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Alternative proteins: the bigger picture

New sources of protein present a unique opportunity to feed a rapidly growing global population with nutritious and delicious food while safeguarding public health and valuable natural ecosystems.

Yet the field of alternative protein faces numerous risks and challenges; industry players must understand the evolving market dynamics before deciding where to focus their efforts.

This guide will explore the key benefits, developments, and opportunities presented by these novel protein sources, which will help you to confidently navigate the industry and formulate high-level strategies that will drive alt proteins to the top of global agendas.

What are alternative proteins?

Alternative proteins, (alt proteins for short), are animal-free ingredients that aim to replace animal proteins, such as those found in meat, dairy, seafood, and eggs. They’re designed to emulate their animal-derived counterparts in taste, texture, and culinary experience, as well as in price and availability.

Although they mimic animal proteins in many ways, they do have some key fundamental differences that make them an attractive alternative for many food manufacturers and consumers alike.

For example, alt proteins require fewer inputs (e.g. land and water) and have a much lower environmental impact compared to animal proteins.

They’re also considered cleaner, more ethical, and sometimes healthier.

Why do we need alternative proteins?

60% of the world’s ecosystems are already degraded or used unsustainably and animal agriculture is considered one of the main drivers.

And with the global population set to rise, we may have to produce approximately 70% more food with fewer natural resources, increasing the pressure on our already fragile land and ocean ecosystems.

By diversifying our protein sources and modernizing our production methods, we can significantly lower the environmental impact of the meat and dairy industry. Alternative protein foods could also mitigate the risk of antibiotic resistance and zoonotic disease outbreaks while freeing up more land for conservation and rewilding.

What are the different types of alternative protein sources?

There are many different types of alternative protein sources, here are a few prominent examples that are making headlines:

Plant-based protein sources

Plant-based proteins are those which are sourced from plants and include traditional yet undervalued proteins as well as novel innovations.

They’re perhaps the most familiar alt proteins to consumers, particularly since popular alternatives, such as tofu, tempeh, and jackfruit, have been enjoyed for centuries.

While many well-known alternative protein foods use entire plants or parts of plants as ingredients or end products, others use plant proteins in more concentrated forms. Peas, for example, can be fractionated into building blocks of function: starch, fiber, and protein.

The latter is often formulated into plant-based meat (Beyond Meat being a prominent example) to provide a meat-like texture, clean flavor profile, and nutritional benefits.

The potential of plant-based proteins is immense as brands push for sensory and price parity.

Innovations continue to promise new and exciting possibilities for the end products, from expanding the offering of raw materials to producing ingredients with better functional qualities and ultimately developing game-changing products that are tastier and healthier.

Fungi-based protein sources

Although not biologically classified as a plant ingredient, the term “plant-based” is often used to encompass fungi.

However, this fascinating organism deserves its own category in this guide since it holds such unique potential for the future of alt proteins.

Fungi are perhaps the most famous for their mushrooms, the fruiting bodies. Still, it’s the mycelium of filamentous fungi that shows the most promise since the fibers can be manipulated to resemble animal muscle fibers.

What’s more, mycelium has the ability to transform organic materials into nutritious complete protein alternatives.

They’re also a significant source of fiber (which is often lacking in modern diets), low in saturated fat, and typically provide a good balance of minerals and vitamins, such as B vitamins, vitamin D, and Zinc.

Algae-based protein sources

While humans have eaten macroalgae, better known as seaweed, for millennia, recent attention has been given to their microscopic cousins, microalgae.

Perhaps the most unassuming source of alternative protein, microalgae pack a powerful punch.

Microalgae, such as chlorella and spirulina, are minuscule organisms that are often rich in essential fatty acids, vitamins, and all of the essential amino acids, making them a reliable source of complete protein.

Microalgae undergo fermentation inside photobioreactors, feeding off carbon dioxide and light and producing little to no waste. The process does not require herbicides or pesticides and is net carbon negative since it removes carbon from the atmosphere. As such, these tiny organisms demonstrate immense promise as an extremely efficient, environmentally-friendly, ideal protein alternative.

Despite their potential, microalgae-based products are still in their infancy and many challenges remain.

For example, brands have so far been unable to produce ingredients with a neutral color, smell, and taste, which could hinder their widespread adoption.

But with the demand for protein increasing, and agricultural land and water use simply unsustainable, diversification of our food sources is essential. Further investment and research into this field will reveal the full scope of algal potential within the alternative protein industry.

Cultivated protein sources

Mosa Meat burger by Mosa Meat. Licensed under CC BY 4.0.

Cultivated meat, otherwise known as lab-grown meat, is an alt protein produced directly from animal cells.

While it is identical at the cellular level to animal-derived meat, it differs in its efficiency; according to GFI, in the seven weeks it takes to raise 20,000 chickens, a million times as much meat can be grown from a starter culture the size of a single egg.

It also uses far fewer resources, produces much less pollution and waste, acts as a solution to public health risks such as zoonotic diseases and antibiotic resistance, and provides opportunities to tap into the omnivorous consumer market.

Nevertheless, although many alternative protein products are already available to consumers, the majority of cultivated meats remain in the research and development phase.

Scaling up to secure success is far from easy and further study and investment are needed for companies to prevail.

Despite these challenges, a few companies are already set to go to market. Here are 6 lab-grown meat company success stories to inspire you to win the future of this alt protein category

How are alternative proteins made?

Alternative protein foods are produced from plants or animal cells, or through the process of fermentation.

Dive deeper into the different production methods by reading our guides:

Plant-based
A resource that reveals the specifics of plant-based foods and their applications within the alt protein space. Discover our expert analysis, insights, and the latest in plant-based business, technology, and research.
Fermentation
A resource that reveals the specifics of industrial fermentation and its applications within the alt protein space. Discover our expert analysis, insights, and the latest in fermentation business, technology, and research.
Cultivated
A resource that reveals the specifics of cultivated meat and its applications within the alt protein space. Discover our expert analysis, insights, and the latest in plant-based business, technology, and research.

The future of alternative proteins

Alternative proteins could entirely transform the way we feed the world.

However, policies and regulations remain incomplete, and considerable knowledge gaps and technological needs exist. If the industry is to continue growing at the rate necessary to have any real impact on our global food system, it will be crucial to find solutions to these challenges.

In particular, the industry must make significant investments in the next few years to expand manufacturing capacity and scale the ingredient supply chain. Further attention should also be given to building the talent pipeline, implementing fair policies, and accelerating growth through global cooperation with governments.

As the leading alternative protein consultancy, Bright Green Partners can help you gain deep insights into the field, plan for future development, and secure significant market share. Schedule a call with us today to learn how we can help set you apart from the competition and optimize your company for success.

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