Calls to create healthy, resilient and sustainable food systems are loudening. With growing awareness around the fragility of food systems and the globe’s growing population, the urgent need to make this a reality is scaling industry consciousness.
To respond, manufacturers have turned their attention to finding new sources of protein that offer favourable nutrition profiles and environmental considerations, along with focusing on securing the future of European food systems.
New and novel protein sources
Protein diversification has been a core theme in emerging food startups and food industry technologies in recent years to support the path to building healthier, more resilient and sustainable food systems.
“As we face unprecedented challenges in the global food system, protein diversification technologies seek to provide a transition from an over-reliance on a limited set of resource-intensive animal proteins toward a greater variety of lower-impact protein ingredients and food products,” Lorena Savani, Mission Lead of Healthier Lives Through Food at EIT Food told FoodNavigator.
A transition to lower-impact protein ingredients and products can help enhance the resilience of food systems, Savani added. It can contribute to meeting our globe’s growing population needs and addressing food production and consumption's environmental and climate impacts.
Alternative sources of protein emerging include plant-based items relating to protein crops and ingredients, cell-cultured revolving around cultivated meat, mycoprotein, fungal and yeast biomass, and precision fermented products such as animal and plant proteins.
However, certain proteins have yet to garner acceptance and support as fully embraced protein sources. A reflection of their early days in the protein sphere compared to traditional meat-based product varieties.
Insect protein is one such area. Yet, that appears to be changing. As we head into 2024, the insect protein segment is both “nascent and improving”, Dr Geoffrey Knott, director of the UK Edible Insect Association (UKEIA), told FoodNavigator. While the segment remains “a small size, more and more individuals and startups are building new ventures, raising investment, and commencing more edible insect projects”, Knott added.
Throughout Europe, diversified protein sources still face several barriers. Marketing timing relating to consumer acceptance is a core hurdle. In the case of insect protein, “the market is still too early for mainstream adoption of edible insect foods,” Knott said. The director of the UKEIA anticipates these to be several years from becoming mainstream, as the industry has seen with dairy and plant-based food and drink alternatives.
More research is needed, too, for emerging alternative protein sources. The novel status of protein sources, such as edible insects, means there’s “a massive gap in understanding how to process and incorporate such new ingredients into the foods we want to see on the supermarket shelves”, Knott said.
To grow edible insects and diversify protein sources, the industry is calling to get behind the segment by raising awareness. “We need support from consumers, related food industry associations, and the government to build up the credible case that edible insects can improve our food system,” Knott detailed.
Help to grow the alternative protein arena is also high on the agenda. Raising the levels of support will increase the availability of products for consumers, increasing both awareness and normalising consumption. In the case of edible insect protein, Knott noted: “We need more individuals and companies to start up in the edible insect market across the whole supply chain from growing insects to processing insects to selling products to consumers.”
Opting for new over traditional
Consumers can also spur protein diversification by opting for these alternatives over their mainstream counterparts. “Support the change makers by buying edible insect products,” said Knott. In addition to his role as director of the UKEIA, Knott is also the co-founder of HOP cricket protein bar and founder of edibl, an agri-tech startup that is currently fundraising and building its first commercial cricket farms.
Exploring how new technologies shape European protein sources helps bolster awareness and understanding of the sector. LenioBio, a winner of the EIT Food Cultivated Meat Innovation Challenge, is developing a different way to produce recombinant proteins, plant-based cell-free expression at an industrial scale, with ALiCE, which it states is the first scalable eukaryotic cell-free protein synthesis (CFPS) system.
Technologies such as 3D food printing, algae and seaweed farming, insect farming and precision fermentation, and innovations in fat sources and texturisation are all rapidly developing to provide consumers with readily available and accessible protein alternatives.
BettaF!sh, an EIT Food startup, uses a novel process to produce their vegan alternative to tuna ‘TU-NAH’, which the company says “tastes like tuna, looks like tuna, and is an all-rounder, just like the original product straight out of the can”. Using seaweed and fava beans, BettaF!sh has created this alternative high-in-protein, which is 100% plant-based and made without soy or wheat.
The European Union’s (EU) Novel Food regulation allows whole edible insects and their derived ingredients to be placed lawfully on the EU market, providing pre-market authorisations are conducted to ensure food safety.
In the UK, the Food Safety Authority (FSA) has put its support behind the protein alternative. “The FSA has conducted analyses of new and emerging food technologies and noted that edible insects are potentially sustainable, ethical, and a high-quality source of protein and ingredients,” said Knott.
Despite the EU’s regulatory framework, recent research by the University of Sheffield’s Institute for Sustainable Food and the UK Edible Insect Association (UKEIA) found that the regulations present a high barrier to entry for edible insects. Subsequently, this restricts producers’ opportunities for development and insect protein’s ability to build more sustainable food systems.
In the UK, amid assessments, regulatory discussions and funding, 2024 is expected to be a big year for building regulatory support for insects. Since 2021, the Food Standards Authority (FSA) has handled the UK’s novel food applications. “FSA has been actively reviewing these regulations with a view to make them more agile, streamlined and pro-innovation to support great startups to bring potentially transformative new foods to the market,” said Knott.
Reviewing these regulations is considered a positive step for the growth of insect proteins. “I believe, in the medium-to-long term, [this] will give the UK a competitive edge over countries within the existing EU Novel Foods regime,” Knott noted.
Yet, two registers for novel foods have remained: one in the UK and one in the EU, law firm Osbourne Clarke said in its 2023 regulatory outlook. In the case of new additions such as bovine milk beta-lactoglobulin and the freeze-dried powder form of Antrodia camphorata mycelia, while these were added to the EU register, they were not placed on the UK register.
Therefore, while some products can be lawfully sold in the EU, they cannot be sold in the UK, posing restrictions and further considerations for startups looking to sell insect proteins in both markets.
Pursuing diversified proteins
Awareness, acceptance, research and regulatory clarity surrounding protein diversification remain relatively young and even nascent, in particular segments like insect protein. Yet, progress is happening and presents an encouraging opportunity for producers, Knott said.
Research and new product development (NPD) is paramount, and therefore, an area manufacturers and prospective startups can focus on as the segment develops. “The lack of understanding and research around these novel foods represents an opportunity for companies to conduct NPD,” said Knott.
Strategic planning is an area new entrants and those exploring expanding into new protein alternatives can conduct. Rather than disadvantageous, being an early adopter within the alternative protein sphere can be beneficial. “The early stage of the insect market gives companies an opportunity to carefully consider their business strategy before taking any risk,” added Knott.