The AFTEA-r party: Part 1
Alternative protein: A roundup of agri-food tech innovators
I love F&B trade shows – they’re like Disneyland to me. There are loads of bright and shiny products and people as well as an openness that is refreshing.
So, we’re interrupting our regular Market Shake schedule to bring you a round-up of our time at Agri-Food Tech Expo Asia (AFTEA) in Singapore between 31 Oct and 2 Nov 2023. AFTEA is a platform for the latest tech innovations for the agriculture and food industries – and boy, were there some great things to experience that made one, dare I say, hopeful for the future!
Singapore’s 30 by 30 plan
Just to set the scene: Singapore has become quite the hub for agri-tech, almost counterintuitively for a country that imports 90% of its food and uses only 1% of its land for agriculture. This is primarily because Singapore has recognized the need for self-sufficiency to ensure food security. The country’s “30 by 30” goal is to “build the capability and capacity to sustainably produce 30% of Singapore’s nutritional needs by 2030.”
To support its 30 by 30 vision, Singapore has been a pioneer of sorts in terms of allowing and promoting various technologies that can aid food production and security.
Singapore became the first country to grant regulatory approval for the commercial sale of cultivated meat in December 2020.
There has also been some clever use of the limited space to grow produce with the help of vertical farming, hydroponics, vertical aquaculture, and other methods.
These methods are slowly bearing fruit – according to the Singapore Food Agency, in 2022, 29% of hen shell eggs, 8% of seafood, and 4% of vegetables came from local farms in the country.
Singapore’s vision can help provide the blueprint for a lot of other countries looking to secure their own food production.
Minister of State for Trade and Industry Alvin Tan at the Singapore Food Agency’s pavilion
In this backdrop, here are some of my top impressions from the event:
Alternative proteins are here to stay: I was rather surprised at how many companies and organizations there were featuring protein using novel ingredients and technologies. Quite a few of these were plant-based, despite some of the naysaying towards plant-based alternatives in the global markets. Asia in particular seems to be embracing the concept with a number of tasty and intriguing options.
Health of the people is paramount: While the focus of the event was on improving food security, it was clear that health was very much seen as an integral part of the equation. Agri-tech solutions highlighted improved nutritional status of crops, sugar reduction solutions focused on managing lifestyle diseases, and ingredient suppliers offered supplemental nutrition.
Solving for sustainability: Another aspect that really struck me was the urgency to find and implement sustainable solutions to food security. Many of the visitors I spoke with from different countries highlighted the need for solutions to feed their citizens but also ensure minimal impacts to the planet. The urgency to find solutions was also bolstered by a genuine sense of collaborative spirit from companies, investors, and governments. And out of this came some really interesting solutions.
Seafood is on the radar: There were a number of companies within seafood or adjacent to it that underscored the importance of seafood within global diets. This included plant-based alternatives, seafood suppliers focusing on sustainable sourcing, and interestingly several aquafeed players.
In this piece, we’ll look at a few of the more interesting companies that focused on alternative protein and health. It’s quite amazing at how much Asian companies had to offer here, clearly leaning into their experience with ingredients, textures, and flavors to get surprisingly tasty products.
Morus Inc. (Japan)
Insects are back on the menu, it would seem. Insect protein, which may very well be the future of food, has not really appealed to the masses. Crickets and mealworms have been around for a while now for human consumption, but many consumers are still a little queasy about eating these. In fact, while there were a few companies dealing in insect protein at the event, most of them were focusing on products for animal feed.
Morus Inc really stood out in this context as its protein is derived from silkworms. Silk is a traditional industry in Japan and there is a long history of silkworm cultivation in the country. Japanese start-up Morus Inc offers a protein derived from silk worms that is rich in sericin and also in 1-deoxynojirimycin or DNJ. These ingredients have been shown to reduce post-meal glucose spikes and may have benefits for those with diabetes.
The silkworms synthesize silk proteins and DNJ from the mulberry leaves they eat and take on a green hue and a rather grassy, earthy flavor similar to that of green or matcha tea. Which is why the company feels that this particular type of insect protein could see greater acceptance when compared to other forms. It can be consumed as a tea or a matcha latte without too much of a difference in taste profile. The company feels that this familiar flavor profile might help increase acceptance of this product in the long run.
Morus also said that silkworms may be a better choice of insect protein compared to the products available currently as silkworms offer higher yield. They are also less likely to eat each other – in my conversation with the folks at Morus, I learned that cricket cannibalism is a thing (yikes!).
There are a number of other benefits including higher fiber content, B vitamins, various minerals, and significantly lower carbon emissions from silkworm cultivation compared to other types of protein.
Mycovation (India and Singapore)
Mycovation creates a range of ingredients using mushroom mycelium and a grain-based substrate through solid state fermentation. Manipulating both the strain of mycelium and the substrate, the company is able to derive ingredients with customized features that can then be used to make final consumer products. Some of the customizations that Mycovation is able to offer include high-protein flours, gluten-free wheat flours, flavoring agents, coloring agents, and so on.
The company initially started out to make cuts of meat using mycelium but found that they were able to create better ingredients instead using different mycelium strains and different grain substrates.
For instance, a particular strain of mycelium feeds upon the carbohydrates in a particular type of grain substrate and helps convert the proteins into peptides. This makes it easier to digest the final product. It also can be manipulated to include all the essential amino acids required by humans, making a complete protein; this complete protein profile is usually lacking in plant-based alternatives.
Similarly, other strains and substrates could be used to make flavoring agents or even to extract specific nutrients or functional molecules. Using this mix-and-match process, Mycovation has created ingredients that can be used in a variety of applications, ranging from noodles and baked goods to soup and gravy bases, with different functionalities.
Image source: Mycovation
Image source: Mycovation
The company has developed datasets of functionalities for a number of mushroom strains and substrates and has created an AI platform to choose desired benefits from ingredients faster. This mycelium-based process has helped reduce ingredient discovery and product development time and costs significantly for companies.
WeMeet (South Korea)
WeMeet is a South Korean company making whole-cut chicken substitutes using mushroom and fungal materials as well as soy, wheat, and chickpeas in smaller quantities. The company’s target audience is young adult consumers who are health- and environment-conscious.
WeMeet has been a B2B supplier and exporter of plant-based meat alternatives to countries like Australia and Hong Kong, but ventured into ready-to-eat meals in July 2023 (the boxes in the image), expanding into the consumer space.
I anticipate that companies like WeMeet are going to see a bit of a boom in South Korea. In October 2023, the country’s Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs announced plans to promote plant-based food production and alt protein consumption across South Korea. A comprehensive strategy is expected to be released in December. South Korea has now become the second country (after Denmark) to introduce a national action plan to boost plant-based food production.
According to the Korea Institute of Rural Economics, the meat substitute market in South Korea is expected to reach ₩280B (US$207.4M) by 2026. Meat alternatives are becoming increasingly popular among Korean consumers in their 20s and 30s.
This insight was supported by another South Korean company present at AFTEA. Nuldam’s What’s the Better is a range of vegan or vegetarian snacks, desserts, and ingredients that are also high in protein and low in sugar. The folks here told me that these products do very well with young women in the country as they see plant-based products as better for health and their skin.
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Everytime I walked past Ultimeat’s booth, it was PACKED! Lots of other booths had samples, but not as many people lining up to taste the products.
I finally managed to push my way through to their samples only on the last day when the crowds had thinned - and then understood why it had been so popular. The products were absolutely fantastic!
Ultimeat is the first precision biotech fermentation company in Malaysia to make meat replacement products for its own brand and for B2B sales. The company calls out a number of interesting features of its products, including its resemblance to muscle, being high in fiber, and interestingly being rich in beta glucans for heart health.
This is perhaps the first vegetarian lamb product I’ve seen, which has mushroom stem as the base ingredient. This was a frozen product which I thought was rather interesting since it often reinforces the idea of freshness in meat. I talked to fellow samplers and they were gushing about the taste and texture of the product - and some even said that they’ve managed to get the fibers to resemble cooked lamb. The cynic in me did wonder if the taste had more to do with the company chef whipping up the samples. Whatever the case, they had an alt protein product that worked!
Queen of Peas (Hungary)
As the name suggests, the hero (or heroine?) ingredient of the Queen of Peas range is peas. The company offers a range of plant-based cold cut meat, sausage, and cheese alternatives, primarily supplying to Eastern Europe.
I thought this was a rather interesting product since Eastern Europe is usually associated with a strong meat culture. Turns out, the plant-based bug has caught on here as well, with Euromonitor data indicating that retail sales of plant-based meat grew 43% in the region in 2022 to hit EUR176.6 million. Go figure!
Image source: Hungaro-food
Queen of Peas is owned by Hungarian meat company Hungaro-food.
This is pretty on-trend currently as a number of other meat companies globally have started to invest in plant-based alternatives as well. We’ve seen a similar trajectory with plant-based milks as well, with dairy companies investing in alternatives, and even alcohol companies buying up low/no alcohol brands as consumers drift towards moderation.
Sugar reduction is still top of mind for most companies and consumers, though the sources for sugar alternatives continue to evolve.
Alchemy Foodtech from Singapore uses a proprietary prebiotic fiber – made from resistant starch, pea starch, and inulin – to impart sweetness and increase fiber content of the food, without impacting taste or texture. The company had showcased a few baked goods and drinks featuring its prebiotic.
The company even has a prebiotic fiber that can be added to rice to increase its fiber content and lower glycemic index of the consumer, which can be especially useful for diabetics.
Edible bird’s nest
This was a new one for me and I’m guessing that a lot of readers not from Southeast Asia region would find it fascinating too.
Heavenly Nest from Indonesia offers a range of products made from edible bird’s nests or swallow nests. These nests, made from the saliva of swiftlet birds, are considered a delicacy in parts of China and Southeast Asia, prized for their high protein content. This ingredient is thought to have numerous health benefits from skin health to immunity to general health.
Check out this video to understand why this ingredient is so prized!
This is why trade shows are so awesome - one lives and learns!
That’s all, folks!
Thanks for reading today’s newsletter. We’ll be back with more from AFTEA in two days!
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