The year ahead presents many exciting innovations in the alternative protein sector. 2022 is already shaping up to be full of advances in food technology with markets actively embracing new product ideas.
Below, we explore some of the emerging trends to watch:
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Lab-grown cultivated meat will begin to gain popularity
Founded in 2015, UPSIDE Foods has set itself the goal of producing real meat without the need to cull any animals. They aren’t alone, with Aleph Farms and SuperMeat, among others, waiting on the sideline for regulatory approval to sell such products.
UPSIDE Foods recently launched its Engineering, Product & Innovation Centre (EPIC) in November 2021, a test facility that has already managed to ramp up production to an estimated 25 metric tonnes of factory grown meat.
However, they are not the first to produce meat-based food without using an animal, excluding a few already collected cells. In 2013, a lab-grown burger was created and taste-tested for the princely sum of $330k. Thankfully, technology has improved and processes have refined, resulting in decreasing lab or factory-grown meat pricing. As it stands now, a pound of manufactured chicken meat costs under $10 and is set to continue dropping in price as production is scaled.
However, FDA and USDA approval is still being sought in the USA, and such meat is currently only available for sale in Singapore. The rest of the world’s potential animal-free meat producers are waiting in the wings for approval before launching their products. In the UK, the recently launched Alternative Protein Association was formed in 2021 to provide policy and regulatory advice and support to enable a dedicated approval function for exactly this type of project. 2022 could be a massive year for transforming the way we eat should regulatory approval be granted.
Synthetic meets biology as Big Data creates innovation
Humans are reaching a point where we can redesign plants and animals to our desires. We have done this traditionally with many crops, such as wheat, and animals (most notably cattle and dogs). By selecting and breeding the specific traits desired, we have been tailoring nature to our needs for centuries.
However, now we can do this faster than ever, without the need for selective breeding. Advances in technology mean that we can write code directly into a cell, giving it new instructions to work in the way we desire. Improvements in our understanding of the DNA contained within cells have allowed us to rewrite the cellular instructions, training it to our needs.
The research and development process for these changes, especially within food production, requires a tremendous amount of experimentation, resulting in extraordinary amounts of data being processed.
AI and Machine Learning have allowed this branch of science, called Synthetic Biology, to optimise the process of product design and bioprocesses. Israel based Equinom created a platform that reliably zeros in on the perfect seed varieties to create ingredients to match manufacturers’ needs.
Elsewhere, Hoxton Farms applied its proprietary computational models to their production process, optimising how they cultivate animal-fat products. Big Data analysis is changing how these companies select the perfect microbial strains from the billions of available choices, creating a food-tech revolution, which will likely be a considerable industry force for years to come.
Tech developments allow the creation of whole-cut analogues.
Anyone visiting a supermarket today will find a section catering to meat-free products with a meat taste. The products vary in packaging and price point, but there seems little differentiation between the texture and taste of the final product.
Mainly produced via extrusion, a mixture of heat, pressure, and moisture, these plant-based products are altered to form textures that simulate meat. It is not a new process, with many applicable food processes already using it, such as in the pet food industry.
Extruded plant-based “meats” are somewhat comparable to unstructured meat products, such as sausages or burgers. However, until now, there has been nothing that truly satisfies the demand for structured meat, like chicken breasts, pork chops or steaks. Even bacon has proven hard to replicate.
The next generation of alternative protein products is likely to concentrate on the core concept of whole cuts of “meat”. There is a sizable demand for such products with around 50% of meat consumed coming from structured meat.
Many manufacturers have entered the scene, with companies like Juicy Marbles and Meati launching direct-to-customer products. Many companies are experimenting hard with some creating market-ready products such as Redefine Meat, which launched 3D printed beef cuts with incredible texture and function, almost exactly like animal meat. Their products are already available in food outlets across Europe and Israel.
Precision fermentation creates animal-free products
Humans have long been using fermentation as a method to preserve food or bring out new flavours and textures. The technique has been in use for centuries with cheese, yoghurts, bread, tempeh and much more a familiar feature of global diets.
Through the fermentation process, microbes, which consist of yeast and bacteria, break down the sugar content to produce more complex molecules. This results in a combination of new enzymes, proteins and fats.
Precision fermentation is a new development in the use of this methodology. Through advanced genetic engineering techniques, microbes are programmed to produce specific types of molecules. This is not entirely new – in the 1980s, a strain of E. Coli was used to produce insulin to treat diabetes, but this tech has only recently been applied to food production. Its potential to revolutionise how many high-priced ingredients are made cannot be overstated.
Among the many start-ups using precision fermentation is Perfect Day, a Californian company that uses state of the art processes to produce whey protein through precision engineering. This whey is made without the involvement of any animal and is used in their range of ice cream, cake mix, and other products. Perfect Day will bring animal-free cream cheese to keen customers throughout the USA through a partnership with food giant General Mills.
And they aren’t alone – fellow food-tech companies such as Motif FoodWorks and Impossible Foods, are creating beef-like proteins that allow a natural beef flavour to products that have no animal involvement. As their range of markets and products expand, precision fermentation-derived foods and ingredients will soon fill the supermarket shelves. Look out for that later in 2022.
Popularity grows for alt-protein globally.
The meat industry is responsible for over 50% of global greenhouse emissions. Estimates vary, depending on who is reporting, with the range going as high as 87%. Changes have to be made to the food industry if we are to alleviate the global environmental trauma, likely to impact subsequent generations exponentially.
Thankfully, positive developments are already on the near horizon. China has announced plans to focus on creating alternative protein sources, such as egg analogues and meat alternatives. As the world’s largest consumer of eggs and meat, it is in that nation’s interest to be at the forefront of creating such options.
With the world’s most populous nation agreeing that alt-proteins are the future of food, it can only be a short time before the rest of the world pushes for change in the same direction. Indeed, in the UK, the Alternative Protein Association is advocating for precisely this, whilst in the USA, the US Department of Agriculture has made large investments in cell-based meat research goldenslot.
As the world experiences recent supply shocks due to the ongoing pandemic, the UK’s departure from Europe, and the war in Ukraine, it is prudent to consider how alt-proteins could fit into a more secure, locally manufactured food chain. With China, the US, and the UK all increasingly onboard with alt-proteins, it will not be long before other nations follow their example.