Alternative Proteins: All You Need to Know

27 Feb 2024

In the face of escalating environmental concerns and a burgeoning global population, the quest for sustainable and efficient food sources has led to a significant shift towards alternative proteins. These novel sources of nutrition are poised to redefine our traditional meat-centric diets, offering a promising solution to the pressing issues of food security, environmental sustainability, and animal welfare.

The transition to alternative proteins is not merely a matter of environmental or ethical consideration; it also opens new avenues for nutritional benefits. Many of these protein sources are rich in essential nutrients, fibers, and healthy fats, contributing to a balanced and nutritious diet.

As technology advances, so does the potential for alternative proteins to become more mainstream. Innovations in food science and biotechnology are making it possible to produce these proteins more efficiently and tastefully, bridging the gap between traditional meat and its alternatives. The future of food looks promising, with alternative proteins playing a pivotal role in creating a more sustainable, healthy, and equitable food system.

Nutrient Contents and Benefits of Alternative Proteins

Alternative proteins offer a rich array of nutrients, providing numerous health and environmental benefits that complement their role as sustainable substitutes for traditional animal proteins. These alternative sources range widely in their composition and nutritional value, encompassing plant-based proteins, lab-grown meats, edible insects, and more.

Benefits of Alternative Proteins

The benefits of incorporating alternative proteins into our diets extend beyond individual health improvements to include significant environmental advantages:

Health Benefits: Alternative, or non-meat, proteins provide a diverse array of nutrients not typically found in meat proteins. Moreover, they contribute to lowering the risks associated with high cholesterol, Type 2 diabetes, hypertension, diverticular disease, and certain cancers. Research shows that eschewing meat can extend life expectancy by 2 to 3 years and diminish the likelihood of obesity.

Environmental Impact: Agriculture significantly contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, and adopting a diet rich in alternative proteins is a potent strategy to significantly reduce these emissions. Furthermore, transitioning to such a diet can also decrease water consumption in certain regions. Moving away from animal-based foods has the potential to enhance the global food supply by up to 49% without the need for expanding agricultural lands. Therefore, it is evident that this shift lessens environmental impact.

Food Security and Animal Life Safety: The benefits of alternative proteins align well with vegan dietary preferences, making them a dependable choice. Numerous animal welfare groups have supported the idea of using synthetic meat as an alternative food source, thereby avoiding the need for livestock and, specifically, the intensive farming and production associated with it.

There has been a significant rise in vegetarian and vegan individuals in affluent nations over the past ten years, especially among younger demographics. Using alternative proteins enhances food security and frees up land used for producing animal feed, allowing it to be repurposed for growing food directly for human consumption.

Alternative Proteins and their Sources

Protein is essential for muscle building, cell repair, and energy provision. Individuals opt for alternative proteins for numerous motives, such as combating climate change, preventing animal cruelty, or pursuing a more mindful diet.

Among the six kingdoms of life—animals, plants, fungi, protists, archaebacteria, and eubacteria—alternative protein sources primarily originate from the plant, fungi, or protist kingdoms.

Plant-based protein:

Plant-based proteins have emerged as the most recognized and favored type of alternative protein today, gaining widespread popularity in the food industry as consumers seek more environmentally sustainable options than traditional animal proteins. While "plant-based" is often used broadly to describe any non-animal protein source, the term doesn't cover the entire spectrum of alternatives.

These proteins, which can replace conventional proteins in items like burgers and chicken nuggets, are derived from plants. The appeal of plant-based proteins, akin to those from fungi, lies in their potential health benefits and lower environmental impact. In the case of plant-based proteins, the protein is extracted from a source plant, such as peas, with the rest of the plant material being discarded.

Beyond meat substitutes, plant-based drinks like milk have also seen a surge in popularity, with a 20% sales increase in 2020. Almond milk, oat milk, and soy milk are becoming more common in households, sometimes replacing traditional cow’s milk. Today, virtually any food or beverage you can imagine likely has a plant-based alternative available.

Fungi-based protein:

There was a time when scientists categorized fungi as plants, but it's now understood that fungi belong to their own distinct kingdom, sharing a closer relationship with animals than plants, despite their placement in the produce aisle. Surprised? To really grasp the fungal realm, it's crucial to familiarize oneself with mycelium.

While mushrooms, or more specifically their caps, are often what come to mind when we think of fungi, these are merely the visible parts known as the fruiting body. Mycelium, the largely unseen fungal network, stretches vast distances beneath the earth's surface. Composed of hyphae, these thread-like structures weave together to form a dense, fibrous network.

Fungi-based proteins stand out for their nutritional richness, boasting high levels of protein and fiber while being low in saturated fats. Unlike plant-based protein alternatives, which essentially transform protein from one state to another (like turning peas into pea protein for a veggie burger), fungi-based proteins introduce an entirely new source of protein.

Lab-grown Meat:

The terminology surrounding this innovative protein source is varied, so for those new to the concept, it's known by several names including lab-grown meat, clean meat, cell-based meat, and cultivated meat. Regardless of the label, this alternative protein is produced by cultivating a small number of animal cells into a product that mimics traditional meat. Companies are now creating meat from a variety of sources, including mammals, fish, and even specific animal organs, without the need for plant-based inputs.

The production process usually starts with selected animal cells, such as stem cells or muscle cells, which are placed in a nutrient-rich medium to proliferate on structures known as scaffolds. This method has the advantage of yielding a product that retains the taste of conventional meat because it is directly derived from animal cells.

Lab-grown meat offers a compassionate and disease-free alternative to traditional meat production methods, eliminating animal suffering and significantly reducing the environmental impact by lowering greenhouse gas emissions.

Algae-based protein:

While algae have been part of diets and research for years, their role as a source of alternative protein is gaining momentum. In the production of algae-based meat substitutes, companies start with microalgae (single-celled organisms), which are then fermented to develop a key ingredient. This ingredient is later infused with various flavorings to create the final edible product. Notably, different types of algae are utilized for distinct purposes.

Algae are a potent source of omega-3 fatty acids and essential vitamins. However, as the development of microalgae-based foods is still in its early stages and production remains limited, there are numerous uncertainties regarding the isolation and large-scale production of algae-based proteins.

A significant hurdle for algae as an alternative protein is its distinct smell, color, and taste, which could hinder its acceptance among the wider population. With ongoing research and investment, the potential benefits and drawbacks of mass-producing algae-based proteins are expected to become more evident.

Market Trends and Developments in Alternative Proteins

The alternative protein sector is experiencing rapid growth and transformation, driven by increasing consumer awareness of health, environmental concerns, and animal welfare.

As this market continues to evolve, several key trends and developments are shaping its future.

1. Diversification of Sources

While plant-based proteins from soy, pea, and wheat have dominated the market, there's a growing interest in exploring and commercializing proteins from less conventional sources. These include algae, edible insects, and fungi, offering unique nutritional profiles and environmental benefits. This diversification allows for a broader range of textures, flavors, and nutritional options in alternative protein products.

Product Diversification: The market is moving beyond traditional plant-based meat substitutes:

  • Dairy alternatives: Plant-based milk, cheese, and yogurt are gaining popularity.
  • Novel proteins: Insect-based and microbial proteins are emerging as sustainable and nutritious options.
  • Functional ingredients: Companies are developing protein isolates and concentrates for various applications, including sports nutrition and bakery products.

2. Technological Innovations

Advancements in food technology, such as precision fermentation and cellular agriculture, are pushing the boundaries of what's possible in alternative protein production. These technologies enable the creation of animal-free dairy proteins, lab-grown meats, and highly functional protein ingredients that closely mimic the sensory and nutritional qualities of animal-derived proteins.

3. Sustainability and Environmental Impact

The environmental benefits of alternative proteins, particularly their lower carbon footprint and reduced resource usage, are a significant driver for both consumers and investors. As the climate crisis intensifies, the demand for sustainable food options is expected to grow, with alternative proteins positioned as a key solution.

4. Regulatory Approvals and Safety Assessments

The regulatory landscape for novel proteins, especially lab-grown meats, is evolving. Safety assessments and approvals are crucial steps for market entry. As more countries establish regulatory frameworks for these products, the pathway for international expansion and consumer acceptance becomes clearer.

Regulatory Landscape: The regulatory landscape is evolving to accommodate the growing industry:

  • Labeling: Regulations are being developed to ensure clear and accurate labeling of alternative protein products.
  • Safety and production standards: Regulatory bodies are establishing guidelines for the safe production and consumption of alternative proteins.

5. Investment and Scaling

Investment in the alternative protein sector continues to surge, fueling innovation, scaling operations, and reducing production costs. This influx of capital is essential for expanding production capacities, improving product quality, and making alternative proteins more accessible and affordable for a wider audience.

Investment and Funding: The industry is attracting significant investment, fueling research and development:

  • Venture capital: Companies developing plant-based, cultured meat, and other alternative proteins are receiving substantial funding.
  • Traditional food companies: Established players are investing in alternative protein options to expand their offerings and cater to changing consumer preferences.

6. Consumer Acceptance and Education

Efforts to increase consumer acceptance include educational campaigns about the health and environmental benefits of alternative proteins. Taste, price, and convenience remain critical factors for mainstream adoption. As products improve and become more widely available, consumer perceptions are gradually shifting in favor of alternative proteins.

Increased Retail Availability: Alternative proteins are becoming more accessible to consumers:

  • Major supermarkets and foodservice outlets: They are stocking a wider variety of alternative protein products, making them more convenient to purchase.
  • Direct-to-consumer brands: Online retailers are offering a wider selection of alternative proteins, increasing consumer choice.

7. Collaborations and Partnerships

Strategic partnerships between startups, established food companies, and retailers are accelerating the development and distribution of alternative protein products. These collaborations are crucial for integrating alternative proteins into existing food systems and reaching a broader consumer base.

8. Global Expansion

While much of the growth in the alternative protein market has been concentrated in Western countries, there's increasing interest and potential for expansion in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

Rising Demand: Consumers are increasingly drawn to alternative proteins due to various factors:

  • Health: Concerns about saturated fat and cholesterol in animal products are driving demand for healthier options.
  • Sustainability: The environmental impact of animal agriculture is pushing consumers towards more sustainable protein sources.
  • Animal Welfare: Ethical concerns about animal treatment are prompting people to seek alternatives.
  • Taste and Innovation: Alternative proteins are constantly improving in taste and texture, making them more appealing to mainstream consumers.

Startups Revolutionizing Alternative Proteins: Funding & Investment Landscape

The alternative protein scene is booming with innovative startups tackling different approaches, attracting significant funding and investor interest.

Here are some examples:

Plant-Based Protein:

Beyond Meat (IPO, 2019): Leading plant-based burger maker with over $1.5 billion raised from Tyson Foods, Kleiner Perkins, and others.

Impossible Foods: Popular for its bleeding plant-based burgers, raised over $1.3 billion from Temasek Holdings, Coatue Management, and others.

Rebellyous Foods: Focuses on plant-based chicken, raised $75 million from Temasek Holdings, Lightspeed Venture Partners, and others.

Cultured Meat:

Memphis Meats (acquired by Eat Just, 2021): Pioneered cultured chicken, raised $186 million from Tyson Foods, Temasek Holdings, and others.

Eat Just (IPO, 2023): Offers plant-based eggs and cultured meat, raised over $2.2 billion from Qatar Investment Authority, SoftBank Vision Fund, and others.

Mosa Meat: Aims to produce cultured beef, raised over $85 million from BOM Capital, Blue Horizon Ventures, and others.

Insect-Based Protein:

Entomo Farms: North American leader in cricket protein, raised over $75 million from Horizons Ventures, Temasek Holdings, and others.

Protix: European insect protein producer raised over $100 million from Rabobank, EQT Ventures, and others.

Ÿnsect: French company producing insect protein for animal feed, raised over $220 million from Temasek Holdings, Cargill, and others.

Microbial Protein:

Perfect Day: Uses fermentation to produce dairy alternatives, raised over $450 million from Temasek Holdings, Horizons Ventures, and others.

Nature's Fynd: Offers protein-rich fungi meat alternatives, raised over $500 million from Temasek Holdings, General Mills, and others.

Calysta: Develops insect-based and fermented protein for food and feed, raised over $170 million from Horizons Ventures, Temasek Holdings, and others.

Key Investors:

Temasek Holdings: Singaporean investment firm, active in plant-based, cultured meat, and insect-based protein startups.

Horizons Ventures: Hong Kong-based VC firm, focused on sustainable food and agriculture technologies.

Kleiner Perkins: Silicon Valley VC firm, invested in Beyond Meat and other early-stage alternative protein companies.

Tyson Foods: Leading meat producer, investing in plant-based and cultured meat startups for diversification.

SoftBank Vision Fund: Global investment fund, backing disruptive technologies including Eat Just and others.

Funding Trends:

  • Plant-based protein continues to attract significant investment, but cultured meat and other novel approaches are gaining traction.
  • Geographic diversification with strong interest from Asian investors like Temasek Holdings and Horizons Ventures.
  • Increased participation from traditional food companies like Tyson Foods and General Mills.

Challenges in Alternative Proteins Market

The burgeoning market for alternative proteins, while promising, faces several challenges that could impact its growth and widespread adoption. These hurdles span technological, regulatory, economic, and consumer perception aspects, each playing a crucial role in the sector's evolution.

Cost: Unlike conventional animal proteins, alternative protein options can be more expensive, limiting accessibility to some consumers, especially in price-sensitive markets.

Scalability: Scaling production to meet growing demand remains a challenge for many companies. This requires efficient manufacturing processes, reliable supply chains for raw materials, and significant infrastructure investment.

Consumer Awareness and Education: Many consumers are still unaware of the benefits and variety of alternative proteins. Educating them about taste, nutrition, sustainability, and ethical considerations is crucial for wider adoption.

Flavor and Texture: While constantly improving, some alternative protein products still struggle to match the taste and texture of their animal-based counterparts. This is a key hurdle for attracting mainstream consumers accustomed to meat and dairy products.

Regulatory Landscape: Regulatory frameworks for novel protein sources like cultured meat are still evolving, creating uncertainty for producers and potentially hindering innovation.

Competition: The market is increasingly competitive, with established food companies entering the space alongside specialized startups. This can lead to price wars and challenges in standing out from the crowd.

Sustainability Concerns: While generally more sustainable than conventional animal agriculture, some alternative protein production methods might have their own environmental impact, requiring careful assessment and improvement.

Access to Capital: While funding is increasing, smaller startups may struggle to secure funding compared to larger players, potentially hindering their development and innovation.

Consumer Acceptance of Novel Protein Sources: Consumers may be hesitant to try unfamiliar protein sources like insects or lab-grown meat due to cultural norms, perceived safety concerns, or unfamiliarity with the products.

Investment and Future Opportunities for Food Tech Companies in Alternative Proteins

Despite facing recent challenges, including a slight decrease in demand for plant-based meat and shifting perceptions, the alternative protein sector continues to show robust potential and resilience. Investment in the industry soared to an all-time high of $5.1 billion in 2021, but there was a 42% decrease in investment during 2022, bringing funding levels back to those seen before 2021.

This downturn in investment reflects wider economic trends and market conditions, including a downturn in global private investment. Contributing factors include rising interest rates, environmental events, the ongoing effects of the pandemic, and geopolitical uncertainties.

Despite a general decline in investment, certain areas, especially the Asia-Pacific and Europe, saw significant growth.

Adding to the positive developments, 2022 marked a pivotal moment of reduced risk for the industry when UPSIDE Foods gained FDA approval for its cultivated chicken product.

The Road Ahead

The future of alternative proteins appears bright. With continued advancements, addressing challenges, and responsible development, this sector has the potential to revolutionize the food system, offering sustainable, ethical, and accessible protein sources for a healthy planet and a growing population.