Alternative Protein Goes Mainstream: The Rapid Growth of the Alternative Meat Sector
With climate change, droughts, pollution, and the social awareness of where and how food is produced on consumers’ minds, many are looking for a more sustainable food source for protein other than meat. In a recently conducted survey, almost 50% of consumers indicate that the environment and climate change will be top priorities in their food purchase decisions, and 63% of consumers are more aware of their physical health.
The alternative protein market—protein derived from non-animal sources—has seen rapid growth driven by this consumer demand. The demand is also driving many alternative meat companies retrofitting existing facilities, like existing fermentation infrastructure once used for bioethanol production can be easily be converted for formation of alternative meat.
While still a small fraction of the traditional protein market (valued at around $1.2 trillion), the global alternative meat sector is valued at $20.7 billion and is expected to increase to $23.2 billion by 2024.
Alternative proteins that compete against traditional protein are led by soy protein, with pea protein gaining ground as more consumers opt for gluten-free diets and a more sustainable crop, with fewer worries about allergies and hormone imbalances.
“I think the next big milestone, frankly, would be just a greater variety of proteins in a sufficient quantity to be able to formulate into the mainline foods,” says William R. Aimutis, Ph.D., executive director of the NC Food Innovation Lab.
Traditional livestock-based meat is being recreated using protein sources like eggs, hemp, wheat, beans, mushrooms, and even insects. The global edible insects market is expected to reach nearly $8 billion by 2030. Edible crickets rank at the top of the insect category for their high nutritional value and sustainable practices for farming and processing.
Whatever the alternative protein source, manufacturers are using various technologies to capture the taste and texture of traditional meat.
Creative mixing and blending techniques that combine various plant proteins is essential for creating a final product that looks, feels, and tastes like animal proteins.
Extrudable fat technology gives plant-based meat the same marbled look and texture as real meat. These extruders allow for a balanced ratio of fat to protein without dissolving the fat away with high temperatures.
Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have developed a process that uses a food extrusion machine with heating, cooling, and pressurization controls that arrange the plant proteins into a fibrous structure similar to animal protein. A mixture of coconut oil and cocoa butter is then blended in to create the marbling texture. Beyond Meat uses beet juice to mimic “bleeding” quality.
Impossible Foods uses the same type of extrusion technology to create their texture and protein and fat ratio. However, it uses a genetically engineered strain of yeast to produce soy leghemoglobin, which gives the burger its juicy appeal, similar to real meat.
Growing Laboratory Meat
The plant-based meat market is already well established, while laboratory-grown meat is relatively new. The technology has great potential for producing real animal-based tissue and allowing animal-free production of ingredients.
Genetic engineering of meat uses cells derived from animal proteins like eggs, milk, and meat. Perfect Day inserts DNA sequences into yeast, bacteria, or fungi, which carry proteins found in cow milk, such as casein and whey. Clara Foods takes a similar route, using genetically engineered yeast to produce vegan egg white proteins.
Eat Just’s product JUST Egg is based on mung bean protein, which scrambles just like a regular egg. Chilean start-up NotCo uses an algorithm that “finds infinite combinations of plants to replicate animal products and make them even tastier and sustainable.”
3D Printing of Meat
Redefine Meat and NovaMeat are creating alternative meat products by utilizing a plant-based paste as the medium that is injected into a 3D printer and printed out in an exact pattern using AutoCAD software. 3D printing allows producers to tailor their product to different sizes, textures, and fat quantities according to consumer demands. This technology development has helped create a new generation of plant-based meat products that slowly win over meat-eating consumers. Now, companies worldwide are working to leverage a range of emerging technologies to help create the next generation of plant-based products, including seafood and game meats.
MycoTechnology, Atlast Food Co., and Meati are three companies taking a different approach and exploring mushroom mycelia to create meat analogs. Mycelia is simple and efficient to produce. And, because of their naturally fibrous structure, fermenting plant protein with mycelia creates the fibrous structure resembling the fibrous texture of steaks and chicken breasts.
A key challenge manufacturers face is that technology-derived alternative meat is more expensive than traditional meat to produce.
“There’s a lot of room for continued advancements in science and technology that will help solve some of these food crises, but price is a major issue,” says Aimutis.
Even though alternative meat products cost more, many health-conscious consumers are willing to pay a higher price.
More retailers are deciding to create their own line of plant-based foods, creating more competition across all frozen and prepared food categories.
For example, Gardein is announcing a new line of soups containing plant-based chicken. Some of Lean Cuisine’s more popular frozen meals contain plant-based meats. And Kroger has recently announced that it will more products to its plant-based line.
For these companies, the potential to scale up their production is considerable. “We’re in the early stages of ramping up the entire supply chain,” says Impossible Foods president Dennis Woodside. “Our belief is that over time, we will get down to the same pricing, if not lower pricing, lower costs, than animal products.”
Many consumers look at alternative protein as a more attractive and sustainable food source with a smaller environmental footprint. Alternative protein manufacturers that invest in innovation to create flavorful, meat-alternative products that satisfy consumer health and sustainability demands will become leaders in a rapidly growing market.