Barcelona-based Heura, a disrupter in the plant-based protein space since 2017, has a product hitting shelves shortly in Spain and France that it reckons will have the most committed meat eaters sitting up in disbelief. These new 100% plant-based “Jamón York style” slices are not actual ham. They just look (and we’re told taste) an awful lot like meat.

But — unlike actual ham — there’s no known carcinogen risk from consuming these vegan cold cuts. The startup also claims the nutritional profile of the product is superior to meat (with a 65% protein density) — touting no additives, beyond a little salt if you consider that an additive, which they say is a first for the category.

Heura is badging the product “clean label” which they say reflects a manufacturing process that does not involve ultraprocessing, chemical additives or other techniques seen elsewhere in the vegan meats category (e.g. wet extrusion).

They say they’re essentially using a blend of heating, cooling, mixing and shearing (at specific pH ranges) to transform the handful of (familiar) ingredients used in the faux ham into a mass which resembles the texture and “sensation” of meat. Taste follows on via the addition of “natural” flavors.

Per Heura, the “York ham style” slices run to some 10 ingredients. They’re made from water, soy protein isolate, extra virgin olive oil, natural flavors, salt, and vegetable concentrates (radish, carrot, and paprika), lemon concentrate, iron, and vitamin B12. (The packet carries a nutritional rating of ‘B’ out of a possible A-E “Nutri-Score” range.)

The startup says it’s using a novel (patent pending) “thermo-mechanical” technique to produce the fake ham, which it unveiled earlier this year at an event in London — and which it says eliminates the need for food additives, E-numbers, and “any other chemically modified ingredients in plant-based food”.

Accusations that alternative proteins sum to ultraprocessed ‘frankenfoods’ has been a common attack from the meat lobby — which likes to claim their products are “natural” in comparison — a tactic which totally ignores the (known) health risks attached to consuming red meat products (like ham), not to mention the level of processing typically involved (which can include a number of additives and other unpleasant additions, like the growth hormones and antibiotics fed to animals, which then end up in the human food chain).

Heura’s lead R&D scientist, Isa Fernández, describes what it’s cooked up with the patent-pending technique it’s using to produce the York-style ham as “high science”, more than high tech — so no ultraprocessing here, as she tells it. Instead she says the team are using mathematical modelling to perform microstructural design of plant proteins in order to derive textures and mouth-feel that can mimic meat, without the health and environmental downsides.

“This new scientific knowledge, and this new processing — the algorithms, and these mathematical models — were a key part in order to structure all these variables. Because, at the end, what we are doing is to go super deep down in the molecular structure of the ingredients, all the possible inputs for the process, and create algorithms that create these new outcomes that allow us to get to the results we are having,” she told TechCrunch.

“In terms of processes… it’s only these physical processes that we mentioned: Heating, heating and cooling, there’s nothing more. With water. That’s it,” she added. “At the end, what we do to the ingredients, as we said, is just mixing with water, heating and cooling, but in a very, very controlled manner. It’s hugely designed to the finest detail.”

Naturally this 100% plant-based product is far better for the environment than meat-based products since the land use required to produce the soy beans, olives, vegetables etc used in Heura’s faux ham are orders of magnitude smaller than are needed to produce the pigs whose proteins are found in meat-based pork products.

There are also no animal welfare issues when the proteins in the food are derived from vegetables.

There is still a price premium, though. So while a packet of Heura’s faux ham has a similar price-tag to what you might find on a packet of traditional, pig-based ham — at least the more premium-priced cold cuts — you’re getting substantially less food for your money.

Image credits: Heura

In Spain, where Heura’s alt jamón york will be hitting supermarket shelves this week (located in the charcuterie section), the price per packet is €2.99. However that’s for just 78g (four slices) of product. Whereas you can buy a packet of 200g of pig-based ham in the same market for around €2. Which means there’s still a considerable affordability gap when it comes to like-for-like product volume.

Vegan meat products have undoubtedly achieved great strides in quality in recent years — and Heura’s York-style ham looks to be another big one — but they’ve been unable to deliver the promise of price-parity with the meat products they’ve got so good at mimicking.

These higher costs have capped consumer appetite to shell out for what are undoubtedly more environmentally-friendly alternatives — especially during the cost of living crisis with food inflation riding high and food budgets pinched. Hence we’ve seen some shrinkage affecting startups in the category over the last year or so, as sales growth has failed to pan out as hoped.

A family of four isn’t going to get much lunch out of a single packet of Heura’s York-style ham. They’d need to purchase at least a couple of packets to ensure there’s enough to go around — at which point the price-tag starts to look less tasty. So while the faux ham itself appears — at least to this vegetarian’s eye — passing similar to actual animal flesh there’s still a way to go to shrink production costs so that high quality vegan cuts can sell themselves on price alone.

Product diversification looks to be more of an immediate focus for Herua, though — which touts more cold cuts incoming to its product line.

It says the same “thermo-mechanical” technique can be applied to produce other types of deli meats from its soy-based protein. The technique could be used to produce breaded products, vegan cheeses and pasta (presumably a high protein form of pasta, since traditional pasta is already vegan). So it’s setting its sights on spreading more of its plant-based wares across the table-top of those who can afford to tuck in.

“Deli meats is a big opportunity,” says Heura co-founder, Bernat Ananos. “In Europe, it’s the biggest processed meat that people consume and it’s a €78 billion category. So we have a great opportunity there. And also, we are preparing big things in order to go into cheesy opportunities.”