Food researcher Harold Huff of the University of Missouri at Columbia spent over 10 years perfecting the science that quickly transforms dry soy powder into food that has the look and texture of chicken strips. Food critics have been wowed by its good taste. This interview is part of a special EarthSky series, Feeding the Future, produced in partnership with Fast Company and sponsored by Dow.
Chickens might breathe a little easier thanks to food scientists at the University of Missouri in Columbia. A new plant protein product aims to change the way many people eat. It offers an inexpensive, chicken-like meat substitute that has wowed food critics with its good taste. Harold Huff told Earthsky:
It’s inherently difficult to get the texture correct. You can have the best flavor, the best look, the best nutritional value in your product, but if it doesn’t chew right people are turned off by it. If you’re true Vegan or vegetarian it may not make quite as much difference. But for the vast majority of people who like a good pork chop or steak or actual fried chicken you have to have that mouth feel correct.
It hasn’t been easy to find a way to give soy protein the chewiness of meat. Huff spent over 10 years perfecting the science that quickly transforms dry soy powder into food that has the look and texture of chicken strips. He said:
Going back probably decades in the original texturized vegetable proteins it was all done with a dry extrusion or a dry process where they came out very hard. And they had to be reconstituted in water. What we’ve worked on is a wet extrusion process where the moisture content is about that meat. And what goes on in the extruder is basically a realignment of the proteins that are naturally found in the soy. And if you can get them to realign and then lock them in position when it comes out of the extruder you will have the fibrous structure of a chicken or a turkey-like product.
Part of it is the use of extrusion and getting the wet extrusion process figured out to a certain extent. Extrusion processing of anything some people will say it’s almost more of an art form than a science. All the theory in the world doesn’t actually produce a product until you get hands on experience and time making mistakes, having success and refining that process.
Over 50 billion chickens are raised each year for their meat and eggs, and that number just keeps growing. Because food from soy has a smaller environmental footprint than chicken, Huff’s soy chicken might make the planet friendlier for the over seven billion people… and many more chickens. Huff said:
As you know, all humans require a certain amount of protein in their diet. I’m sure there’s areas of the world that do not get enough protein. But one of the main sources of protein of course is from animals. As the world population increases the population of farm animals must increase also. Anything from for use as meat to milk production to eggs. They’ll reach a time where this will be more and more difficult to keep up with the growing population. So if you can take a plant based protein and put it out there not to compete necessarily with real meat, but to augment or supplement the meat protein supply, you’ve helped everyone.
The ramifications, the impact of this product on the United States food supply or the world’s food supply is tremendous. Whether you’re a Vegan, vegetarian or as they would say carnivores like the majority of us are, this can used as a complete diet if you will or it can be used as a once a week alternative to meats. In any event as the world’s population increases some people say it would be impossible to supply the necessary protein that the population will demand or need through raising of your traditional farm animals.
Jorge Salazar has conducted thousands of in-depth interviews with scientists in the process of creating science content for EarthSky. He also helps host the 90-second EarthSky podcasts. Jorge has a bachelor's degree in physics from the University of Texas at Austin. He knows a lot about a lot of different things. For EarthSky, he has explored subjects as diverse as nanotechnology, ecosystem-based management, climate change, global health, international environmental treaties, astrophysics and cosmology, and environmental security. His penetrating research style, poetic writing, and ability to track down and speak with Nobel prize-winning laureates, all make him a huge asset to EarthSky.