

Then he was introduced to AI by a friend. The powerful machine learning algorithms allow him to systematically find new ingredients or formulations that can provide substitutes for animal-based products.

He is not alone in his mission.Thousands of miles south, in Santiago, Chile, Matias Muchnick, Karim Pichara and Pablo Zamora are trying something similar with their new company NotCo. They want people to eat in a more nutritious and less environmentally taxing way.

The suggestions made by the AI are vetted by human testers (Credit: Hampton Creek)

The suggestions made by the AI are vetted by human testers (Credit: Hampton Creek)

“If we had to deliberately come out with the worst possible way to feed ourselves, it would be the way we do it today,” says Muchnick.

Animal-based food takes a hefty toll on our planet’s resources. As outlined in this BBC Future article, eliminating meat from the…

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