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Tastes (and feels) like chicken but invented in a Mizzou lab

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 28, 2012 - A soy-based meat substitute said to have the texture and taste of chicken is slowly making its way to the shelves of a handful of Whole Foods Market stores in northern California.

The University of Missouri at Columbia will take a big interest in the consumer reaction because the meatless product was developed by scientists there. The product comes from more than a decade of work by a team led by Fu-Hung Hsieh (pronounced “shay”), a professor of biological engineering and food science at the university’s College of Agriculture.

One of Hsieh’s associates, Harold Huff, says chicken was the last thing on the minds of scientists and grad students as they experimented over the years with soy protein.

“We’re strictly pure research,” Huff says. “We never set out to try to develop a product for market. That was never Dr. Hsieh’s intent. If someone picks up on it in the literature that he publishes, that’s fine. But he never set out to try to develop a product, contact a company and say ‘here it is and what can you do for us?’ ”

In time the research turned into developing “something with the fiber and texture that had the look and feel of meat,” Huff says.

The team would make a little progress but didn’t make the work part of a sustained effort. “The only time we’d resurrect it was if somebody wanted to see it. This went on for probably 10 years or longer.”

As the product was refined into a meat-like texture with a high moisture content, it began to resemble chicken breast.

But did it taste like chicken?

“If you put chicken flavor in it, yes. Otherwise, it’s very, very bland.”

The product began to get more media attention when a start-up that became known as Beyond Meat took an interest in marketing it. The start-up's effort wasn't hurt by the fact that its backers included Evan Williams and Biz Stone, the co-founders of Twitter.

Beyond Meat has just opened its headquarters in Los Angeles, says spokesperson Lori Varsames, as it targets a few Whole Foods stores in northern California for testing the product. Already, some dishes containing the meatless ingredient have been offered in the prepared foods sections at the stores, with plans to put the product on the shelves in the fall. Although the company's nationwide launch of the product isn't until early next year, media reaction to the product has been generally positive.

“We are beyond thrilled with the media interest," she says. "But it is a little premature as most consumers won’t be able to get our product for several months.”

The university stands to gain financially because it licenses the product. The outcome so far speaks to the value of agricultural research at Mizzou. Numerous scientists there work on research to find new uses for soybeans. An example is efforts by researcher Kristin Bilyeu, a molecular biologist, to turn soybean oil into an effective substitute for oil containing unhealthy trans fats.

Hsieh has been highly praised for his food research. He previously was a research engineer at Quaker Oats Co., where he was awarded patents for work on cereal and dried fruit.

An article by the university two years ago said his chicken like product could become a less costly alternative to white meat, while also offering consumers the health benefits of adding soy to their diets.

Huff points to growing consumer acceptance of soy products, ranging from burgers to milk.

“The demand is growing with a high number of vegetarians and vegans,” he says, adding that the Beyond Meat’s first product could see great acceptance because it contains no hormones and antibiotics.

At what point did the Mizzou team think it might have produced a potential winner among consumers?

“I don’t think there ever was one defining moment,” Huff says. “But we knew that as we improved the quality of the fiber, we were getting close to something that makes you feel like you’re biting into a piece of chicken.”

That's important, he says. “I mean it can look good and it can taste good, but it still has to feel right in order for the consumer to choose it.”

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.