Lab burgers, lentils and locusts: is it boom-time for the meat-free protein market?

By David Burrows

- Last updated on GMT

'Nutrition gets people interested, but taste gets them coming back.' ©iStock
'Nutrition gets people interested, but taste gets them coming back.' ©iStock

Related tags Meat Nutrition

What’s next for the €250k lab burger? Can bugs and canola really replace beef and chicken? And why might novel proteins come up short when it comes to shifting consumer behaviour? Five things we learned at last week’s Future Proteins summit.

Lab burger a long way off

lab meat
A whole new supply chain of feed for the project (cultered meat)will need to be established

In August 2013, a team of Dutch scientists took stem cells from a cow and turned them into strips of muscle in order to make a patty. The ‘burger’ was then cooked and eaten at a news conference in London.

“Increasing numbers of people will find it hard not to buy our product for ethical reasons,” ​said Peter Verstrate at the time. But what’s happened since?

Verstrate is now CEO at Mosa Meats, working with the scientists to make the lab burger a reality; and last week he confirmed there’s almost enough money in the bank to take things to the next level.

“We’re still at the lab stage so we need to upscale it,” ​he said. “We expect, within the next two months, to get going … three or four months from now [we’ll have] a plan of what it takes to start producing this stuff.”

He admitted that it will take at least five to 10 years to improve the process and make it cost effective. Commoditising the cultured – or ‘clean’ – meat will take even longer.

Meat analogues currently represent less than 1% of the meat market: “It’s moving, but no-one knows where and how fast,”​ he explained.

Indeed, there are hurdles – and not just regulatory or technical ones. A whole new supply chain of feed for the project will need to be established and “that’s the biggy”​, Verstrate admitted.

A bigger slice of the protein pie

Whether it’s chicken created in the lab, crickets and beetles ground up in energy bars or plant-based burgers that ‘bleed’ there’s no shortage of innovation when it comes to alternative proteins.

In Europe, it’s too early to say how these meat replacements will go down but Arnold Bos, a consultant at Lux Research, forecasts a rosy future.

“Plant protein already outpaces growth of meat and seafood,”​ he explained. By 2054 alternative proteins will be taking a sizeable bite out of livestock’s market share – 307 million metric tonnes of the 943 million metric tonnes of protein consumed by then will be from alternatives.

For the next decade soy will be “king”,​ he said, but by 2024 demand for so-called second generation plant proteins – from peas, rice and canola – will accelerate.

Manufacturers are not short of options to pursue – from novel crops and food waste to insects and in-vitro meat.

However, they will need to overcome issues including consumer perception, poor functionality and off-flavours, said Bos.

Novel foods can be hard to swallow

Food companies have to create products that people want to try not just once but ones they keep coming back to, explained Professor Bryan Hanley, a food specialist at Innovate UK. “Nutrition gets people interested, but taste gets them coming back,”​ continued Shami Radia, co-founder of Eat Grub, a range of natural energy bars made with ground-up crickets.

However, “that first bite is more of a challenge than you think,” ​he admitted, “so it has to be very good.”

Alternative meat companies are grappling continuously with how to mimic meat. “Getting flavour right is hard. Getting texture right is harder,” ​said Seth Tibbott, chairman and founder of the Tofurky Company. “We have a mild addiction to meat,” ​added Verstrate at Mosa Meats, “so if anything is going to replace it, it had better be just like it.”

Unless it’s aimed at vegetarians. Professor Atze van der Goot from Wageningen University suggested that products could be adjusted to match both consumers’ nutritional requirements and their expectations in relation to taste and texture.

With protein alternatives aimed at big meat eaters it’s best to keep the structure the same as meat but change the nutritional content, for example, whereas for vegetarians it could prove more astute to alter the structure and keep the nutritional content of meat.

Moneymen say yes to no meat

“What’s happened in the last 25 years in food tech?”​ asked Niccolo Manzoni, a food tech investor. “Not much. Not much that’s disruptive anyway.” ​Many readers might argue otherwise, but venture capital funds are looking for scalable innovations – and there are plenty around.

“I’m excited about the shift in diets, functional ingredients, personalised nutrition and new sources of protein,”​ Manzoni said. “There’s never been a better time in history for a food tech entrepreneur to start a business.”

The hunt is on for the next Impossible Burger, but Manzoni said there’s no reason why all the money should keep flowing to Silicon Valley.

There’s not much capital in the EU compared to the US, he explained, but he is seeking to “move that needle”.“We need our own Impossible Foods and that will give entrepreneurs the confidence.”

Others also sense the mood is changing. “We found a lot of high net worth individual looking at technology,”​ said Neil Foster, commercial manager at Ireland-based food tech start-up Nuritas.

“They see food, health and saving the environment as cool things to use technology for.”

But science alone won’t save us

With all these alternatives on the table, is there a future for ‘real’ meat? Verstrate at Mosa Meats said the parts of the livestock industry associated with culture and social behaviour will be around for a long time to come, but “mainstream meat eating will eventually be replaced by [cellular agriculture]”.

Others aren’t so sure. For Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City University, meat consumption “has got to be tackled and culture is at the heart of the issue”.

Lang believes that everyone has got a little too wrapped up in “innovative wizardry”​ and “trite”​ proposals, such as ‘meat’s a problem, so let’s eat insects’.

“We need to set new cultural values, so that the average person is not making a rational choice to protect the environment when eating … it’s [just] the norm,”​ he argued.

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