As the world gears towards sustainability, Monique Suryokusumo from Monde Nissin Corporation shares about the current innovations in the alternative protein space and the key factors that will integrate it into the mainstream.
We are now at the crossroads of food consumption, with the pandemic bringing about numerous changes that will take us into a new and unplanned future. This begins with what we put on our plates, and specifically, meat.
Meat plays a significant role in the consumption patterns of most people in the world today. Not only is it a staple accompaniment to most meals, it is also perceived as nutritious and healthy. In its entirety, meat is seen as an important source of complete protein, imbuing various other nutrients such as highly bioavailable iron and B vitamins. As a bonus, the texture and flavour rest favourably well on the palates of many. It is this critical importance of meat in relation to the sustainability of the food system that so much attention is paid to trends in meat consumption and the alternative protein space globally – a path to a more sustainable future.
According to research by Facebook and Bain & Company, 73 per cent of consumers in Southeast Asia stated they were likely to be more health-conscious moving forward into a post-COVID-19 world. Singapore became the first country to approve the sale of a cell-cultured product last December. In addition, a report by The Good Food Institute, which promotes protein alternatives, revealed that a record US$3.1 billion (S$4.1 billion) was invested last year into alternative proteins globally – three times the capital raised in 2019.
Before the pandemic, Singaporeans have been considering healthier options with two in five adopting a flexitarian diet, consuming high-protein alternatives to meat, like tofu and tempeh. This is evidence of accelerated adoption of alternative proteins on a global scale and that consumers, specifically those in Asia, are no strangers to the idea of alternative foods.
With the sales of cell-cultured products made available, it further proves that consumers in this region may be predisposed to accepting new non-animal alternatives as a constant part of their diet. As the effect of the pandemic casts environmental and welfare issues into the spotlight, more people are starting to understand the impact of a meat-heavy diet on our health and environment, which further points to the need to look beyond the existing paradigm of traditional meat to keep up with the growing population.
For the foreseeable future, the meat and alternative protein industries will undoubtedly continue to co-exist and further along the line, have the opportunity to complement one another in efforts to reshape the food systems, providing healthy and sustainable proteins to all.
Innovations in Meat Alternatives Shaping the Food Value Chain of the Future
The advent of technology has opened up avenues to innovations, and scientists have been experimenting with various innovative technologies that show promise in confronting the issues surrounding food security in the present.
Currently, culturing innovations in the protein space spans four areas:
This involves technologists nurturing meat, poultry, and fish cells in test tube experiments, engineering them into imitations of tissues as they grow, mimicking the texture and cuts of real meat. A cell-based meat and seafood company in Singapore utilises cellular agriculture technology to create healthy and sustainable alternatives for crustaceans such as shrimps, crabs, and lobsters. It is the first of its kind in Southeast Asia. Through extensive research and developments, it currently has a variety of product prototypes under its belt, which include lobster gazpacho, terrine, spheres, and shrimp siu mai (a type of Chinese dumpling).
Digital Gastronomy: 3D Meat Printing
3D printing has gained much traction in recent years, associated with making three-dimensional objects from a single file to replace traditional objects ranging from utilisation to repairs. This begs to question, why not 3D Meat Printing? An interesting idea that piques one’s curiosity – think of it as Digital Gastronomy.
By replicating genomes of animal meat, the avenues for this innovation to propel would undoubtedly be in leaps and bounds for the future of meat alternatives. Since it involves replication at a minuscule level, it would increase the scalability of alternative meat as well as allow research teams to finetune recipes following the highest safety standards at a biological level.
Gene editing involves the manipulation of DNA strands to re-engineer existing organisms to create new ones that swerve to address an existential issue. Whilst the current application for gene editing mainly serves to address areas of human biology, the idea of gene editing initiatives in food is beginning to proliferate. For example, in recent years, a new gene-editing technique known as Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR) has allowed scientists to cut strands of DNA out of genomes and swap in virus-fighting mechanisms found in bacteria of yoghurt culture. From an alternative-protein perspective, gene editing is useful in changing the genetic makeup of traditional cells, infusing it with external genomes to increase health benefits.
Aside from the discovery of new creations of organisms and experimenting with them, scientists have also taken a step back into looking at how to fully harness the capabilities of existing organisms.
The process of developing and upscaling cultivation of previously obscure organisms to boost factors, such as food security and health, not only reduces wastage and costs but also advances the notion of recycling in a way. For example, by way of the natural fermentation process, a naturally-occurring fungus found in soil called Fusarium venenatum, is optimised by mixing carbohydrates and later distilled, leaving behind a dough, which is termed “Mycoprotein”. Mycoprotein is unique to Quorn’s meat-free products and is well-received amongst consumers, supermarkets, and a growing range of eateries including The Soup Spoon, Rebel, Ichiban Bento, and Canadian Pizza.
Presently, technological innovations are in abundance, and those currently being utilised undoubtedly inches us a step closer to achieving a more sustainable food source. The changes in the way we produce, distribute, and manage our food supply will determine the quality of our life today and beyond.
The Transition of Novel Food From “Niche” to “Mainstream”
The developments in the alternative protein space may still be considered nascent. The evidence thus far points us to the fact that given the food security challenges the world faces today, meat alternatives are making headway to redefine the future of foods. However, it is wise to also consider the issue of sustenance. The process of experimenting and producing meat alternatives is but the first step on the journey towards ensuring a healthy and sustainable diet. To take novel food to the next phase, it must be made accessible, affordable, and safe.
Accessible, affordable, and safe alternative proteins are critical to human nutrition and economic development. According to academic research, it would be impossible for a projected population of 10 billion people by 2050 to consume the amount and type of protein typical of the current diets we currently have.
In order to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and Paris Agreement climate change targets, the transformation of the food value chain at its core is essential, and experimentation in the novel food space is the most critical step in this process. Alternative protein products, such as Quorn, are actively taking steps towards alleviating this issue. Quorn products are currently on sale, mainly in high and middle-income countries. The next decade will see a potential tipping point, where there may be a move from being “niche food” to “mainstream food” in these countries.
To proliferate this shift, three social and economic key factors could make a significant impact and they are:
Food security is one of the main concerns globally and the pandemic has brought forth the urgency to focus on food security as borders shut and imports came to a standstill. Apart from ensuring food security, it is also important that we uphold sustainability even in times of crisis.
In land-constraint Singapore, many companies and food manufacturers lack production capabilities to capture the market, nor do they know where to focus their efforts, thereby curtailing the ability to reproduce resources. The Singapore government has continued to support strategic sectors such as urban agriculture and alternative proteins by committing S$144 million in investments. This has, in turn, enabled local producers to foster more collaborations between established firms and minor players to drive successful product innovations as well as granting local consumers more access to a wider variety of meat-free brands that are readily available.
Rise of Conscious Consumers
The past decade has seen an uptick of interest in the meat-free movement, with consumers becoming acutely aware of the nutritional and environmental impact of their food. A McKinsey’s 2018 survey revealed that 73 per cent of millennials and members of Generation Z reported selecting dairy-free alternatives with vegan products being the most searched for. Even though traditional options are readily available and made in abundance, consumers’ interest in alternative options are evolving and it seems to be gaining much traction.
In the Name of Sustainability
It is important that we broaden our focus and aim towards fronting a holistic approach. Modern industrial farming methods, which seem to alleviate food scarcity, may seem viable in the present. However, it merely prolongs the inevitability of disequilibrium between the growing population and static food supplies.
The meat industry has been associated with some of the major pollution and natural resources drainage, including fossil fuel usage, animal methane, effluent waste, and water and land consumption. Trying to reduce the impact caused by the meat industry by swapping to alternative proteins is by far a massive challenge, but achievable through two means.
Aside from the individual responsibility in opting for healthier food choices, new partnerships and collaborations would potentially accelerate the adoption of alternative proteins on a global scale. Collective learning, understanding, and shared innovations allow us to amplify efforts in adopting sustainable production of meat-free products. For example, swapping one meal with Quorn mince produces 90 per cent lower greenhouse gas emissions than regular minced beef, and with more people adopting meat-free diets, it will increase this positive impact on the environment and open up the avenues for healthier choice options in the near future.
In the grand scheme of things, it seems like this novel idea of alternative proteins despite being in the emergent stages is slowly permeating through the food ecosystem and blending with meat options. Even though it might seem that supercharging the future of food today may not be as palatable to a handful of the public, it is without a doubt that alternative proteins are the way forward and opening doors to exciting developments for the entire food industry.
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About the Author
Vice President, Marketing, Asia, Monde Nissin Corporation