I was recently at the Global Food Summit – Seeds and Chips – in Milan, and surprised to see that out of the 350 or so startups exhibiting there, about a quarter were profiling some sort of alternative protein source. The protein options are coming through thick and fast so lets take a look in a bit more detail at the top 5:
- Plant protein
- Microbial protein
- Insect protein
- Meat protein and production choices
- Lab-grown meat
Gone are the days of vegeburgers that taste like cardboard. There are now a range of new and improved plant-based, and most often pulse-based, products, which also taste more like meat – for example Beyond Meat – launched at Seeds and Chips recently, and the Impossible Burger made from plant-based protein in the silicon valley.
Interestingly both these companies started with taste as a basis for their product, rather than the environmental or health benefits. These benefits will of course flow, but people are only going to choose a plant-based protein option if it tastes delicious. In the case of the Impossible Burger the authentic taste is all down to an iron-containing molecule called “heme”, which Impossible Foods describes as the “magic ingredient that makes meat look, cook and taste gloriously meaty”.
The company also claims that by not using beef, one of its burgers uses 95% less land, 74% less water and reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 87%.
One of the traditional problems with plant-based protein has been the relatively low availability of essential amino acids, but by moving away from soy as the sole ingredient, and by mixing in pulses, grains and other vegetable sources, the new generation of vege burgers are able to provide a balanced source of amino acids and in some cases respectable levels of iron.
Protein can be harvested from a range of microbes including fungi, bacteria and micro algae – the most common of which is spirulina. The advantage of some of these proteins is that they can be grown at relatively large industrial scale in vats using only a sugar source, and then the cells can be harvested and compacted down into orange of meat-less protein products.
Again at Seeds and Chips several of these products were on show. The fibrous texture of fungal-based protein in particular was a good substitute for meat. Some of hype around these protein sources was interesting and one company which produced microbial protein claimed to produce protein from ‘thin air’. Technically this is true as the microbes harvest nitrogen out of the air and convert it into protein along with the carbohydrate food source the are given.
Insects provide a high protein, low fat, low carbon footprint food source, so why aren’t we eating more, well its largely cultural and squeamishness – we need to push past the yuck factor. As Emil, the fat rat from the animated film Ratatouille says, ‘You know, once you muscle your way past the gag reflex, all kinds of possibilities open up’
However we already eat a broad range of arthropods, the evolutionary group that contain insects, including lobsters, shrimps and prawns. This group are known as crustaceans and are the sea-based relatives of woodlice.
But shouldn’t we be taking the idea of eating insects – or entophagy – a bit more seriously? A UN report promotes eating insects as the solution for ending world hunger and increasing food security.
It requires 10 times as much plant matter to produce a kilo of mammal flesh compared to a kilo of insect biomass.
Over 2 billion people globally engage in entophagy and is a key part of their diets, and including crickets, cicadas, grasshoppers, ants, various beetle grubs (such as mealworms), the larvae of the darkling beetle or rhinoceros beetle, various species of caterpillar (such as bamboo worms, silkworms and the witchetty grub), scorpions and spiders (particularly tarantulas). In fact there are over 2000 species of insects and spiders known to be edible to humans.
Scientific analysis of fossilized poo and cave paintings, indicate humans have been eating insects for millennia, and our closest evolutionary relatives, the apes and primates, consume insects as part of their varied diets.
Insects are an excellent source of protein, and are very efficient to produce. It requires 10 times as much plant matter to produce a kilo of mammal flesh compared to a kilo of insect biomass. The carbon footprint of insect rearing, particularly in terms of methane production, is also much lower when compared to production of mammal biomass.
The large scale rearing of insects – or mini-livestock – is seen as part of the food solution particularly in some Asian countries and and Singapore in particular is the location of some serious investment in insect farming.
Meat protein and production choices
Yet with all these alternative we shouldn’t be ruling meat out. There are a range of meat options we can consider, including beef, pork, lamb, chicken, fish. Other non-standard options include kangaroo, which is very high in iron and low in fat. But saving up your weekly meat allowance (World Health Organisation recommendations is 65 g per day) to consume a delicious steak from pasture reared cows is also an option, and one which supports Australia’s premium beef production.
By choosing our meat sources and varying the way we produce meat, we can also drastically reduce the environmental and climate impact of consuming meat, which has received some attention recently. Here are a few ways this can be done (including advice from Meat and Livestock Australia)
- Meat sources – you could choose to eat meats sourced from animals that produce lower amounts of greenhouse gases – fish, chicken or pork, compared to beef or lamb – and is the route to a climatarian diet
- Animal breeding – animals are being bred for lower levels of methanogenesis (methane production, they greenhouse gas produced by livestock). Trials suggest that animal breeding could achieve a 10–20% reduction in methane emissions.
- Diet supplements and feeds – some feed supplements help reduce methane emissions from livestock. For example 10–25% reductions are possible by feeding ruminants dietary oils, and 13–16% from condensed tannins.
- Improved pastures – improved forage quality, for example fresh grass rather than grain diets, can reduce methane production in livestock. Pasture quality can also be improved by plant breeding, including legumes, changing from tropical to temperate grasses, or grazing on less mature pastures.
- Biological control – Three biological control methods are being examined for their ability to reduce methane production from livestock, using:
- viruses that attack the microbes which produce methane
- specialised proteins that target methane-producing microbes
- other microbes (methanotrophs) that break down the methane produced in the rumen into other substances.
Matthew Evans, who I was on a panel discussion with at WOMADelaide this year (check out podcast here – less meat more heat – is the elephant in the room really a cow), has recently published a book ‘On Eating Meat’. In it he uncovers some of the animal welfare and health issues associated with the large-scale livestock industry and ends up recommending that we should just eat less meat but spend more on each item to get better quality, more ethically and sustainably sourced meat – a sensible suggestion all round.
Lab grown meat
Finally – lets consider cell cultured meat, which are animal tissue cells grown in a lab. So you are getting real meat without the environmental impacts. Its currently possible but expensive. A kilo of lab grown meat would currently set you back between $15,000 and $25,000, but costs are coming down rapidly, and companies developing this technology are aiming for a product that would retail for $5-10 per kilo.
Billionaire Bill Gates, Sir Richard Branson and one of the world’s biggest meat companies Cargill have all invested in a US-based start-up company – Memphis Meats.
The company has begun producing chicken, duck and beef by multiplying animal cells in brewery vats, without feeding, breeding or slaughtering actual animals. First animal cells are obtained, for example from a tenderloin, cells which are self renewing are identified and will be able to produce more starter cells in the future. The cells are then fed nutrients, the same nutrients that animals require to grow. For more information see here.
Richard Branson, who has given up eating beef, speculated that in 30 years or so we would no longer need to kill any animals and all meat would either be “clean or plant-based”. “One day we will look back and think how archaic our grandparents were in killing animals for food.”
Whilst this technology is still a way off being cost effective, and there are challenges to producing products beyond mince, it is the type of development we are going to need to perfect if we are to establish ultra-high intensity vertical farms or set up colonies on Mars.
Read my previous blog post, Protein is the new black, where I examined the protein choices we have, food culture, and the driving forces behind industry trends.
Also listen in to an interview on ABC radio I did on the topic with Deb Tribe on 22nd June 2019.
(Feature image credit from https://impossiblefoods.com/)