As we approach the end of the first quarter of 2022, it is fair to say that things are already looking bright in the food tech and alternative protein sector. New ideas are being developed and exciting products are coming to market. As the industry enters a new stage of maturation, we’ve taken a look at 5 exciting trends to watch.
1. Precision fermentation – animal derivatives without the animals
Fermentation has long been used in human food production. It is used in various ways, from improving the shelf life of products or bringing out individual flavors and textures. It is used in everyday products, such as cheese, yogurt, bread, sauerkraut, and kimchi.
The fermentation process allows microbes (yeast or bacteria) to work on sugars, breaking them down to create complex molecules, such as proteins, fats, or enzymes.
However, precision fermentation is a new food technique that leverages the power of genetic engineering to produce microbes capable of producing specific types of molecules. While the current implementation of this technology for the food scene is new, this method of genetic engineering has been around since the 1980s, when a strain of E. Coli was used to produce insulin.
After years of research and design, numerous start-ups use precision fermentation to produce molecules traditionally derived from animal farming.
Perfect Day, a recent Californian start-up, uses precision fermentation to create whey protein for their animal-free range of products, including ice cream and cake mix, removing the historical involvement of the milk industry.
Perfect Day works with food giant General Mills to bring animal-free cream cheese to customers keen to enjoy foods free of animal products – a great example of an innovative precision fermentation start-up partnering with a well-established traditional consumer food brand.
Other notable innovative food-tech startups that are recreating animal derivatives using precision fermentation include Impossible Foods and Motif FoodWorks, which are both producing beef-like proteins responsible for the flavor of the meat.
Each is expanding its reach with a range of new products. Precision fermentation may hold the key to producing a range of meat-like flavors without the corresponding need for animal exploitation at a price and quality level, which revolutionizes the market.
2. Cultivated meat for food will soon be approved globally
To date, only Singapore has given the go-ahead for factory-grown meat. Factory-grown meat focuses on producing real meat, grown from animal cells in lab conditions, to make animal-free food that still satisfies the public demand for authentic meat tastes.
When first unveiled in 2013, the cost of a cultivated beef burger was an enormous $330,000 (US). Of course, as with most technologies, the process has been refined and improved over time, with prices coming down considerably.
Costs for animal-free chicken have now dropped below $10 per pound of meat. This will continue to drop as companies successfully scale pilot-stage facilities to produce thousands of kilos of this animal-free product.
Examples of such companies include UPSIDE Foods, which launched its Engineering, Product & Innovation Centre (EPIC) in November 2021. It is the first production facility to scale past 24 metric tonnes of product per annum. Aleph Farms and SuperMeat also launched pilot schemes in anticipation of regulatory approval beyond Singapore.
With the lowering production cost and growing demand for the product, all eyes are now on the regulators to clarify the legality of animal-free meat. If the USDA and FDA in America can lead the way and approve such products for their home market, global approval may begin to trickle through.
The UK launched the Alternative Protein Association in March 2022 to represent alternative protein producers and provide regulatory policy and support. Companies are waiting on the side-line for official endorsement by leading economies. This looks like it could happen in 2022, which would be a huge turning point for the production of animal-free real meat.
3. Whole-cut analogs arrive through technological advances
The first generation of alt-meat substitutes used a technology called extrusion, a process of heat, pressure, and moisture, which created an altered texture that somewhat mimicked meat.
It is a method that has been widely used for several decades for many uses, including pet food. There is certainly no shortage of options on the supermarket shelves today, differentiated only by their packaging and price points, particularly plant-based chicken alternatives.
Extruded plant proteins can display some of the texture of unstructured meats, such as sausages and burgers.
However, when it comes to mimicking whole cuts of meat, such as a chicken breast or a juicy steak, they fall short by some distance. The complex fibrous nature of meat, how it tears, feels on the tongue, and tastes, is hard to copy.
Whole cut analogs are seen as the holy grail of alternative protein production. Over the next few years, look out for an increase in meat-free producers concentrating on producing whole-cut options. There is, after all, significant demand for this with 50% of meat consumed of the structured variety and manufacturers will surely be following the money.
One such manufacturer is Redefine Meat. Using a proprietary 3D printer, Redefine Meat is producing ‘printed’ cuts of beef with never-before-seen levels of texture and functional properties. Founded in 2018, the company has already launched multiple products across Europe and Israel.
Redefine Meat is part of a wave of start-ups that were launched to solve the problem of creating structured meats. With brands such as Juicy Marbles and Meati launching whole-cut products direct to consumers soon, we anticipate there will be a lot of interest and growth in this area.
4. Synthetic biology research is creating innovation
We are at the beginning of a revolution in biomanufacturing. Thanks to considerable growth in synthetic biology, and the process of applying engineering principles to biology, cells can be designed to perform specific tasks. The DNA within cells is similar to computer software, with code required to allow for the successful propagation of information. For cells, this code instructs them on what to grow and how to do it.
Historically, we have achieved this through selective breeding; producing crops, livestock, and pets that suit our needs and are optimized for such factors as size, strength, or yield. These days, advancements in DNA and RNA tech mean that we can alter, redesign, or completely write genetic code from scratch.
Israel-based Equinom has built a platform that matches desired food traits to the genetic make-up of altered seed varieties, using machine learning to locate the exact specification needed.
Hoxton Farms and Kingdom Supercultures are two more examples of companies applying Big Data to their industry, optimizing how they source ingredients for their products, such as choosing the perfect microbes from billions of alternative options.
5. Global threats push alt-food proteins to ever greater heights
At present, animal agriculture accounts for most greenhouse gas emissions globally, with an estimated total of between 51% and 87% contributed. It is now widely recognized as the single most destructive activity occurring on our planet. Meat production is also incredibly inefficient with massive amounts of land and water required per tonne of product.
Among them is the governing authority of China, the world’s most populous country. In a recent installment of its “Five Year Plan for China,” the Chinese government committed to alternative protein sources, such as cultivated meat, egg analogs, and the recombination of proteins.
China is committing itself to make progress in these areas in the future. This is a critical acceptance of alternative proteins globally by the largest consuming nation of eggs and meat.
China’s acceptance of alt-protein sources may aid global policy development. The US Department of Agriculture made considerable investments last year in cell-based meat research. Furthermore, the UK’s Alternative Protein Association, set up in 2021, is working hard to promote the value of alt-proteins in the food-tech sector, in order to aid policy development.
Supply-side shocks from events like the COVID-19 pandemic, Brexit, and the war in Ukraine, have led both the public and private sectors to realize how fragile our food supply chains are.
Companies and countries are looking at how they can change processes to remove this risk factor with responsibly created alt-proteins likely to improve food security. If China, the US, and the UK continue to lead, other countries will follow.