Alt Protein

What exactly is "alt-protein?"

Well, firstly, it’s a trendy abbreviation of “alternative protein”, which itself refers to pretty much anything which is new and doesn’t come from conventional animal or plant sources.

Generally alt-protein refers to 4 main categories

  •         Plant Based Meats
  •         Cultured Meat (meat grown outside an animal, sometimes called Cellular Agriculture)
  •         Animal proteins created from a technology known as Precision Fermentation
  •         Insect-based protein

We discuss each of these topics below in detail – but we prefer to also categorise the alt-protein products into:

  •         Things you can buy now
  •         Things you will almost certainly be able to buy soon

·         Things that you might be able to buy in the more distant future, if a whole bunch of stuff works out

Things in the first category are what we might call the 1st and 2nd generation plant-based meats, as well as proteins derived from farmed insects.  Think of burgers, sausages, “chicken” style nuggets, mince or chunks made from vegetable proteins such as wheat, soy and pea, or fungus – either mushrooms or specially grown mycelium. Other than the burgers and sausages, these products are generally designed to be incorporated into a sauce-based meal such as a curry or a pasta-based dish rather than consumed on their own. From insect proteins we have simple powders and supplements – which can be added to pretty much anything to boost protein and nutritional value. 

Hot on the heels of these products in the ‘able to buy soon’ list, there will be huge diversity of new plant-based-meat products coming out in the next few years.  Manufacturers are investing heavily to be able to create products that replicate every type of meat and seafood, and the range of ingredients is widening to include algae, seaweed and a much more diverse range of plant-derived proteins to improve nutrition and texture.

Also, in the near future we will start to see the 1st generation of products from the “cultured meat” industry.  Again, these will be in the form of burgers, sausages and mince rather than whole cuts of meat.  In fact, in November 2020, history was made when the very 1st cultured meat product (chicken style nuggets) went on sale in Singapore.   These first cultured meat products will only be available in small quantities and will likely be expensive compared to conventional or plant-based meats, but nonetheless, it marks an extraordinary achievement and may form the first trickle of an avalanche of products in the years to come.

Finally – in the “maybe someday” list we have the holy grail of alt-protein.  Something that looks, cooks and tastes like a slab of meat and is indistinguishable from meat from a conventionally farmed animal.  Be it steak, pork, lamb, chicken, or zebra (yes, really) – something that could be roasted or barbequed and can satisfy the cravings of the most committed carnivore.  Easy this is not – but a lot of people in the industry believe it can be done.   Read on below.

But why is it important?

As we discussed in the problems with our current system, the indisputable reality is that the use of animals in agriculture has been incredibly destructive to the environment, created unimaginable levels of pain and suffering in billions of animals and is not sustainable.

We believe that alt-protein industry has the potential to revolutionise the impact of agriculture on the environment and create a truly ethical and sustainable source of protein for humans – and pets. 

Plant-based meat

Of all the “Alt-protein” technologies either available now, or being developed, plant-based meat is undoubtedly the most advanced and has been available for longest (ok, except for insects).     
The first plant-based meats date back over 1000 years -and were created in Asia as part of the Buddhist tradition.  The first producers used ideas like smoking tofu to create cooked meat tastes, or using seaweed to mimic cooked skin.  Amazingly, one of the most popular plant-based meats, known as Seitan, has even been traced back to the 6th century – and Seitan, which is made from wheat gluten, is still a popular option today.

It took another 900 years before the first commercial plant-based meat, “Nuttose” was developed in the West.   Made from peanuts and developed by Henry Kellog, it was first made available in 1896; its successor Nuteena continued to to be available until 2005. 

Even back in the 1930’s, there was a range of meat-alternative products on the market, but it’s only really been in the last 20 years that the explosion of new products and new technologies has really diversified the market and brought plant-based meats into the mainstream and public eye.   Undoubtedly this has largely been driven by the well-funded and well-marketed US Corporations Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, whose burgers (and now mince, sausages and more) closely mimic the appearance and taste of actual meat.  

As well as appealing to vegans and vegetarians who might still enjoy the taste and texture of meat, these products are being marketed to “flexitarians” who do not see meat as an essential part of a meal and are happy to embrace vegan and vegetarian alternatives.

Today, we have plant-based meat companies in almost every developed country in the world, and being manufactured from a huge range of base ingredients.  Plant-based proteins, often extracted from grains such as wheat, or legumes such as peas or soybeans still dominate the ingredients list, but plant-based meat made from fungus, mushrooms, algae, seaweed and other sources are either available today or are under development.

Just how good is plant-based meat?

So while plant-based meats are developing in leaps and bounds, the crucial question is this: 

Are they, or can they be good enough to persuade a meat eater to switch entirely to a plant-based meat diet? 

If not, then they remain destined to be a niche – a novelty for vegans and vegetarians  who crave the texture and taste of meat and who will settle for something that is “close enough”, but will never appeal enough to the wider population to make a real difference to our food sustainability issue.

A couple of years ago, taste testing comparisons of plant-based burgers vs conventional meat burgers was popular with the media – the general conclusion was that some of them are good enough to satisfy most carnivores.

However – the challenge remains that these products are good substitutes for burgers, sausages and even chicken pieces, they cannot yet replicate the texture of whole cuts or chunks of meat. 

So it’s difficult to imagine a steakhouse, for example, announcing that it is switching from offering animal-based steaks to the plant-based equivalents.

But there is no doubt that this is a very fast moving and innovative sector.   

But unless there is either a significant price incentive or other driving factor, it is hard to imagine how a significant proportion of the population will be persuaded make the switch when animal-derived meat remains cheap and plentiful.

 

 

 

Cellular Agriculture

Part 1 – Cultured Meat

“We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat a breast or a wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium”

The idea of growing meat without animals has long been in the realm of science fiction, despite futuristic predictions such as that made by Winston Churchill 90 years ago.

Back in 2013, however, the idea of meat without animals hit the headlines when Dr Mark Post from the University of Maastrict in the Netherlands created the 1st cultured meat burger.   That first burger cost $300,000 USD/ $400,000 AUD to make, funded by a grant from Google Founder Sergey Brin.   The select group of people who got to taste all agreed – while it was a bit dry and tasteless (as it had no fat content) it was unmistakably meat.

Fast forward to 2021 – and what has happened?  Where are our cultured cuts of meat?   Where’s our bioreactor beef or our lab-grown lamb chops?  Why is it taking so long if we could already make burgers 8 years ago?

Ok – so let’s take a short step back and look at the timeline of cell agriculture and where we are today.

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The Technology

So what actually is cellular agriculture?

Growing cells without an animal is, on the face of it, quite easy.  In fact, scientists have been doing this for over 100 years now and it is a common practice for both animal and human cells in research and medical diagnostics. 

However, a piece of meat is much more than just a culture of muscle cells.  It contains fat tissues, which any chef will tell you is critical to the flavour of the meat, as well as blood vessels to provide nutrients and remove waste products, connective tissues to connect muscles to the skeleton and nerve cells which allows the muscle to be controlled by the brain and nervous system.   There are also different types of muscle cells which affect the texture and taste of the resultant meat.  So-called “slow twitch” cells which form mostly red or dark coloured meat are used for extended bouts of activity (e.g., standing or walking), and “fast-twitch” cells which are generally lighter and used for short bursts of vigorous activity.   Think of chicken breast meat vs beef to understand what this means for the meat.

Engineering all this outside of a growing embryo or animal is not a simple task.  But there is a phenomenal international effort underway to achieve just that – and big steps have already been made.

To make cultured meat, you need several things.  Firstly, of course, you need some cells which will grow and replicate – these are called the “cell lines” which are initially derived from a living animal (this is no more intrusive to the animal than taking a biopsy from a human patient).  Then you need a “growth medium” which is the solution that surrounds the growing cells and provides the cells with the nutrients they need, and a “scaffold” onto which the cells attach, and which will distribute the growth medium to the cells.  Finally you also need a specialised tank in which you grow the meat known as a bioreactor.  Oh and you also need lots of expertise and money.  Lots of money.

 One of the biggest challenges has been creating the “scaffold” that the cells need to grow on to create something resembling conventional meat.  Without this scaffold, all you can create is a flat culture of disorganised cells – which might be ok if you want to create a fast-food style chicken nugget, but hopeless if you are trying to create the bite and chewiness of a steak or chicken breast.

So, the scaffold needs to be 3-dimensional, able to distribute the nutrients and growth medium to the cells (replicating the blood vessels of animal tissue), edible (as it remains in the cultured meat), and scalable to commercial volumes at a low cost.   Researchers have experimented with scaffolds made form plant skeletons (known as decellularized plant tissue), fungi, textured soy protein and many different other materials.  All have their benefits and drawbacks – and so far, there has not been one stand-out winner. 

Another idea is to use a type of 3d printing known as bioprinting to either print the scaffold from a suitable material or even 3d print the cells and the scaffold together. While using a 3d printer to print food sounds like Star Trek type science fiction, it’s a promising technology – although the idea of telling your computer to print your dinner is some way off . . .

Nonetheless, despite these challenges, a number of companies are close to having products available and several have already done taste tests and demonstrations of their products. 

Part 2 – Precision Fermentation

Ok – so much for cultured meat.  What about the other products we get from animals, such as milk and eggs?

It turns out that the path for making these types of products (milk especially) is much simpler than meat; the approach is vastly different and much better understood.

Instead of having to persuade animal cells to grow in an artificial environment, to make milk without cows, yeast is genetically modified to insert the genes that make milk proteins (casein and whey).    The use of yeast to create proteins in this manner has been studied for decades – and is actually used to make vaccines such as the hepatitis vaccine.   There’s a bunch of companies who have taken this approach – but head of the herd right now is US-based startup Perfect Day.  They already have products in production and on the shelves (just icecream at this time).   Cheese should be not far behind, but when whole milk might be hitting the shelves is not yet known.

Much the same approach is being taken to manufacture egg proteins.   Recreating a whole egg with shell, white and yolk is not on the cards for the foreseeable future, but the individual component proteins which we would recognise as the yolk and the white, which can be used in food manufacturing definitely is.  So, in this case, the cellular agriculture egg might come before the cellular agriculture chicken.