Alternative Proteins - From Lab to Plate

Feeding an ever-growing population means taking a radically different approach to producing protein. But are the alternatives easy to swallow?

“There are few challenges larger and more global than the sustainability of the way we eat. Meat production today uses one third of the earth's fresh water and land surface and generates nearly one fifth of all greenhouse gas emissions. With a projected demand growing by nearly 70 per cent by 2050, we know we are in desperate need of a solution.”

These are not the words of a radical vegan environmentalist, but the reaction of Carolina Brochado, partner at Atomico (one of Europe’s largest venture capital firms), to the news that leading alternative meat company Memphis Meats had secured backing worth US$17 million (€14.4 million) from a broad range of investors, which surprisingly included some leading animal protein companies.

Memphis Meats produces meat directly from animal cells without the need to breed or slaughter animals. The company released the world’s first alternative meatball in February 2016 and the world’s first alternative poultry in March 2017. With the extra financial backing it secured earlier this year, the concern plans to scale up so it can meet rapidly growing demand for meat without using conventional methods to produce it.

But it’s not just high-tech companies that are rising to the challenge of creating more sustainable protein sources. The already well-established global meat substitutes market – think veggie burger – is expected to be worth US$5.6 billion (€4.74 billion) by 2022, while non-traditional sources of protein such as algae, seaweed and insects are increasingly being tapped as the search for nutrition using fewer resources continues.

High-interest sector

What people eat is always an emotive subject and the prospect of our growing population feeding on insects or lab-grown meat has filled untold column inches in newspapers and magazines around the world.

But apart from the intrigue, one of the main drivers is the realisation the current system that relies on animal proteins is unsustainable, straining resources and raising concerns about animal welfare and health. It’s something the animal protein industry has been slow to recognise and, as a result, alternative protein producers have found interest levels in their products growing.

“The way that we produce food now is unsustainable and it’s going to catch up to us very soon,” said Mike Selden, CEO of San Francisco-based Finless Foods, which is working on alternative seafood products. “Climate change is going to continue making it impossible for us to produce the food that we need.

“There’s a push for sustainability and environment consciousness right now and for healthy food. And we really fill all of those needs in such a perfect way that I see people being very excited about this. And the press reaction we’ve had so far has been largely positive.”

Petri-dish of the day

Finless Foods is one of a slew of tech firms based in the US that are pushing the boundaries developing cellular animal products with the aim of bringing alternative meat and fish to market. These include Memphis Meats, Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, which already sells its Impossible Burgers in restaurants throughout the US.

Having produced a range of prototypes, Finless Foods is aiming to have commercial products available in restaurants by the end of 2019.

“Our first products will be unstructured, so things like fish cakes, croquettes, fish paste, fish sauce. Anything that uses fish as the ingredient rather than for the entire meal.” said Mike.

By using a combination of established and new techniques, Finless Foods takes a small sample of cells from a living marine animal and cultures it in a brewery-like environment in the same shape as a fish fillet. Its scientists then design a ‘growth media’ – consisting of proteins, salts and sugars – that allows the cells to grow quickly. They then lay the cells out on a structure that will shape them to both look and have the texture of real fish meat.

“Ultimately, we want to transform the way seafood is eaten. While at first it may be a bit of a luxury product, as we bring our prices down, we eventually want to see all fish being produced this way.”

The challenge for Finless Foods is less about public perception and more about bringing costs down so production is economically viable.

“We need to find an alternative cell growth media. The current standard is extremely expensive at around US$500 [€424] a litre. We need to make something that’s closer to US$4 [€3.40] a litre or less. We’ve made giant strides towards that and reduced our costs enormously, but we’re still not there yet.”

Added value

One of the advantages of cellular technology is that it allows producers to design products that have a higher nutritional value than their conventional counterparts.

Justin Sherrard, Global Sector Strategist – Animal Protein at Rabobank, said: “One area that is yet to be explored fully is nutrition. As they are designed in laboratories, these kinds of alternative proteins can be tailored to suit a variety of different needs. For instance, you can add various vitamins to and even change the amino acid profile of alternative meats in a way that’s just not possible with animal proteins.”

For Mike Selden, it doesn’t stop there. “We can make it taste better, we can add nutrients, but the real advantage of this is that, since culturing a cell from a really high-value fish is the same process as from a low-value fish, we can make Bluefin Tuna, for example, really cheaply. So eventually people will have a choice between eating varieties such as Albacore and Skipjack that’s filled with mercury and plastic and produced non-sustainably or they can have our high-quality Bluefin Tuna produced sustainably without mercury, without plastic for the same price.”

Critter fritters

But it’s not just in a laboratory that more sustainable alternatives to conventional proteins are being developed. Increasingly, companies are turning to insects as means of satisfying the increasing global demand for protein.

“Crickets are cleaner, more sustainable and more nutritious than almost all other conventional forms of livestock and animal protein in the world,” said Mohammed Ashour, Co-Founder and CEO of Aspire Foods, which sells cricket products under the brand Aketta.

“We focus on two types of markets: those with a well-established tradition of insect consumption and already existing high demand, such as Ghana, and emerging insect consumption markets such as the US, where insect protein has increasingly been on trend. This is largely thanks to the rise of conscious consumers whose demand for healthier foods that are traceable and sustainable is greater than ever.”

For Aketta, the principal challenge it faces is public perception, especially in newer markets such as the US. And that means appealing to people’s tastebuds.

“For many people in countries without a tradition of insect consumption, the most significant challenge is helping people overcome the ‘ick’ factor,” said Mohammed. “For the overwhelming majority of people in the US, for example, insects are gross. Plain and simple.

“So it’s not enough just to talk about the attributes of our products. If sustainability was all people cared about, they would eat grass and drink water. Food is an emotional experience and a company such as ours has to focus not only on delighting the customer’s values, but also their senses.”

Sustainable table

It was in seeking to square the circle of sustainability and food as an emotional experience that led Beyond the Shoreline to develop a range of seaweed-based snacks that pack a protein punch.

Co-founder and CMO Courtney Boyd Myers said: “About a year ago, I sent out bags of frozen kelp to different chefs and food scientists in the US. They came up with dozens of different recipes from kelp sodas to soups and more. It was then co-founder and executive chef Will Horowitz came up with the recipes for kelp jerky, burgers, and sausages. That’s when I thought: this is it.

“We thought: what if we could replace the most unsustainable and damaging form of agriculture on the planet, animal farming, with the most sustainable – ocean farming?”

Having taken part in Rabobank’s FoodBytes! initiative, Beyond the Shoreline is now gearing up for its first product launch and is confident it can convince consumers that plant-based proteins are the way to go.

“Everyone is delightfully surprised by how much they enjoy our kelp jerky. It feels and tastes like meat jerky, but is lighter and healthier,” said Courtney. “The plant-based meat market is expected to reach US$5 billion [€4.24 billion] by 2020 and we expect seaweed-based meat alternative products to account for at least 20 per cent of that.”

The future of food

While alternative proteins have definitely fired people’s imaginations, that interest has yet to translate into significant market share.

“With all the media attention, you’d think alternative proteins were huge, but they’re not,” said Justin Sherrard. “The fact is, they’ve made very little dent in the animal proteins market.

“That said, animal proteins producers do face challenges from the alternatives and how they respond to them will ultimately decide how much of their market they can hold on to. We think alternative proteins have the potential to steal around a third of the growth in the market in Europe and a smaller but increased share of the US market. If animal proteins producers don’t get their houses in order in terms of sustainability, animal welfare and health impacts, they could lose out even more.”

Among alternative proteins producers, the consensus appears to be that they will inevitably become mainstream.

“We need to find ways of feeding the entire world and I think this is an effective way to do that,” said Mike Selden. “Ultimately, we want to put an end to industrial fishing – that’s what’s doing the damage to the environment and that’s what we’re trying to mitigate. Even if we don’t completely replace fishing, just doing less of it is extremely helpful. What’s clear is that we’re going to need other means of producing food if we’re going to continue feeding people and alternative proteins will play a massive role in that.”

If the list of investors in Memphis Meats is anything to go by, people are already betting that role for alternative proteins will be huge. Among those backing the company are Bill Gates, Sir Richard Branson, Suzy and Jack Welch and Kimbal Musk.

“We’re going to bring meat to the plate in a more sustainable, affordable and delicious way,” said Uma Valeti, Managing Director, Co-founder and CEO of Memphis Meats. “The world loves to eat meat and it is core to many of our cultures and traditions. Demand is growing rapidly around the world, but the way conventional meat is produced today creates challenges for the environment, animal welfare and human health. These are problems everyone wants to solve and we can solve them by bringing this incredible group of partners under one tent.”

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