Alt-protein industry facing a ‘sea change’ in the midst of an ever-changing current

By Will Chu

- Last updated on GMT

(From L-R) Liz Specht, senior scientist, The Good Food Institute (chair) Christopher Kerr, partner, New Crop Capital,  Tim Ingmire, senior director R&D, PepsiCo   Derek Sarno, chef-director of plant-based innovation, Tesco Neelesh Varde, global product manager, Roquette,
(From L-R) Liz Specht, senior scientist, The Good Food Institute (chair) Christopher Kerr, partner, New Crop Capital, Tim Ingmire, senior director R&D, PepsiCo Derek Sarno, chef-director of plant-based innovation, Tesco Neelesh Varde, global product manager, Roquette,

Related tags: Meat

A “sea change” is occurring in the plant-based and cultured protein industry although which way the current is flowing is yet to be determined, a panel of experts conclude.

The subject of how integrating plant-based proteins into existing products was one of the subjects of a lively panel discussion at Future-Food Tech in London along with industry insights that support investment decisions.

Here Tim Ingmire, senior director of R&D at PepsiCo commented that the sea change was apparent by way of recent investments at a national level that suggested countries were planning for a future with alternative proteins at the heart.

“When you look at the French government and its €1 billion investment in this area, you see these actions at a government level that will continue to build a body of research around these materials,” ​he said.

“Their application to new products that will appear over the next five to 10 years.”

With the advent of cultured meat companies such as Memphis Meats, Beyond Meat and Israel’s SuperMeat, finding alternative sources of protein is such that the meat industry has taken a collaborative rather than a confrontational stance.

‘Next big growth engine’

“A few years ago the meat industry saw this as a threat,” ​said Liz Specht, senior scientist at The Good Food Institute USA and session chair.

“Now, I think they are seeing this as the next big growth engine. A lot of them are getting involved really early, whether it’s through investment or collaboration.”

Christopher Kerr, partner at US-based New Crop Capital, offered his view from an investment standpoint stating that ”Now that the meat industry’s investment dollars are being poured into R&D, its right that we sit up and pay attention.

“More R&D creates better products, creates a better consumer experience and everyone wins in the end.” 

Neelesh Varde, global product manager for Roquette, offered an ingredient manufacturer’s point of view commenting that the firm had seen a change in the kinds of raw materials being explored for protein.

“At the end of the day, it's survival of the fittest. Those companies that are willing to explore new materials that resonate with the consumer will survive,” he said.

“There’s a big push for non-GM and whether plant breeding can be achieved to create selective characteristics without going down the GM route.

“So not genetic engineering but natural breeding to for example increase protein content. A change like that could have future implications for sustainability and costs.”

The use of GM products in alternative proteins could well be a factor in its success in meeting the global demand for protein.   

Ongoing public concerns related to their food safety, regulation, labelling, environmental impact, research methods, continue to blight their profile that has somewhat overshadowed their benefits.

What is sustainability?

Varde continued by outlining the challenges he saw within his sector as well as the opportunities that he thought would open up in the future.

“The challenges for us are to add value and functionality in order for companies to be able to formulate the protein.

“There’s also the challenge to find innovative raw materials. When we assess the raw material, we look at its nutritional values, processing capabilities and also sustainability and functionality.

“Sustainability is difficult to define. What does it really mean? If you take the pea crop as an example, it doesn’t require a lot of fertilizer or water.

But looking at the supply chain, you’re taking peas from one region to another region, processing it and bringing them back. At what level does the consumer or company care about that?

“It also requires a lot of investment. At what point do you make the investments to produce a lot of protein and still maintain the advantage of being one of the first to market.

Ingmire added that, for him, the five major challenges were taste, texture, functionality, nutritional profile and price.

“We don’t have the tools to be able to deliver all five of those things,” ​he concluded.

“What we need to do is focus on the things we can do and are most important to consumers. We’ll work with the tools we have available to us today. If we can crack this, then we can do fantastically well.”

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