We're only scratching the surface when it comes to unlocking the potential of plant-based meat, says GFI

By Elaine Watson contact

- Last updated on GMT

GFI white paper explores potential of plant-based meat
Plant-based meats account for less than a quarter of 1% of meat sales in the US, while plant-based milks have gobbled up almost 10% of the fluid milk market, says the Good Food Institute (GFI). But why is this? Are they simply not cutting it, or is it just a matter of time before that percentage creeps up?   

Most likely the latter, says the GFI​, which says we’ve really only just started to scratch the surface when it comes to unlocking the potential of plants to replace animal proteins.

Up until a fairly recent bout of M&A activity, meanwhile, the plant-based meat category has been dominated by innovative smaller brands, rather than industry giants, adds the GFI in a new white paper​ “Major players have not meaningfully entered the ​[plant-based meat] space and most of the potential innovation remains unexplored.”

That said, the addressable market is huge if you think about the size of the prize in terms of meat rather than meat alternatives, says the GFI, which is also heavily involved in the emerging cultured (aka ‘clean’) meat development space:

Merely bringing plant-based meat to 10% of the market share would create a $20bn market in the US alone, and it would have a significant positive impact on our climate, food sustainability, and global health.”

Speaking on a call with reporters this morning, GFI cofounder and executive director Bruce Friedrich said: "Once we have products that taste the same ​[as meat] and cost less, we're going to see that quarter of 1% shoot up to 50% of the market."

Meat consumption in the developed world continues to rise

Right now, however, despite the growth of some high profile players such as Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, much of the application work on plant-based proteins has been focused on chips, bars, functional beverages and other snacks or drinks that add more protein to the diet rather than on products that will displace/replace animal proteins in the center of the plate, which is what they will have to do if the plant-based protein movement is to deliver on its sustainability promises, says the GFI.

It is now widely recognized that industrialized animal agriculture takes a significant toll on our environment, sustainability, human health, and animal welfare. Additionally, the possibility that antibiotics will become useless for treating human infections due to their overuse in farm animals or that a zoonotic disease outbreak could kill tens of millions of people is a very real threat.

“Nevertheless, decades of work by the health, environmental, and animal protection communities to convince people to consume less meat have not put a dent in meat consumption. In fact, meat consumption in the developed world continues to rise, and meat consumption in the developing world is growing rapidly.”

Beyond soy, wheat, peas…

On the sourcing front, “the vast majority of commercially available plant-based protein ingredients comes from less than 1% of the 150 plant species on which today’s global food supply depends​,” notes the GFI. “A significant pool of potential plant protein sources is thus available for exploration, and this does not even take into account the almost 250,000 additional plant species not used in agriculture today.

“Innovation opportunities in this area include expanding and diversifying our use of plant protein sources, determining which sources are best suited to particular plant-based meat products, and ensuring that the proteins from these novel sources are optimized specifically for plant-based meat rather than plant-based foods in general.”

Meanwhile, concerted breeding or strain improvement efforts can provide underexploited plant protein crops with higher levels of protein that can be easily isolated, and improved yield, robustness, and disease resistance similar to what has been achieved for decades with commodity crops, such as corn and soy, it adds.

“Efforts to optimize protein sources for plant-based meat can be rapidly accelerated using whole-genome sequencing and digital phenotyping to map desirable traits onto specific genomic loci. This facilitates targeted breeding and drastically reduces the number of generations required to obtain improved strains.”

Meanwhile, fungus-based protein is also a promising area for expansion and opportunity, it adds. “Optimized strains of a wide variety of mushrooms and other fungi could be cultivated in growing rooms or bioreactors for large-scale production.”

Plant protein quality and performance

As for protein quality and performance, this would be greatly advanced by implementing environmentally friendly methods for protein conditioning, which increase the desirable functional traits of a protein, such as gelation capacity, solubility, and fat adsorption, adds the GFI.

“For instance, biological (enzymatic), chemical, and physical methods can be used to hydrolyze (break down) proteins to increase solubility or crosslink them to increase gelation. Additionally, fractionation (separation) can be used to select proteins that exhibit a desirable set of characteristics. For example, high molecular-weight proteins may perform better in texturization, while slightly hydrophobic proteins may increase fat-holding capacity.

“Systematic research aimed at identifying which functional traits of proteins are most desirable for particular types of plant-based meats would inform best practices for protein conditioning.”

More research into how various plant proteins response to specific sets of enzymes and conditions may in turn enable greater predictive capability for developing optimal protein conditioning regimens to produce desired functional traits, it says.

The Good Food Institute​ breaks up the plant-based meat market into the following segments:

PRODUCTS SIMILAR TO MEAT

New products seeking to replicate meat in texture, flavor, and aroma, such as the Beyond Burger and the Impossible Burger, are attempting to redefine ‘meat’ as a product defined by its molecular structure and composition rather than its animal origin, and woo meat-eaters as well as vegetarians and vegans, says the GFI.

PRODUCTS NOT SIMILAR TO MEAT

Many meat-free products are deliberately formulated such that they have a taste profile different from animal-based meat, such as plant-based sausages flavored with vegetables and fruit; or tofu or tempeh, says the GFI.

FUNCTIONAL PLANT MEAT INGREDIENTS

Functional plant-based meat ingredients, such as proteins and binding agents, can play a pivotal role in replacing animal meat in the expanding prepared meals market, especially those that retain their shape, texture, and flavor through freezing, thawing, and cooking, says the GFI.  

NATURE’S MIMICS OF MEATS

Jackfruit, pulses and certain mushrooms, which can be naturally fibrous or high in protein.  

Novel binders

More research is also needed into novel binders that don't degrade when products are being cooked, says the GFI.

Given that extruding proteins with a stronger fat-holding capacity can be technically challenging because fats disrupt the mechanical shear exerted during extrusion, fat encapsulation or topical fat coating after extrusion may allow fat content to be increased, thus improving mouthfeel and flavor, without interfering with the protein structure, adds the GFI.

Flavor development

On the flavor front, finally, plant-based proteins—especially hydrolyzed proteins, which are more soluble and thus exhibit greater functionality—are often prone to bitter or ‘beany’ off-flavors, says the GFI, which has created demand for new bitter-blocking agents or other flavoring components.

Understanding how particular plant proteins and combinations of proteins react to specific production techniques (extrusion, kneading etc) is also crucial, it adds. 

Read the white paper​ ​here, which was written by Christie Lagally, senior scientist; Erin Rees Clayton, PhD. Scientific Foundations Liaison; and Liz Specht, PhD, senior scientist at The Good Food Institute.

Interested in where the plant-based foods movement is heading?

Join Dr Liz Specht from the GFI at FOOD VISION USA​ Nov 13-15.

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2 comments

Thank you.

Posted by Alain Rostain,

The market for protein from plant-based or clean meat is about to take off, thanks to technology that is enabling its taste, smell and texture to closely mimic animal-based meat.

This field represents our best chance for handling the doubling of the demand for protein expected with a world population of 9.7 billion by 2050.

The transformation of our food system might very well help solve some of our planet's greatest challenges.

Thanks for covering this important topic!

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call it a substitute please

Posted by MJ Knueppel,

Call me an agricultural purist, but what you're producing is no more meat than plant-based 'milk'. Call them what they are - meat substitute, milk substitute, cheese-like product etc.

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