Special edition: Meat Alternatives

Meating the demand: The future of meat replacement proteins

By Nathan Gray

- Last updated on GMT

Test tube meat: Animal tissue grown in a lab is just one solution to the the growing problems made by high demand for meat
Test tube meat: Animal tissue grown in a lab is just one solution to the the growing problems made by high demand for meat

Related tags Meat Nutrition Protein

With demand for meat replacement proteins set to rocket, industry is left with the conundrum: how to meet the requirements? In this special edition article, FoodNavigator looks at some of the solutions that could pave the way for future generations of meat replacement produts.

With the global population set to continue expanding at an alarmingly rapid rate, the demand for meat – and meat-substitutes – is set to soar, according to many experts.  

As this demand grows, the need for reliable alternative sources to animal proteins from livestock is going to become vital. So what options does the food industry have when it comes to producing effective alternatives to meat products in the future?

There is already a wide range of meat-replacement products available in the market place, with ever popular choices for ranging from soy and wheat proteins, to Quorn – a mycoprotein derived from fermentation of the fungus Fusarium venenatum​ – and tofu.

But as demand sustainable, cheap, environmentally friendly meat replacers grows, so does the clamour for new and innovative products – that could one day produce a truly like for like replacement of meat products.

From vegetable protein isolates, to algae, insects, and even alternative forms of meat that are grown in labs – there is a rich future in the development of substitute meat products.

Budding veggies

Ingredients suppliers already offer a wide-range of vegetable proteins touted as replacers for meat protein – including soy, wheat, and pea proteins.

Last year, vegetable protein texturising specialist Sotexpro and starch manufacturer Roquette teamed up to offer a new a pea-based texturiser with applications for meat substitution​. While Solbar, have a range of vegetable proteins, the latest of which​ they claim can copy almost any red meat, poultry, fish or sea food for vegetarian applications, or can be used to add texture and cost benefits to actual meat products.

In addition to these industry offerings, many international research projects are working to produce meat replacement products from vegetable proteins.

The EU funded ‘LikeMeat’ project plans to use seeds from raw vegetable to produce protein that has the same textures and flavours as meat from animals, says project co-ordinator Florian Wild​.

“Our goal is to develop a vegetable surrogate for meat that is both juicy and fibrous, but that also has a pleasant flavour,”​ Wild explained. “As a group, we are seeking to engineer a simple production chain in which pure vegetable raw materials are used to produce a meat substitute that corresponds to consumer preferences,"​ he previously told FoodNavigator.

The researcher explained that there are several plants that are suitable for the production of meat substitute products, including wheat, peas, lupin, and soya.

“We are intentionally not tying ourselves down to one type of plant because many people get an allergic reaction to the one or other substance,”​ he said.

Is algae the answer?

Algae are known to contain high quantities of protein – up to 47% by weight, according to research – and this abundance of protein makes algae one of the most interesting new sources of protein for food applications.

Algae protein isolate could also be a cost effective alternative to meat proteins. Dutch research organisation TNO have already started to investigate this potential, after they spied an opportunity to extract protein from coldwater algae​ – which it believes could herald a new, environmentally-friendly, source of protein and a meat analogue.

tNO researcher Korstanje said the protein rubisco​ – found in algae – has good functionality for food applications due to its structuring properties that make it useful for stabilising foams and gives it “high potential uses in meat replacement products.”

Insect Prospects

Consumption of insects may be a natural part of many cultures, but most Western consumers would balk at the thought of eating foods made from our six-legged friends.

However, the potential for food made from purified insect protein is massive, with the European Union and national food agencies backing plans for foods containing insects.

It’s easy to see why, too. The average insect provides similar nutritional value to meat in terms of calories and protein content, but is much lower in price and generally contains much less fat.

Many insects are also rich of nutrients such as calcium, niacin, iron, protein, potassium and B vitamins.

As a result, the UK’s food safety agency indicated last year​ that purified or partially purified insect protein could become commercial viable if a reliable source could be identified, whilst the Dutch government has long been in favour of encouraging insect consumption.

The European Union will also spend €3m on research on 'the potential of insects as an alternative source of protein.”

“In principle there are three ways insects could be consumed. First as whole insects, recognizable as such; second, whole insects processed in some powder or paste; third, as an extract such as a protein isolate,”​ explains Harmke Klunder from Wageningen University in The Netherlands – who recently led a study into the potential of insect protein​.

However, many food experts warned that insects would probably have to be ‘disguised’ or used as part of a ‘hybrid’ meat product – such as a burger with ‘added insect protein’ – for Western consumers.

Test tube burgers?

In addition to replacing meat with alternative protein source, there is mounting interest in growing meat from a sustainable source in the lab 

Dr Professor Mark Post of Maastricht University, the Netherlands, argues that the idea of growing meat in vitro could offer the beginning of a new solution to the ever increasing demand for meat.

Post is working on an efficient way to produce skeletal muscle tissue in a laboratory that exactly mimics meat – something he believes could eventually replace the entire meat-animal industry. And he is succeeding.

The World’s first burger made entirely from meat grown in his laboratory is due to be ready later this year​.

In a podcast with FoodNavigator last year (found here), Post explained that his team are currently working on producing the burger from around 10,000 stem cells extracted from cattle.

The cells are left to multiply by more than a billion times, producing muscle tissue that will then be used to make burgers.

The project is funded with 250,000 euros from an anonymous private investor, who Dr Post revealed is motivated by "care for the environment, food for the world, and interest in life-transforming technologies."

He said that whilst his team are currently aiming to produce small strands of meat which can then be processed to produce “burgers and sausage type foods,”​ the long term goals of the project “have to be to grow much larger pieces of meat, such as steaks and chops.”

“Hopefully this will create enough enthusiasm and financial support to upscale and economise the processes, so that we can improve and start to think about a real manufacturing process,”​ said Post.

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