Business & Policy
Emerging alternative protein trends
By Treena Hein
Updates on factory-grown and plant-based ‘meat’ and ‘egg’ products.
By Treena Hein
There is hardly a month that goes by without a new story on cultured meat or plant-based products that look, smell, cook and taste just like meat. Commercialization of both types of foods is moving forward.
This progress is spurred by increasing consumer concerns about conventional livestock agriculture – issues related to animal welfare, human starvation and protein deficiencies in many regions, the massive amounts of resources used to support it and risks to human health related to meat and egg products.
On the cultured meat front, 2017 was the second year for a global conference called New Harvest. The event is dedicated to cellular agriculture, the production of agricultural products from cell cultures that are exactly the same as products harvested from an animal or a plant. The meeting was held in mid-October in San Francisco, Calif., organized by a non-profit organization called New Harvest.
It states that “compared to their conventional counterparts, cellular agriculture products have fewer environmental impacts, a safer, purer product and a more consistent supply. This is because the product is being produced in safe, sterile, controlled conditions. Another exciting aspect of cellular agriculture is the ability to design and tune what you are making. For instance, you could make milk without lactose or eggs without cholesterol.”
The company’s communications director Erin Kim says its early activities include launching start-ups Perfect Day Foods (cellular production of milk proteins) and Clara Foods (egg white proteins) in 2014. “Since then,” Kim says, “the organization has pivoted its focus towards cultured meat via its research fellowship program, which provides grants for open academic research, as well as [our] annual conference.”
Meat, the Memphis Meats way
Among the planet’s largest cellular ag firms is Memphis Meats based in San Francisco, Calif. It has attracted investment from the likes of Bill Gates and Richard Branson. It’s also received support from Cargill and multiple research institutions.
In early 2016, the firm produced the world’s first meatball made from cultured beef cells, and in March 2017, it achieved chicken and duck meat production from poultry cells. “It is thrilling to introduce the first chicken and duck that didn’t require raising animals,” Dr. Uma Valeti, co-founder and CEO, said in a press release. “Chicken and duck are at the center of the table in so many cultures around the world, but the way conventional poultry is raised creates huge problems for the environment, animal welfare and human health.
“It is also inefficient. We aim to produce meat in a better way, so that it is delicious, affordable and sustainable. We really believe this is a significant technological leap for humanity, and an incredible business opportunity – to transform a giant global industry while contributing to solving some of the most urgent sustainability issues of our time.”
The company points out that chicken is the most popular protein in America. In addition, China consumes more than six billion pounds of duck meat every year – more than the rest of the world combined. “Our meat is the same product that humans have enjoyed for millennia,” Memphis Meats states.
“Our process is very different. We start by harvesting meat cells from the highest quality livestock. Then, we identify cells that are capable of self-renewal. We’ve learned which cells give us the flavour, textures and aromas we want. We grow those cells into meat in a clean, safe and nutritious environment. After four to six weeks, depending on the cut, we harvest the meat, cook it and enjoy it.”
Memphis Meats says its unique platform will enable it to accelerate innovation, produce many types of cultured meat, fine-tune the taste, texture and nutrition profile of its products, scale up production and reduce costs. The company is targeting 2021 for the commercial launch of its products.
For its part, Cargill has invested in Memphis Meats as a way to explore new opportunities. “We know that global demand for protein will continue to grow in the coming years,” says Sonya Roberts, Cargill Protein president of growth ventures and strategic pricing. “And while cultured protein consumption is very limited today in comparison to traditional animal protein, this is a growing trend that could potentially be a part of this greater picture to feed nine billion people by 2050.”
Roberts notes, however, that more than 90 per cent of the world still eats meat and as demand for it continues to rise, Cargill is firmly committed to growth in traditional animal protein. While her firm has not invested in other cultured meat ventures, Roberts says, “We will continue to monitor…trends in this space and will evaluate additional opportunities as they arise.”
Bill Gates, along with Google Ventures and other investors, is also supporting the commercialization of plant-based ‘meat’ products. The leader in this sector, Silicon Valley-based Impossible Foods, introduced the Impossible Burger in 2016, aiming “to deliver, without compromise, every pleasure that meat lovers get from burgers, from the visual appearance and versatility of the raw meat, to the smell and sizzle during cooking, to the ultimate taste and texture of the burger…but made entirely from plants.”
How does this work, you ask? In short, through much experimentation. Company scientists have spent years breaking down the components of ground beef and then finding, extracting and assembling the same molecules (or molecules with the same properties) from plant sources. For example, a central molecule in the Impossible Burger patty is heme, which is found in hemoglobin in blood and myoglobin in muscle tissue, but is also found in many plants. It gives the Impossible Burger’s raw patty its reddish colour and turns it a crispy brown when cooked. The Impossible Burger is available at about 260 restaurants across the U.S. In July, the company received another $75 million in investment funding, and this fall it completed a facility in Oakland, Calif., where it produces 1.4 million pounds of its ‘meat’ every month.
Bill Gates has also invested in another major player in the plant-based mock meat market. Poultry firm Tyson Foods joined him. The business is called Hampton Creek. Also based out of San Francisco, it’s another company using plant proteins to make meat and egg alternatives. Its own ‘egg’ ingredients go into its Just Mayo and Just Cookie Dough products, and it’s currently developing its own scrambled eggs, ice cream and more made from mung beans and other ingredients. It’s also developing lab-grown poultry meat.
Hampton Creek’s manufacturing process involves rapid heating, cooling and pressurizing a mixture of non-GMO soy and pea proteins and other ingredients into a structure similar to that of meat. Its products are in Whole Foods, Safeway and other grocery stores.
Stay tuned for new developments in the alternative protein sector, which appears to be thriving.