Fake Meat’s Health Quest Sees Spanish Startup Tackle Deli

Getting vegan meat or cheese to mimic the real thing usually requires a long list of often hard-to-pronounce ingredients — from maltodextrin to methylcellulose. There is a lot more salt and fat involved in the making, too.

(Bloomberg) — Getting vegan meat or cheese to mimic the real thing usually requires a long list of often hard-to-pronounce ingredients — from maltodextrin to methylcellulose. There is a lot more salt and fat involved in the making, too. 

This heavy ultra-processing has put off many consumers, but companies in the space are scrambling to revamp their approach. Heura, a Spanish startup which currently uses some of the same additives as its competitors, has developed patent-pending technology that aims to produce plant-based meat using higher quality inputs and shorter ingredients lists. It first wants to target Europe with plant-based ham slices and frankfurter sausages in the fourth quarter of this year, followed by other products.

Meatless alternatives are going through a rough patch. Sales of plant-based burgers and nuggets have fallen amid concerns over products’ nutritional value, inadequate taste and texture and the sheer impact of food inflation. Investors are less keen to back startups, and shares in Beyond Meat — the industry’s poster child — have tumbled. Rival Impossible Foods has been cutting jobs, a trend seen across the space that’s largely considered to have overpromised and underdelivered on products. 

“I think that the worst enemy of the category are bad products,” Marc Coloma, Heura’s co-founder, said in an interview. “We see that there has been kind of a gold rush in this category where a lot of products had been launched super fast to the market without meeting consumer expectations.”

Barcelona-based Heura, backed by Metro AG’s Xcel, Unovis Asset Management and National Basketball Association player Ricky Rubio, already sells conventional plant-based products across Europe, such as nuggets and burgers. But it wants to be the top alternative-protein brand in a region where it says sales of deli products are some six times larger than those of burgers, the flagship fake-meat product. Processed animal meats, meanwhile, have raised health concerns, with the World Health Organization classifying hot dogs, ham, beef jerky and others as carcinogenic.

“When it comes to processing, at the end the animal industry is also a processed industry, but it’s a processed industry that we’ve had for a while and it’s normalized,” Coloma said. “We are able to bring meat products that have fewer ingredients than the animal ones.”

Heura’s new technology is based on a thermomechanical technique that will allow for higher quality proteins and fats, specifically extra virgin olive oil. The company filed for a patent last week, a rather uncommon occurrence among plant-based alternative startups, where the relative lack of intellectual property and low entry barriers have deterred some investors from the sector.  

Still, more work needs to be done to streamline the ingredients list. While Heura’s new process can be applied to charcuterie, dairy alternatives and even pasta and won’t contain emulsifiers or modified starches, it’s not suitable for burgers which will still contain the chemical compound methylcellulose, said Science and Technology Director Isabel Fernandez.

Heura has raised 36 million euros ($39.6 million) to date and is in the final process of completing its Series B financing round. The company recently cut staff by 10% to speed up the move to profitability, Coloma said, but it’s largely defied a slump in alternative proteins with sales in Spain, its most established market, growing 44% in the first quarter compared to a year earlier. Its international sales more than tripled last year, albeit from a lower base.

Its research and development team has more than doubled in size in the past year. It was the first company to create a 100% olive-oil-based fat analogue, as opposed to more commonly used coconut oil. 

“You no longer use the additives that everybody is relying on,” Fernandez said. “This is the absolute revolution because it’s a technology that basically is designing plant-based foods in a completely different way.”

(Updates with additional backer in fifth paragraph.)

More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com

©2023 Bloomberg L.P.