Plant protein

The plant protein market is upon us

Although plant based meat substitutes have been around for many years, nowadays there seems to be heightened interest in “alternative protein sources”, and a substantial upswing in the manufacture and distribution of meat substitutes in the West. More and more products are hitting supermarket shelves, and restaurant menus. Where it used to be packets of dry soya mince, or the occasional soya burger, we are now exposed to an increasing variety of meat substitutes with vastly improved textures and tastes. Media is pushing the trend, biotech startups are mushrooming, the big food take away franchises are getting in on the act, and so are several of the big food manufacturers. In a recent report, Tesco, Nestle and Unilever, amongst others, have been cited as being committed to preparing for a coming boom in alternative protein products. They are doing that through “…investing in a plant based sustainable protein portfolios in recognition that a high dependence on animal based ingredients is a material risk to business.” [FAIRR, 2019]   

Michigan State University’s Food Literacy and Engagement Poll measures American consumer understanding and attitudes to food. In 2018, “48% of people polled said that they would not want to try vegetarian foods that looked, tasted and felt exactly like meat. By the end of 2019, that number had fallen to 40%. That’s pretty significant in a nation that is the world’s leading consumer of meat per capita.

In Europe, vegan meat product sales have quadrupled in 4 years or so, and the expectation is that growth will continue. Europe leads in consumption of non-meat protein, accounting for around 40% of global meat substitute sales.

There is also evidence that more and more younger people are moving into a diet that includes greater amounts of vegetable derived meat substitutes. In a world where the young are becoming the dominant demographic, such willingness to embrace these alternatives offers an opportunity for accelerated development of emerging biotechnologies aimed at plant based meat substitutes. That in turn has implications for agriculture, and the way we think about food security, farming, and probably the food manufacturing and distribution industry as a whole.

Consider that reliable research indicates that just under 40% of all current agriculture output goes directly to feed the human population. About half of the worldwide agricultural harvest is required to feed the livestock population. The rest goes to the biofuels industry. As solutions for increasing efficiency in meat production become less able to meet global needs, there is incentive to divert animal feed agriculture to feeding humans. Classic vegan food, like tofu, mushrooms, and so on, have a distinctly un-meaty taste and texture profile, so are likely to remain niche. The mainstream vegetarian meat replacements are certainly in the portfolios of the big meat processing companies. Since they often include gelatin, eggs, milk, livestock production is still needed. We could go the insect route – excellent source of protein and fats – anyone for a cricket burger? Or we could start looking carefully at the new vegan foods. No animal elements at all, and whose taste and texture profiles are biologically manipulated through the production of substances like hemoglobin and binders, using plant fermentation processes. Finally, we should also be aware of the possibility of Cultured meat, which is grown from animal cells. I bow to the industry experts who say that classic vegan and vegetarian meat replacements are likely to remain niche, while new, novel meat replacements in the form of plant Biotech will go mainstream, as will cell cultured meat as it becomes viable.

As you read this, meat replacement startups have already made progress in countries like USA, Netherlands, and Israel. Take a look at the rise of Impossible Foods, Just, and Beyond Meat, to name a few. These products, along with future availability of cultured meat, are likely to be able to give the consumer the variety of meaty tastes and textures they look for. Who knows, we may even have different quality and pricing. You know – Biotech burgers, cultured rump steaks, and all the cuts in between. Enjoy your braai (barbecue) folks!

(Nod: Kearney, Fairr, Forbes, Google)

Author: Kevin Abraham