N
A
R
A
The Future of Food. Alternative Protein Foods

If we pause to think about threats to the environment, we might picture cars, planes, and oil well pumps, not farms and forks. The truth is that our desire for animal food poses one of the biggest dangers to the planet. Despite the fact that the Earth is populated by farmed animals and farms have never been bigger, humanity is facing a hunger emergency.

A 2018 study by the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel and the California Institute of Technology revealed that of all mammal biomass on Earth, farmed animals make up 60%, humans make up 36%, and wild mammals make up only 4%. The biomass of domesticated poultry (dominated by chickens) is about three times higher than that of all wild birds combined.

Our heavy reliance on animal protein is unsustainable. Animal suffering, water use and pollution, and the loss of biodiversity and wild habitats (cattle farming and soy agriculture for animal feed are driving the destruction of the Amazon forest) are all sound reasons to ditch food that comes from animals.

If that is not enough, animal farming is simply a very inefficient way of feeding a booming population, which is predicted to reach 9.7 billion by 2050. A 2018 study from the University of Guelph and the University of Waterloo in Canada found that if all humans adopted the meaty diet of Americans, all habitable land on Earth would not be enough to satisfy our carnivorous appetite.

Most global agricultural land (an estimated 77%) is already taken up by animal farming for the purpose of raising animals and growing crops to feed them. And yet animal farming produces only 18% of the world’s calories. In the most “efficient” agricultural systems, farmed animals consume more protein than produce, even if the industry treats them as “feed converters,” exerting an enormous control over their bodies. Genetic selection has turned “broiler” chickens into some of the most efficient “protein converters,” but even these miserable birds require around 3 kilograms of feed to produce 1 kilogram of meat.

Ad

Globally, animal farming is the second-largest contributor to human-made greenhouse gas emissions. If we consider low-impact cattle farming, where the animals graze in natural pastures, such a farming system would still produce six times more greenhouse gases and require 36 times more land compared to pea agriculture (and by the way, pea protein contains all nine of the essential amino acids).

An increasing number of people are making the connection between human, animal, and environmental health

In light of COVID-19, an increasing number of people are making the connection between human, animal, and environmental health. In addition to the COVID-19 pandemic being linked to our encroachment on wildlife, it has exposed the poor labor conditions in slaughterhouses that have had to shut down due to the coronavirus running rampant through the workforce. Secondly, experts warn that another human pandemic could easily stem from factory farms, which provide a perfect breeding ground for zoonoses, infectious diseases that are able to be transmitted between human and non-human animals.

The grave impact of our animal-heavy food systems on public health is not limited to the risks of zoonotic diseases (avian influenza, campylobacteriosis, salmonellosis, mad cow disease, and many more existing zoonoses as well as those yet to emerge). For decades, the World Health Organization (WHO) has been warning about antibiotic resistant pathogens spreading from animal farms, emphasizing that “in some countries, approximately 80% of total consumption of medically important antibiotics is in the animal sector.

We simply cannot have it both ways – increasingly eat animals and simultaneously mitigate the climate crisis, public health risks, and world hunger

In 2017, Dr. Kazuaki Miyagishima, the WHO’s Department of Food Safety and Zoonoses director, stated that “The volume of antibiotics used in nonhuman animals is continuing to increase worldwide, driven by a growing demand for foods of animal origin, often produced through intensive animal husbandry.

Demand for meat and other animal products is escalating both because of population growth and increasing consumption per person. But given what I just wrote above, “You can't have your cake (or better said, ‘steak’) and eat it, too,” meaning that we simply cannot have it both ways – increasingly eat animals and simultaneously mitigate the climate crisis, public health risks, and world hunger.

On a hopeful note, alongside expanding, intensive animal agriculture, alternatives are springing up like mushrooms (including protein from an actual fungus called mycoprotein).

To discuss alternative protein foods in more detail, I must first define the term. In this article, I refer to plant, fungi, or algae-based products that mimic the taste and texture of meat, seafood, eggs, and dairy as well as products such as tempeh, tofu, seitan, and jackfruit that may not mimic the qualities of animal products but replace them functionally.

Innovation is making conventional animal agriculture uncomfortable

The United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Brazil, Israel, the Netherlands, and Germany are the front-runners in alternative protein technology. In 2019, these countries saw an innovation boom, which was a turning point in mainstreaming animal-free foods. For example, in Germany, vegan burgers landed in the fast-food outlets of McDonald’s, Burger King, and Kentucky Fried Chicken, while in the UK, vegan sausages could be found in Starbucks coffeehouses and Greggs bakeries.

The Israeli start-up Redefine Meat gathered a team of chefs, food technologists, and butchers to 3D bio-print an impressive steak made from soy, pea, coconut fat, and sunflower oil. If that sounds crazy, imagine mushroom-based bacon! The American start-up Atlast Food Co is doing exactly that. Using mycelium, the root structure of mushrooms, the Atlast Food Co is creating a nutrient-rich bacon and launching it later this year.

Future innovations are expected to make conventional animal agriculture very uncomfortable. The production of alternative protein already requires fewer natural resources, causes much less pollution, is free from antibiotics, and eliminates farmed-animal suffering. Products such as plant-based burgers can be produced in sterile environments and thus are less likely to carry foodborne pathogens and cause the outbreaks of zoonotic diseases.

Major food companies such as Tyson Foods and Nestlé are already responding to the shifting food landscape and making big moves into the alternative protein market (of note, Tyson Foods is an American multi-corporation producing chicken, beef, and pork, recently plagued by COVID-19 and accused of chicken price fixing).

Alternative protein is taking over the German capital

I am lucky to live in Berlin, the EU’s vegan capital. Berlin claims to have 62 entirely vegan restaurants, and if you search for places that offer animal-free options on the Berlin-Vegan app, you will find more than 500 restaurants, cafés, ice-cream parlors, and snack bars. Moreover, in the German capital, multiple companies such as Alpro, Oatly, Simple V, Beyond Meat, and Veganz (the food brand and 100% vegan supermarket) have proved that animal-free meat and dairy can be tasty, popular, and accessible to the average consumer. So today, I am not going to a restaurant, a vegan shop, or a bio-supermarket. Instead, I am heading to the German supermarkets of Edeka, Kaufland, and Lidl.

Shelf for alternative protein products (tofu and tempeh) in a Berlin shopping center. ©Elena Lazutkaitė

Moreover, in the German capital, multiple companies such as Alpro, Oatly, Simple V, Beyond Meat, and Veganz (the food brand and 100% vegan supermarket) have proved that animal-free meat and dairy can be tasty, popular, and accessible to the average consumer. So today, I am not going to a restaurant, a vegan shop, or a bio-supermarket. Instead, I am heading to the German supermarkets of Edeka, Kaufland, and Lidl.

I fill my shopping basket with “conventional” and vegan burgers, cheeses, and yoghurt to compare the price, nutritional value, and taste. My “tasting” research has shown that at least some products, such as Alpro yoghurt, are barely distinguishable in taste and texture from their dairy equivalent. If anything, Alpro tastes better! I love the “no added sugar” concept, not only for health reasons, but also for the naturally rich flavor. The sugar from berries is enough. Moreover, Alpro oat and blueberry yoghurt is packed with the good bacteria L. acidophilus. It contains more protein (3.7 grams per 100 grams of products) than its dairy peer (2.9 grams) and fewer calories. It is slightly more expensive – €1.99 compared to €1.26 for a 400-gram container, but given Alpro’s sustainability claims and amazing taste, it is fantastic!

Vegan cheeses, on the other hand, come as a disappointment. Simply V Nature sliced cheese is tasty, but pricey. It costs €2.93 for 150 grams (equivalent to €1.95 for 100 grams) and contains virtually no protein (< 0.5 grams of protein per 100 grams of product), while dairy cheddar costs €0.83 per 100 grams and contains 25 grams of protein. Mondarella is a vegan equivalent of mozzarella made from almonds. It surprises me with its superb consistency and texture. Having said that, I wish the same (or more) effort had been put in its flavor. In a word, Mondarella is bland. Its flavorlessness actually makes me crave the “real” thing. Buffalo mozzarella is more expensive but offers more flavor and protein.

The final items on my “research menu” are burgers. As no one in my household eats meat, I only take a look at beef burgers, which are priced at €2.54 for 200 grams. I try The Vegetarian Butcher burgers instead, which contain nearly the same amount of protein and are only a bit more expensive.

Vegan mozzarella alternative. ©Elena Lazutkaitė

Vegan burger. ©Elena Lazutkaitė

The famous Beyond Burger delivers a complete protein source through a combination of pea, mung bean, and rice protein ingredients and an experience very similar to meat. Nonetheless, these burgers are expensive – €7.09 for two burgers. However, I personally do not search for “meat experience” because I do not miss eating meat.

In fact, some vegans may be indifferent to “fake” burgers, steaks, or cheeses as they are not looking for foods that mimic animal products. They also might think that “fake meat culture” is not doing veganism nor farmed animals a favor. While these products are not worse for your health than animal products, they too can be greasy, high in calories, and highly processed (so why not just eat veggies?). Designed to bleed and provide an experience as close as possible to the “real” thing, the substitutes do little to criticize the consumption of animal products.

Tradition seeks to bring the past to bear on present and future practice

On the other hand, you might not expect meat eaters to embrace the alternatives. Yet generational shifts are already changing the food landscape. The younger generations are significantly more interested in plant-based meat than the older generations. According to a 2019 survey of over 2,100 Americans, 48% of respondents under 40 years old said they have tried eating plant-based meats.

Furthermore, governments are starting to grasp the fragility of our animal-heavy food systems. The ambitious EU flagship food policy, the Farm to Fork Strategy (released 20/5/2020) has highlighted the environmental and animal welfare impacts of current levels of consumption of animal products and expressed the need to shift from an animal-based to a plant-based diet.

The FTF Strategy has set the target for 25% of EU farmland to be farmed organically by 2030. Moreover, the European Commission is currently evaluating the EU Animal Welfare Strategy and the existing regulation for animal transport and slaughter, which could further encourage a commercial interest in animal-free protein.

NARA is a non-profit media organisation. Support our journalism financially:

Patreon

The FTF Strategy has set the target for 25% of EU farmland to be farmed organically by 2030. Moreover, the European Commission is currently evaluating the EU Animal Welfare Strategy and the existing regulation for animal transport and slaughter, which could further encourage a commercial interest in animal-free protein.

Public-private partnerships such as the EU’s EIT Food initiative, Israel’s The Kitchen FoodTech Hub, and the EU-funded Smart Protein project further demonstrate the growing institutional and commercial interest in the field. The Smart Protein project, which is led by the School of Food and Nutritional Sciences at University College Cork in Ireland, stands out for its ambitious goals to develop protein products from fava beans, lentils, chickpeas, quinoa, and even upcycled by-products from pasta, beer, and bread production.

Alternative-protein foods may not appeal to every consumer just yet. However, as alternative proteins are just starting to occupy the market, they have endless room for optimization. Soon manufacturers will be able to create the exact taste, smell, texture, and nutritional value that consumers desire, be it a junk food or a nutritionally enhanced superfood. The level of control in production allows manipulation of the content (e.g. to increase dietary fiber and reduce cholesterol) and provides extra perks such as longer shelf life. Food that is safe, affordable, and tasty, as nutritious as you want it to be, and that makes a fraction of environmental impact is fundamental to our sustainable future.

Elena Lazutkaitė is a doctor in Critical Theory and Cultural Studies at The University of Nottingham.

Samples of soy beans are checked on moist at the Roque Tropini soy processing plant in the village Viale, Province of Entre Rios, Argentina. ©Sarah Pabst