For Hoxton Farms, the Future of Food Is Fatty

Words by Christina Dean

So much about a person’s relationship to food is built on personal preference, but there are a couple of truisms about what we eat that exist above the subjective

One of the biggest is fat = flavour. Fat has been much maligned over the years as the cause of weight gain, its evil image being used to shift countless low-fat products and diet plans. While the consumption of saturated fats should be limited so as to not increase your risk of suffering from heart disease and strokes, fats are an essential part of a healthy balanced diet, they provide satiation, and they make your food taste good. 

So important are they to the eating experience that one biotech firm is putting all its focus on fats in an effort to shake up the food industry. Hoxton Farms produces cultivated animal fats, or as co-founder Ed Steele puts it, “we grow real animal fat but without the animals”, that can be added to plant-based food to properly replicate that meaty taste and texture, giving you a final product that “really looks and cooks and tastes just as good as the real thing, if not even better.” 

Ed, a mathematician by trade, set up Hoxton Farms with childhood friend, biologist and fellow food obsessive Max Jamilly in 2020 after they both concluded that all the plant-based meat alternative products on the market weren’t good enough. “We ate so many plant-based products and felt they weren’t juicy enough, they didn’t have the right mouthfeel, you have to be really specific about how you cook them, you can’t introduce all of the flavours you’d expect to be able to introduce to meat,” he explains because fat is the missing piece of the puzzle. “It’s fat that gives meat its sizzle in the pan, it gives it the smell you’re looking for and, of course, it’s what gives it the flavour.” 

The Hoxton Farms set-up is impressive. The HQ is located between Moorgate and Old Street and includes high-tech cell culture labs, a workshop because they’re custom building some of the equipment they’re using to ensure the process is optimised, a food development kitchen, and offices. The process used to cultivate the fat cells borrows heavily from the beer brewing and sourdough-making playbooks, but with several additional layers of complexity. 

A farm provides the labs with cells from a pig, which are used as starter material, much like a sourdough culture that you would keep returning to grow more, meaning they don’t have to go back to the animal to procure more cells. The cells are then grown in bioreactors and fermenters, like the large tanks you’d brew beer in. “We give the cells nutrients so they think that they’re still inside of the pig, they grow for a couple of weeks, and after two weeks or so we give the cells slightly different nutrients and they start turning into fat cells. They start getting juicier and juicier and bigger and bigger, we know they start getting really tasty and that’s when we harvest them,” explains Ed. “The process in total takes about four weeks and what we end up with is real animal fat but made in a sustainable and cruelty-free way.”

“The focus here is on making something that tastes really delicious, that is sustainable and ethical and much better for animals”

Sustainability is one of the driving forces behind the Hoxton Farms operation. As well as poor animal welfare standards, intensive animal agriculture also comes with high carbon emissions, water consumption and land usage, with the use of chemicals also destroying soil health and disrupting ecosystems. The production of plant proteins and plant oils that go into plant-based meat alternatives are more environmentally friendly (even though deforestation is linked to some of these plant oils) but they don’t deliver the flavour that a real meat product has. For Ed, by creating a viable meat alternative through the use of cultivated fats Hoxton Farms hits both the eco and taste factors, which is what will encourage people to move away from intensive animal agriculture products and therefore benefit the environment. 

Given that real animal cells are used to make Hoxton Farms fat, it can’t technically be classified as a vegan product, so it won’t satisfy the hardcore vegans out there, but the labelling isn’t something Ed is particularly concerned about. “This is a new way of making food. In a similar way to why eggs and dairy are vegetarian but not vegan, what we make is animal-derived and likely to be closer to vegetarian than vegan,” he says. “Really the focus here is on making something that tastes really delicious, that is sustainable and ethical and much better for animals, and we think that ticks all the boxes for people who are looking for something that’s vegan.”

If making food this way is sustainable, ethical and better for animals, does that mean lab-grown meat is the future of food? Ed is slightly coyer about this topic, circling back to farming rather than answering it head-on. “I think the way that we think about working with farmers and farming more generally, is that farming is an essential part of the way that we get our raw ingredients to make this process. The food that we feed ourselves is plant-based and that comes from farming but also I don’t see any real problem with traditional farming to make meat, the problem that I see is with intensive animal agriculture,” he says. ”That’s what we’re trying to replace here, not sheep farmers in Wales who have free-range lamb, that sort of thing is amazing and should carry on, it’s part of our culture in the UK.”

Whether it’s the future or not, the lab-grown food movement is far from replacing farming just yet. Though there has been significant investment in the sector over the past couple of years, the UK’s first application to sell cultivated meat from Israeli company Aleph Farms was only submitted to the Food Standards Authority last August and the review process could take between 12 and 24 months. Hoxton Farms is going through something similar. “Part of the challenge for us in terms of time scale is getting our product approved. What we make is a novel food so it needs to go through the novel foods process in the UK. We’re working on that at the moment and as soon as we have approval we’ll be able to get products on the shelves,” says Ed. 

Though they experiment internally by combining their fats with plant proteins to create prototype meat alternatives, making own-brand Hoxton Farms products is not the goal. Instead, the focus is on selling the fats to plant-based meat companies who can use them in their products, which are then sold on to the consumer, as Ed says, “that’s the way we can as an ingredients company have the biggest impact.” And that means developing the range of cultivated fats that the lab can grow. “We’re starting with pig fat for the moment but have grown beef fat in the lab as well. We will in future make chicken and all sorts of other things, it’s a really exciting set of possibilities for us in the future.”