My wife watched skeptically as I took the sizzling bacon from the pan and put it on a plate. Now my kids were watching, pointing and sniffing curiously at the slices. After a moment, I took a bite, and then something unexpected happened. This was no ordinary bacon.
But before you can appreciate the tale of my first bite, I need to first tell you a story about an upstart food technology company called Atlast and a surprising organism that could disrupt the future of meat.
Act 1: The Problem With Pork
Good stories often center on a problem that needs to be solved. For Atlast, that problem is meat, or rather, the environmental destruction wrought by the livestock industry.
It’s been said before but is very much worth repeating: animal agriculture releases more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire transportation sector. Now, companies like Atlast are working to shape the narrative of our food future and asking the question: “How can we decarbonize our pantries to save our planet?”
Enter the humble mushroom; specifically, mycelium, the fine, rootlike structures of fungi. These seemingly simple filaments have an array of remarkable characteristics. Easy to grow and shape, mycelium is inherently non-toxic, fire-resistant, flexible, and pound-for-pound stronger than concrete. Mycelium is already used for sustainable packaging, insulation, and vegan leather.
And now Atlast is growing mycelium into meatless bacon.
It may be difficult to picture how the same material that can be grown into bricks stronger than concrete can also end up on your plate. But mushrooms were on our plates long before they were packages and leather substitutes. So in a way, creating meatless meats from mycelium brings the humble mushroom full circle.
Act 2: Disrupting The Meat Industry
Atlast is the B2B food ingredient offshoot of myco-materials pioneer, Ecovative Design. Ecovative co-founder Eben Bayer has taken the helm as Atlast’s CEO where the company aims to become a household name in alternative meats. The company has taken its first steps into grocery stores through MyEats, the company’s consumer foods initiative, and its first offering, MyBacon.
One of the biggest challenges in disrupting animal consumption is whole cuts of meat. Ground, unstructured meats like burgers and sausages are simpler to make meat-free. But they only represent a portion of the market. To be competitive in the grocery aisles, companies like Atlast need to put forward whole cuts of alt-meat. For Bayer, structured myco-meats offer the best solution.
Act 3: Challenging the American Classic
Bacon is an $8 billion market in the US alone. According to Bayer, this American favorite is also a roadblock in stopping many consumers from going meat-free. “People’s love of bacon is one of the main reasons why they don’t adhere to a plant-based diet,” says Bayer. While the company has a clear drive towards sustainability, MyEats must also be aware of other consumer concerns, namely cost, and health.
Pork bacon is extremely popular—for some, the love of bacon verges on devotion. But it is also notoriously high in fat and low in other nutritional qualities. On the health side, MyBacon offers a competitive alternative. Though both pork and myco-bacon have about 30 calories a slice, MyBacon has roughly half the fat.
However, like many meat alternatives, MyBacon’s price point is on the more expensive side. Sold at $5.99 per 6oz package, MyBacon is on par with other premium pork bacon but is not yet affordable for all consumers. As MyEats grows, the price point is expected to fall. But currently, MyBacon is only available in one store in Albany, NY.
Act 4: Bringing MyBacon to the Table
Value for consumers is a critical challenge across the meatless meat space. To lower manufacturing costs, companies like Atlast need to scale quickly to stay in business. But meatless meat companies also have the chance to leverage a key advantage over the livestock industry—the advantage of speed.
Raising cattle takes time. It can be months or even years before animals reach slaughter-age. For Atlast, growing and processing their mycelium takes just 13 days. If alternative meat companies can scale successfully, the speed of production could bring alternative meats to consumers in a fraction of the time of animal farming, potentially reducing both grocery costs and greenhouse gas emissions.
But Atlast’s two-year journey bringing their product to market hasn’t been all smooth sailing. Bayer is quick to acknowledge just how much the Atlast team has learned in the most unexpected challenges. “The design of a retail package that succinctly describes our core message—a whole food ingredient that tastes like bacon without the oink—took a significant amount of effort. [It] was a learning experience for me in how you engage with consumers in-store,” says Bayer. It’s been a steep learning curve but Bayer is already looking to the next challenge.
Act 5: Bacon is Just the Beginning
The MyEats team isn’t stopping with alt-bacon. The company aims to take on the whole-cuts meat industry across the board. But the team’s biggest goal is to disrupt the premium US favorite: steak. According to Bayer, utilizing mycelium to scaffold structured meat unlocks nature’s “forager’s secret.” “Nature has already created some of the best whole cut plant-based meats with gourmet mushrooms, including a mushroom called Fistulina hepatica or commonly known as the Beefsteak Polypore,” says Bayer, adding that the company will have more to share soon.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also shown a spotlight on even more of the downsides of the meat industry. Early in the pandemic, meat processing plants were hit by terrible waves of COVID-19 infections. Meat, particularly pork, became a scarce commodity. Bayer says there’s been an increased interest in the B2B side of Atlast in the wake of the shortages. As the climate warms and the threats of novel pathogens potentially increase, having a more reliable food supply will be critical for our global population.
Epilogue: The First Bite
So, now that you know the potential—and the challenges—of mycelium meat, what did my first bite of MyBacon ultimately taste like?
It tasted great, smelled great, even the smokiness of the cook was great. It doesn’t taste better than regular bacon, but then again, that’s not the idea. I think very few bacon-lovers would say the taste of bacon can be improved. So when I fried up MyBacon for the first time, it did exactly what I’d hoped it would. The crunch, crisp, and savory flavor of bacon was there. But there was no harm done to our planet—or my health.
That’s the dream for many meatless meat companies, to create nutrition that’s better for our bodies and better for our world. To be honest, my only issue with MyBacon is that I wanted more.
Want to hear more about how synthetic biology is reshaping the future of food? Join me for one of our special events on Food & Agriculture.
Thank you to Fiona Mischel for additional research and reporting in this article. I’m the founder of SynBioBeta, and some of the companies that I write about are sponsors of the SynBioBeta conference and weekly digest, including Ecovative Design and Atlast.