Plant-based meat alternatives are everywhere in 2018. From Vivera’s steak and Moving Mountain’s bleeding veggie burger, to soy-based Oumph and experimentation with a whole raft of nuts and pulses, 2018 has been one huge flood of new releases into the UK market.
But this is only the first phase, according to David Welch, the director of science and technology for the Good Food Institute, an organisation that promotes plant-based protein and cell-cultured meat as sustainable alternatives to traditional animal farming.
Speaking at the US Embassy in London, Welch said that a second generation of plant-based foods could harness existing scientific knowledge to create products that are even closer to the real thing.
The development is in the details
Wheat grown for the mass manufacture of bread has been carefully cultivated for that purpose. At the moment, that is not the case for plant-based proteins, but it could be key in creating more faithful meat alternatives.
“There are huge opportunities for applying existing technology and know-how surrounding soy and wheat genomes to optimise produce for plant-based use,” explained Welch, noting that this is only one area where more research is required.
How the crops are processed into raw materials to be used in plant-based items also raises plenty of questions. For example, what mechanical techniques for harvesting the crop could enhance functionality? And which biological and chemical processes work best to isolate the desirable health-giving elements of the ingredients?
At the moment, extrusion techniques designed for pet food and cheese puffs are not uncommon to process crops destined for plant-based protein – hardly likely to be the most effective method.
Why plant-based meat and not just plants?
- Demand for meat is predicted to go up despite increasing human awareness of harmful effects, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations
- One-third of UK consumers would make the switch to buying meat-free burgers if they tasted the same as beef, found a survey by Streetbees
- Meat substitutes market will be worth $5.96bn by 2022, according to Markets and Markets
Finally, there’s finding the correct balance of ingredients to perfect the sensory effects, so that taste, texture, smell and even the way a product sizzles in the pan is as close to real meat as possible.
End products can also be fortified with further vitamins and minerals – a process known as biofortification that is already common in the food industry (in fact, it’s recently been legislated for folic-acid-bolstered bread).
Everything from genotypes and phenotypes to soil conditions will play into this new area of research.
Celling the concept
While plant-based meats are already attacking the market, cell-cultured meat (also known as clean meat or lab-grown meat) is some way off being commercially viable. However, some believe that when it is perfected, it will quickly outpace plant-based rivals.
Facts from Datassential on the American market show that consumers have very little faith that plant-based goods can achieve the taste as good as real meat – particularly steaks and fish filets.
The alternative is simply to grow meat from cells, removing concerns about animal welfare and reducing the land needed to raise not just the beasts themselves but the crops to feed them as well.
Here again, Welch highlighted that there are a lot of queries that need answering in order to optimise development. Without diving too deep into the (mind-exploding) technical details, companies need to ask which kinds of cells – each with different characteristics – will be the most effective for growing meat for mass consumption. What is the best nutrient broth to feed these cells and what kind of scaffolding will best help them achieve the desired shape?
“Once you’ve proliferated the cells, how do you turn that into muscle, fat, tissue, and more importantly, how do you do it at scale?” added Welch.
At the moment, answers to these questions are on the backburner, since they are immaterial at the pilot scale, but they will be essential to make cell-cultured meat work on an industrial scale.
These difficulties are far from insurmountable, however, considering the existing expertise surrounding cell development.
“A lot of tech can be borrowed from other industries,” said Welch, while conceding that “a huge amount of work needs to be done to perfect this technology for the food industry.”
He even suggested the future might see pharma companies partnering with food titans to bring the next phase of cell-cultured meat to the market.