3 next-generation proteins to watch

Looking beyond traditional meat and crops, what novel tech could shape the future of alternative proteins?

29 November 2019
image credit: Air Protein

Animals have long been mankind’s preferred protein. Then along came vegetarians, vegans and flexitarians, prompting companies to develop faux meats made from soy, chickpeas and mushrooms.

While experimentation continues with all kinds of conventional crops, from oats to yellow peas, new technology is proposing even more ways to get protein into our systems, while simultaneously addressing the issues associated with traditional agriculture – namely, carbon emissions, water usage and deforestation.

So what are some of the ingredients we could make into new-age proteins?

1. Microalgae

Food Spark has talked about the nutritional impact of microalgae before – as an addition to pizza bases and hotdog buns, a casing for sausages or a flavouring in fish-free tuna – but it’s also making a play for the plant protein market.

Triton, Sophie’s Kitchen, Plantsy – these are just some of the companies working with microalgae, whether as an ingredient for manufacturers or as the next healthy drink.

Earlier this month, Nestlé created a fresh wave of interest in the area by partnering up with ingredient maker Corbion to explore the possibility of developing “sustainable, tasty and nutritious plant-based products.”

Growing microalgae-based proteins has less impact on the environment than other animal and plant sources. The resulting product also boast all the essential amino acids, vitamins A, B1, B2, B6, B12, C and E, as well as minerals potassium, iron, magnesium, calcium and iodine. As a final bonus, microalgae also has a higher yield per hectare compared to pulses, legumes and soy.

Corbion currently offers a variety of algal brands, including brands aimed at the aquaculture industry, the beauty industry and the hospitality industry. Most relevant to the plant protein market, however, is probably AlgaVia, which offers a Protein Rich Whole Algae product that has protein content of 60-70%.

Fermentation is used to grow the microalgae, which is then washed, dried and milled into a powder that is allergen-free and natural, but can have somewhat customised nutritional properties.

image credit: Nestle

Corbion appears not to have focused its attention so far on meat analogues, instead looking at beverages, bakery and bars, among other categories.

"We are excited to partner with Nestlé to develop the next generation of algae-based ingredients," said Marc den Hartog, Executive Vice President Innovation Platforms at Corbion. "Corbion has already demonstrated the value of algae in several high-value food and feed applications. This new protein partnership with Nestlé has the potential to open important avenues for algae-based products into large global markets."

2. Air Protein

Could this be the most sustainable protein of all? Using the very air around us, California-based Air Protein claims to have developed a way to create a foodstuff with a comparable profile to meat, but with more vitamins (including B12, which is often deficient in vegans) and the nine essential amino acids.

The technology behind the product is based on NASA experiments conducted in the late 60s, when scientists were exploring how to create a closed-loop food system. Carbon dioxide in the air is mixed with microbes called hydrogenotrophs, as well as selected nutrients, inside a fermenter. After just a few hours of the “probiotic production process” – described as similar to the making of beer or yoghurt – the ‘crop’ is ready to harvest in the form of a flavourless flour that is 80% protein. This can then be mixed with other ingredients to create a meat-like substance or manufacture pastas or cereals.

The process is described as ‘all natural,’ meaning no genetic modification, pesticides or antibiotics are used. Though the process does require some water and energy, the former is fairly limited while the latter can be generated using renewable means, according to the company.

Air Protein aren’t the only company experimenting in this field.  Solar Foods has an ingredient called Solein that has a similar application, while NovoNutrients is targeting its air-derived protein at the fish feed market.

"The statistics are clear. Our current resources are under extreme strain as evidenced by the burning Amazon due to deforestation and steadily increasing droughts. We need to produce more food with a reduced dependency on land and water resources. Air-based meat addresses these resource issues and more," said Air Protein CEO, Dr. Lisa Dyson.

Air Protein is just one aspect of technology developed by Kiverdi, a sustainably minded company that also offers concepts like Reverse Plastics – breaking down plastic into its constituent gases that can then be made into biodegradable polymers for use as packaging, bottles or bags – and Revive Soil, which aims to fix CO2 from the air into the soil while simultaneously making the land more nutrient rich.

3. Yeast

Rounding out our unusual threesome, yeast has a protein content of 50% and, again, contains the essential amino acids.

Food Spark has previously written about yeast as a flavouring – for example, in cheese – and as an alternative to egg whites, but FFW hopes to take the protein potential further.

The challenges, according to FFW founder Leonardo Marcovitz, include its strong umami taste and the fact that there has been little experimentation with texturizing the ingredient to date. The Israeli company is currently experimenting with ratios and combinations of yeast with other proteins as part of attempts to solve these difficulties.

So far, the FFW has prototyped chicken strips (25% protein) and crisps (45% protein). However, Marcovitz told Food Spark’s sister service Food Navigator that he is also considering whether to avoid poultry comparisons and create products in a new category entirely – something food awareness group ProVeg International and non-profit thinktank Institute for the Future have both suggested could be a way forward for plant-based proteins.

"That is the conversation we are having right now, whether we go for an analogue or... say it's a 'high protein, high fibre, tasty, warmable product and not necessarily for the chicken analogy,” he said.

As with Fumi Ingredients’ egg white alternative, FFW plan to source spent yeast from brewers, thereby reducing waste in the supply chain and making it easier to offer a competitively priced product. The initial target will be the foodservice sector in Europe and the US, regions where the demand for alternative proteins is greatest.


More food for thought

  • Extremophiles: US-based Sustainable Bioproducts has been looking to microbes that inhabit volcanoes as a potential protein source. Known as extremophiles because they have to survive in a harsh environment, these organisms can be used to grow protein with a high nutritional value – and minimal impact on the environment – using fermentation technology.
  • Grass: Research institutions in Denmark have come up with a method to extract the protein in grass, removing its natural taste and adding other ingredients to make it more palatable. While land usage may be an issue, the impact of growing grass on the environment is much lower compared to other traditional protein sources. A nutrition bar containing 10% protein has already been developed. 
  • Rapeseed: The byproduct of rapeseed oil production, known as rapeseed ‘cake,’ is already widely used in animal feed. However, some estimates suggest that if this was repurposed for human consumption, an additional 3.5bn people could receive plant-based protein. Polish start-up NapiFeryn BioTech have been experimenting with how to make this happen.

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