What plant proteins can and can’t do to reduce the cost of plant-based meat

By Augustus Bambridge-Sutton

- Last updated on GMT

Plant proteins such as fava beans are consumed both as part of plant-based products, and by animals. Image Source: Getty Images/MEDITERRANEAN
Plant proteins such as fava beans are consumed both as part of plant-based products, and by animals. Image Source: Getty Images/MEDITERRANEAN

Related tags Cost

There are a number of things holding plant-based meat back from achieving full price parity with animal meat. While manufacturers may be unable to buy cheaper proteins due to inadequate nutritional value, plant proteins do have potential in other areas, such as processing, to reduce costs.

In plant-based’s quest to reduce costs, there are two main issues: ingredient costs and processing costs.

Animal feed, despite sharing many of the same proteins as plant-based meat, does not provide the same nutritional benefits. Buying animal-grade protein thus cannot be a solution.

However, using plant proteins to replace other parts of plant-based meat can indeed reduce costs. Some plant proteins can replace the functionality of expensive additives.

The problem with feed-grade proteins for humans

Many plant-based proteins are used in both animal feed and plant-based meat. Soya bean, pea protein and fava beans all crossover between the two categories. However, feed-grade proteins are not suitable for human consumption.

In a recent whitepaper, the food scientist Anthony Warner presented a range of potential solutions to the price parity problem in plant-based meat. While price parity has been achieved in some places, such as the Netherlands​, already, issues still remained elsewhere for a range of reasons, such as subsidies given to the meat industry​. Warner focuses on two issues: processing costs and ingredient costs.

Theoretically, one way to mitigate costs would be thorough cheaper ingredients, namely the use of feed-grade plant proteins. They are, indeed, much cheaper than food-grade. They are also produced in abundance, the ratio between human and animal consumption of these proteins being enormous. For example, for every 1000 tonnes of fava beans consumed by humans, livestock consume 600,000 tonnes.

“Lots of the ingredients used in plant-based ingredients are also consumed as animal feed. This is particularly the case for soya, fava bean, wheat and lupin. The feed volumes of many of these crops is often a lot higher than the amount for direct human consumption,” Warner told FoodNavigator.

“About 2.7 million tonnes of soya is imported for use in feed in the UK, with only 300 thousand tonnes going to human consumption.”

However, this is not a solution to the cost problem. Feed-grade proteins are not suitable for human consumption, optimal though it would be for prices if they were. “The grade and quality of crops going into feed is generally lower than that being used for direct human consumption. In the case of soya, imported GMO varieties, which are generally cheaper to grow, are only used for animal feed in the UK, with none going into human foods for regulatory reasons,” he told us.

“And for a lot of ingredients, a higher level of processing is applied to ingredients for human consumption, largely to raise protein levels and increase functionality, all of which drives additional costs. I am sure that it is not easy to create animal feed, but humans are slightly more discerning consumers, and it costs a lot more to create acceptable ingredients for them.” Essentially, the nutritional content is too low to adequately satisfy human beings.

Plant proteins outside meat and dairy analogues

Plant-based proteins can be useful not just for meat and dairy analogues but in other contexts as well​.

For example, pea protein is being used by French ingredients company Roquette to replace texture in meals, such as lasagne. You just add it to the meal, and it provides a meat-like texture.

Furthermore, start-up ChickP is using chickpeas to fortify products such as cereal bars with protein, and food tech company MycoTechnology is using shiitake mushroom in a range of products, rather than simply plant-based analogues.

“Grass as the number one protein source for animal feed is a good example to illustrate feed grade vs food grade vegetable protein sources,” Anton van den Brink, deputy secretary general for the European Feed Manufacturers Association (FEFAC), told FoodNavigator.

“In principle further processing may result in ‘grass extracts/juices’ which are suitable for human consumption, but it is only done to a very limited extent. Also rapeseed meal and sunflower meal are key examples for protein sources used in compound feed manufacturing where the interest for further processing to obtain a food product is low due to various reasons. However, for certain young animal nutritional requirements or aquaculture species, higher ‘food’ quality grade proteins can be used (e.g. soy protein concentrate, whey products), but again this is also reflected in pricing.”

The functionality potential of plant proteins

In many cases, much of the cost of plant-based meat production comes from additional ingredients, such as emulsifiers and gelling, that are used to give the product structure. However, plant-based proteins themselves have the potential to do this.

The cost of green

A recent report ​by the climate tracking firm reewild showed that, while consumers are increasingly drawn towards sustainable and climate-friendly shopping trends and would willingly spend 12% more for sustainable products, cost is still a significant factor. This means that, while the market for sustainability-focused products such as plant-based meat is certainly there, consumers will be more likely to embrace them if they put less strain on the wallet.

“Plant proteins have a variety of interesting and under-explored properties, acting as natural emulsifiers, gelling and foaming agents, or delivering structure, fibrosity, colour and flavour. Simply analysing a wide range of different proteins and creating a library of functionality can deliver a really powerful resource to improve plant-based formulations and create cleaner labels, and a few companies and institutions are doing just that. We consider this to be some of the most important work currently going on in plant based,” Warner told us.

Many proteins we already use, such as pea, potato, sunflower, fava and soya, may have enough in-built functionality to remove the need for expensive additives. These proteins have already yielded results in replacing egg proteins.

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