Will Alternative Proteins Ever Taste Delicious?
It’s that moment when the world just melts away. In that moment of quiet, all you’re left with is a feeling of another time and place that means something deeply personal to you. It’s a moment that no film, words, or song can quite adequately capture. It’s that moment when you’ve eaten something delicious.
Terms like the Proustian or Ratatouille Moment have been coined to refer to this curious effect. For both the French novelist, Marcel Proust, and the dour critic, Anton Ego, from Ratatouille, all it took was a bite of food to elicit a joyful memory. For Proust, it was tea-soaked madeleines; for Ego, ratatouille.
We’ve all experienced these moments at some point in our lives: An inexplicable sense of comfort and bliss that tugs at your heartstrings, brought on unexpectedly by a dish. In that split second, the food in front of you moves beyond mere sustenance, and into a moment of visceral pleasure framed with fond memories.
Can we ever have such a moment with alternative proteins?
After all, common wisdom denotes that we are predisposed to turn our noses up at novel foods (think: broccoli-themed toddler tantrums). In being such a new idea, alternative proteins arguably haven’t had the time or space to be embedded into our consciousnesses as nostalgic memories colored with pleasure or joy. And then there’s the matter of taste: How can we get them to taste good in all the ways that matter to different groups of people?
If we need to change the way the world eats quickly, how can we make alternative proteins delicious enough for people to come back to time and again, of their own accord, and not because of another marketing campaign?
The Recipe for Deliciousness
Who better to turn to for inspiration than those who have built their lives around the pursuit of deliciousness: chefs.
Across time, chefs have never shied away from pushing the boundaries of what delicious can encompass. Culinary movements are a prime example of this. The 19th-century Haute Cuisine movement, for example, began as a desire to improve the quality of dining—rich, multi-course meals of elaborately plated dishes became the gastronomic order of the day. By the 1960s however, the Nouvelle Cuisine movement had sprung up as a rebellion against the overpoweringly rich and calorie-laden extravagances of its predecessor. Chefs now prioritized putting fresh and natural flavors at the forefront instead. Deliciousness, according to the movement, was the ability to eat well without sacrificing one’s health.
Not long after, the 80s saw the rise of Slow Food. Spurred by a frustration against the heavily processed foods that were doing no favors for the health nor palettes of consumers, chefs spearheading the movement advocated for eating according to the seasons with meals centered around fresh, locally-sourced produce. And in more recent years, the culinary world has flirted with molecular gastronomy to excite diners with new, multi-sensorial experiences.
Looking at these disparate culinary movements, it’s easy to see that one commonality anchors them: The drive to redefine the status quo of what delicious can and should mean in order to feed people in newer and better ways.
It’s not just gourmet restaurants that have a hold over the concept of deliciousness. Street food culture too, has plenty of ideas to offer about what makes something delicious.
Street food is undeniably good food at its finest: The no-frills yet unbelievably delicious food, the convivial atmosphere, and its accessibility make it possible for anyone and everyone to enjoy the good food that’s being served. Tucking into street food is always a joyful and vibrant experience that people from all walks of life can gather over. And what of the spirit of creativity behind street foods? Who can say no to those fresh and exciting combinations that you never thought of?
Moving Alternative Proteins Beyond Tasty to Delicious
The alternative protein world is currently creating tasty things at best, but an honest look reveals that there’s still a long way to go in creating food that’s actually delicious. The litmus test for this? When the answer to the complicated question “Why even eat alternative proteins” is as simple as: Because it’s delicious. The goal is for people to actually choose alternative proteins not because of what they intellectually know (that it’s good for the planet, animals, and their health), but because it’s what they intrinsically want.
As the culinary world shows, the recipe for achieving deliciousness almost certainly looks like constantly pushing gastronomic boundaries in service of finding ways to better connect with people. After all, if we can make alternative proteins truly delicious, it naturally becomes the gateway, the invitation, for people to learn about and embrace this new way of eating for a better world.
For a start, the industry shouldn’t shy away from getting creative and playful where innovation is concerned. After all, as any cook would tell you, the most unexpected combinations often yield the most delicious results. To that end, companies have been working hard on scaffolding technology to cultivated fat to replicate the texture and flavor of actual animal proteins. Yet, beyond this, it might be productive to also eventually consider moving beyond mimicry and into the exploration of novel sensorial experiences.
An inconvenient reality is that as compared to conventional food products, alternative proteins have far less room for error. With alternative proteins still an option and not the mainstream, all it takes is one disappointing experience to discourage consumers from ever going out of their way to have it again. It’s hence imperative that we constantly think about ways to exceed expectations. In a decade or two, we might look back at and see that we were in the midst of another culinary revolution—how would we want to have redefined what the idea of delicious can mean?
At the same time, it’s also important to remember that deliciousness extends beyond physical sensations. After all, the act of eating also involves the consumption of intangible factors like the social experience. Whether it’s creating culturally conscious products or making alt protein products available in accessible spaces, it’s important for people to experience alt proteins in a way that feels inclusive and comforting, just like that Ratatouille moment.
An Appetite for Change
With all the scientific technicalities that go into creating alternative proteins, we sometimes forget that at the end of the day, what we’re essentially making is food. In the words of the anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson, “Human beings do not eat nutrients, they eat food.”
Food is a substance that nourishes us on a basic nutritional level. But it’s also about all the ways that we come together in celebration of something delicious that we want to have over and over again, and with each other.
For alternative proteins to truly become the food of the future, we have to make it inviting in more ways than one. That’s why we’ve carved out a framework to think about food holistically with Food Intelligence. With this approach, we’re setting the stage for every act of eating to become a chance to delight and nourish our bodies, as well as better the health of our planet.
How we eat can change the world—there’s no better time to whet up appetites for a world filled with food for good.