What Are Alternative Proteins? - Alt-Protein Primer #1
Exploring the main ingredients that make alt-proteins possible.
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Happy Tuesday Market Shakers. Today we begin a new series of posts exploring alternative proteins. What do we mean when we say “alt-proteins”? How are they produced? And how do they become the delicious meat, fish and all manner of alt-products that we enjoy? We’re setting out to answer all these questions, and more, over the coming weeks.
What are alternative proteins?
Alternative proteins are protein-rich ingredients sourced from plants, insects, fungi, or through tissue culture to replace conventional animal-based sources. Almost every conceivable animal product we eat has an alt-version, from burgers to grilled eel.
The most prevalent types of protein used in consumer goods are plant-based. Companies and startups have been developing plant-based products for the longest. Some of the biggest name alt-protein products to emerge over the last 10 years, such as the Impossible Burger and Tindle’s chicken nuggets, are made from plant-based proteins.
More recently, we have seen advances in fermentation and cell-cultivation technology. These are now promising sources of protein that the food and beverage industry is enthusiastically investing in. As these technologies develop, they will likely overtake plant-based proteins' market share because they have high potential in terms of production efficiency and replicating the sensory characteristics of animal products.
Why do alternative proteins matter?
Before we unpack alternative proteins any further, let’s take a beat and consider why so many people are swapping their beef for leaf (and other substitutes).
Protein is an essential part of the human diet, and animals are a great source of complete protein. Since the 20th century, the world’s appetite for animal-based protein has skyrocketed, in step with economic development.
Especially in the west, protein-rich diets based mainly on animal products have led to a situation where demand for protein now outstrips supply. Alternatives to animal protein are one solution to the imbalance of supply and demand.
Yet, a looming protein crisis is only part of the reason why we need alternative sources. Meat and dairy products have a big carbon hoofprint, accounting for around 15% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. That’s on par with emissions from transportation. Feed production for livestock also occupies nearly 80% of global farmland.
There’s extra cause for concern about antibiotic resistance, outbreaks of disease and animal cruelty that occur during the mass production of animals for food.
All of this is to say that conventional livestock farming is not sustainable. Alternative sources of protein are the future of our food system. The proactive work being done to develop alternatives from plants, fungi and animal cells today is very important.
Animal protein production should also have beef with sustainability
Producers of animal proteins also have a part to play. We can’t just snap our fingers and instantly achieve the required alternative protein supply to meet projected demand. In addition to alternatives, it’s crucial that existing producers continue to figure out new ways to make animal protein production more efficient and less harmful to our planet. Animal proteins, after all, are still a significant source of nutrition and livelihood for hundreds of millions of people around the world.
What are the different types of alternative proteins?
So, when we talk about alt-proteins, what are we referring to? There are many different types of alternative proteins. Right now, the industry tends to separate alternatives into three categories: plant-based, fermentation-based and cell-based.
Let’s take a look at the base ingredients of these different alt-proteins and see how they compare in terms of nutrition.
Plant-based proteins cut out the middle man in animal-protein production, making protein directly from plants rather than feeding them to animals first. Plant-based proteins make up the bulk of commercially available alternative products. They are made by processing grains, legumes and nuts and seeds into protein-rich flours, concentrates and isolates. These form the basis of plant-based meats, fish and dairy.
Making protein from plants means you have potentially thousands of sources to start with. Amongst the main types, there are several varieties that are most commonly used:
Grains: wheat, barley, oats, rice, sorghum, etc.
Legumes: soybeans, peas, fava beans, etc.
Nuts and seeds: almonds, flax, hemp, etc.
Algae and seaweed
Each base plant has different nutritional qualities, and complementary varieties are often combined to make meat analogues. This leaves the question: just how well do plant proteins serve to imitate meat?
Nutrition of plant-based proteins
Plant-based protein products aim to emulate the taste and texture of meats through flavouring and texturization processes. While there are some very high-fidelity products on the market such as Beyond Meat’s burger, most plant-based products don’t have the same nutritional value as the original product.
Meats are generally complete proteins; they contain the 9 essential amino acids our bodies need to function. Most plant proteins on the other hand do not; they need to be mixed to provide all 9 essential amino acids. Soy, tempeh and quinoa are complete proteins, however.
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Likewise, plant proteins often have lower PDCAAS than meat. “PDC-what now?”, you may be thinking. This long and intimidating acronym stands for Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score. PDCAAS is a measure of how easily our bodies can digest a protein, with the highest score being one. A lower score means the protein is harder to digest. Soy is the only commonly used plant protein with PDCAAS of one.
Plant-based proteins are also generally higher in fibre and lower in cholesterol and saturated fat than regular meat.
Examples of plant-based products
We’ve written tons about plant-based proteins to date. Here’s a refresher of some of the companies we’ve written about who are making alt-proteins with plants.
Japan’s no.1 alt-protein startup makes a range of plant-based meat, seafood, dairy and egg products. NEXT MEATS mainly use soy in their products, however, their egg is made from chickpeas which are less allergenic than soy.
Belgian plant-based product maker Alpro produces a range of milk and dairy products made from plants. In the case of Japan, their Oat Milk product is the most famous.
Bulgaria’s plant-based cheese royalty makes vegan cheese using cashew nuts.
Green Monday’s Omni Foods makes all manner of plant-based meat and fish alternatives. These include Omni Pork, Omni Spam, and Omni Tuna. Depending on the product, they use mainly soy and pea proteins, in addition to potato starch and plant-based flavourings.
Chicken-loving Singapore is home to TiNDLE, a company aiming to convert the world to their plant-based version. Their chicken is soy-based and only contains eight ingredients (relatively low for plant-based meat) in total.
Fermentation has been used in food production since humans began producing food. Fermentation is used in the production of our daily staples like kimchi, natto, tempeh, wine and bread.
Nowadays, it’s a key process for developing everything from fuel to medicine, and even food ingredients. Especially, alternative proteins.
There are three primary types of fermentation used in the development of alt-proteins. Traditional fermentation, biomass fermentation and precision fermentation (PF). We separate the first two types of fermentation from PF because they differ significantly in the types of proteins they are producing.
Traditional fermentation involves adding starter cultures, such as yeast, to raw materials, such as soybeans. The microorganisms in the starter culture unlock new nutritional characteristics of the raw materials. The process can be used to make meat alternatives, like Angie’s Tempeh, or as a processing step that unlocks nutritional, taste and texture characteristics of plant-based ingredients - a la Planetarian’s whole cut meat alternatives.
Biomass fermentation relies on feeding microbes, like mycelium, on a nutritional media, like sugar, and then uses the rapidly multiplying microbes as the end product to make alt-protein products. Quorn and Nature’s Fynd both use biomass fermentation to produce their meat analogues.
Mycelium, or mycoproteins, are words that come up time and again when researching fermentation-based proteins. Mycelium is the root-like structure of fungi. When cultivated for alt-protein, they form in layers of thin threads which are similar to animal muscle fibres.
Fermentation-based proteins, like plant-based, aim to replicate the taste and texture of meat. They also use texturization and flavouring processes to recreate a meat-like mouth feel. Commonly fermented fungi mycelium has a natural fibrous structure that is similar to meat and requires less processing than plants. Mycoprotein is a complete protein and has excellent digestibility with a PDCAA of one. Fermentation-based proteins are often fibre rich and much lower in fat than meat.
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Examples of products made with traditional/ biomass fermentation
Angie started making tempeh in 2020 by fermenting soybeans with the fungus Rhizopus oligosporus. Singaporeans are lapping up this quality product.
After discovering the fungus “Fy” in Yellow Stone National Park, Nature’s Fynd used biomass fermentation to produce vast amounts of Fy, which forms a fibrous, muscle-like structure during the process. They process the result into super nutritious meat alternatives.
Mushlabs is a biotech company using fermentation to create the next generation of sustainable foods from the roots of mushrooms. The company uses waste sidestreams from the food industry to ferment mycelium which they turn into meat analogues.
Mycovation are developing a database of mycelium strains and fermentation technologies to empower companies to custom-build their own fermented proteins.
Libre foods use biomass fermentation of mycelium to create a based protein that they process into delicious plant-based bacon.
PF has extraordinary potential to use the power of fermentation to produce rare, difficult to harvest, expensive, or otherwise inaccessible animal proteins with microbes instead of animals.
According to Mirte Gosker, acting managing director of the Good Food Institute APAC:
The microorganisms are programmed to be tiny production factories….It enables alternative protein producers to efficiently make specific proteins, enzymes, flavour molecules, vitamins, pigments, and fats.
Precision fermentation generally involves genetically modifying a microorganism, such as algae, so that it produces a target protein, such as casein. The microorganisms are fed on starches in a fermenter where they excrete the target protein. The protein is then processed into ingredients or finished CPG items.
Precision fermentation reproduces the exact same building blocks, such as casein, found in protein products. The nutritional profile of the molecules produced by companies such as Perfect Day are identical to those found in animal protein and so have the same digestibility.
Examples of products made with precision fermentation
Perfect day program microflora to produce whey protein, the exact same protein contained in milk. They ferment the microflora which excretes whey. The output is separated from the flora, processed, dried and then used to make milk and cheese without any animal ingredients.
Change Foods encode yeast with the DNA required to produce proteins found in dairy. After fermentation, they extract the target proteins and process them into a concentrate, like powdered milk. This is then used to make cheese.
MeliBio uses synthetic biology, precision fermentation and plant science to make honey without the bees.
Cell-based, cultured, lab-grown meat. All these terms, and probably more, are currently used to describe proteins made by extracting and multiplying meat stem cells from animals and fish in a lab.
Companies developing cultured protein products can literally grow a whole steak from animal cells. Few cultured products are even close to being commercially available, however. This is due to technological and regulatory hurdles.
Despite the challenges, there are many promising cultured meat makers around the world. Singapore-based Shiok Meats for example is making cell-based shrimp and cultured beef-burger producer SciFI Foods.
Cultivated proteins are identical to their source animal so have the exact same nutritional profile and digestibility. What they don’t have is all the antibiotics, growth hormones and other contaminants that farmed animals are fed.
An added benefit of cultivated proteins is that they can potentially be modified to remove allergens and enhance nutritional characteristics. The jury’s still out on whether the science of this is safe, however.
Another exciting, but challenging, aspect of cultivated proteins is cell media. This is a nutrient-rich liquid that cells are grown in to multiply and form muscle structure. Scientists say it’s possible to tailor the media so that the developing protein has increased levels of omega-3s or vitamins.
Examples of cultivated products
Umami Meats are developing cell lines and cultivation technology to create red-snapper, Japanese eel, and yellowfin tuna without harming a single fish.
BlueNalu has developed cultivated tuna which is market-ready and awaiting regulatory approval.
Mosa Meat takes cells from cows (under anaesthesia) and cultivates them in a nutrient-rich liquid media. The cells reproduce and merge forming muscle fibres. The muscle tissue is then combined with fats and formed into burgers.
One of Asia’s first cultivated protein startups, Japanese pioneer IntegrciCulture is developing animal-free cell media that can radically reduce cultivated meat costs. They have also created cultivated foie gras.
Singapore’s Shiok Meats are developing cultivated shrimp products to alleviate the burden that shrimp farming bares on the environment. The company is planning the launch in 2023 having achieved impressive production cost reductions this year.
That’s all folks
We hope you enjoyed learning about the main raw materials of different types of alt-proteins. Next week we’ll look at how alt-protein is produced from the raw materials we introduced today.
See you next Tuesday! Until then, if you have questions or comments about today’s post, let us know in the comments OR by replying directly to this email!
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