A meatless future: Which alternative proteins are really sustainable?
Dairy, meat and eggs account for 83% of our diets footprint. Over the last decade markets have been shifting and companies have been racing to invent a wide range of non-animal products. When it comes to meat alternatives, did you know that most of what fills the ‘’veggie foods’’ sections in our supermarkets are not necessarily healthy and sustainable products, but can be ultra-processed foods, with no nutritional benefits? In this post I review three categories of meat alternatives: fake meat products, cultured meat products, and plant based alternatives. Even if the fake meats are growing their markets year by year and the cultured (in vitro) meat is making the headlines as the future of non-animal based foods, there are in fact more sustainable alternatives to animal protein which can contribute to healthier diets, which are made of non-synthetic or synthetic ingredients. The question becomes: out of the numerous kinds of products, which are only capitalizing on the trend and which are also good for a truly more sustainable world?
What goes in the ‘fake meat’, or ‘analogue meat‘ production is just as important as the ecological output.
The rise of plant based foods and meat alternatives started decades ago in the Western developed countries. People have been realising the disastrous ecological impact of the food industry and have become more conscientious about animal welfare. Several other triggers contributed to this shift: frequent natural disasters caused by climate change, youth climate movements (i.e. Greta Thunberg) and the covid19 pandemic. Choosing to eat vegetarian or vegan over animal based foods is gaining more steam than ever.
From a supply perspective, the companies are taking stock and the growth of this market is yet to peak. It is estimated at 14bn, according to a 2021 report by Roland Burger. Compared to the plant based ‘milk’, ‘cheese’ and ‘yoghurt’ , the plant based ‘meat’ sector has been slower to grow, both in funding and research & development, and in consumer preferences. Below, an illustration of the meat alternatives since the 1980s shows how the world has progressed from vegetarian alternatives to meat substitutes (2000s), and more recently to cultured meat (2010s).
When it comes to production methods and ingredients, we can sort through options: choose between more intensive or less intensive production methods, synthesize, processed or more natural core ingredients, and many other criteria. In order to understand the full spectrum of what the future holds, we need to look more carefully at the technologies producing meat alternatives: they tell us about how ecological the products are, but also how sustainable they are i.e. for consumer health.
I. Fake meats, or mock meats
The poster children of these are the international companies like Quorn (since 1985), Tofurky (since 1995), Beyond Meat (since 2009) and Impossible Foods (since 2011), which launched real mega trends. These meat alternatives replicate the taste and texture of chicken, beef or pork. They are now present in tens of countries and tens of thousands of stores around the globe. Like them, plenty of other companies produce meat-like products: veggie sausages, mince, ‘ham’, ‘meatballs’, ‘bacon’ strips etc.
Are these alternatives the best there is out there? For example, what makes the Impossible burger look like meat that ‘bleeds’ is the genetically engineered heme molecule from soy roots. The soy protein they use is also genetically engineered. Similarly, other plant based fake meats are ultra processed products, where core components of meat need to undergo laborious extraction from plants (pea or rice proteins). A good description of what they contain is this:
[the Beyond Meat] ingredients are pea protein isolate, expeller-pressed canola oil, refined coconut oil, water, yeast extract, maltodextrin, “natural” flavourings, gum arabic, sunflower oil, salt, succinic acid, acetic acid, modified food starch, cellulose from bamboo, methylcellulose, potato starch, ascorbic acid, annatto extract, citrus fruit extract and glycerin. In addition, it contains beetroot juice extract to ape a meaty red colour. It is certainly not everyone’s idea of “clean eating” (source)
Other than these large corporate brands, chances are that in any local supermarket in a city there are entire shelves available with ‘veggie options’, even produced by local companies. A soy, mushroom or quinoa burger, a soy paté, a vegan pea protein salami, and many many others. We would argue that with some exceptions, many of these belong to this category of ultra-processed alternatives to meat. The best way to find out just how processed a product is is to try to read the label and see what it contains. The fewer ingredients, the better the product tends to be.
II. Cultured meat.
A new up and coming alternative to animal protein is cultured meat, also known as in vitro meat, or synthetic meat. It is produced by actual cell cultivation and the products not only closely resemble, taste, and feel like real meat, but are actually meat. Wikipedia defines it like this: Cultured meat is meat produced by in vitro cell cultures of animal cells (as opposed to meat obtained by slaughtering animals). It is a form of cellular agriculture. (source)
The first cultured meat was created in the Netherlands in 2013, by a scientist. After that, several startups ensued, reaching a total of approximately 30 to 40 startups by 2021. These startups are researching and producing not only cultured chicken, pork or beef, but also cultured fish and even cultured foie gras! In 2020, the US company Eat Just, heavily sponsored by investors, launched the first publicly available product, Good Meat cultured chicken, at a restaurant in Singapore. The company claims that:
cultured meat requires 78-96% lower GHG emissions, 99% lower land use, and 82-96% lower water use than conventionally produced meat. In addition, it is well documented that major public health crises have been linked to patterns of conventional meat production and consumption, hence, safer, more efficient and less environmentally harmful ways of producing meat like this are urgently required to satisfy a growing consumer demand (source).
While these products are surely cleaner and cruelty-free meat, the growth medium for the production line often includes foetal bovine serum, a widely used serum supplement for in vitro cell culture that is extracted from foetal bovine blood from slaughterhouses that also provide meat for human consumption. Even if bovine serum is largely removed before consumption of the Good Meat cultured chicken, it poses ethical questions about the products being actually animal free.
Mosa Meat company (The Netherlands) explains how they grow their beef cells: https://mosameat.com/growing-beef
To conclude, cultured meat products have not yet reached the markets properly: either because they are still in R&D, or haven’t yet gone through safety assessments which are necessary before they are launched in consumer markets. Therefore, their scalability and sustainability are yet to be established, and depend widely on safety validation and consumer acceptance.
III. Plant based protein foods based on whole ingredients
This is a large category where we include both processed foods and fully natural products - and we can see here that some technologies are decades old and some are cutting edge, which only goes to say that there is a lot of exploring to do. The difference between this category and the fake meats is that these products tend to be less (artificially) processed, with fewer or no additives, and therefore cleaner product labels. A clean label is a consumer term (non-scientific) and designates a label with as few ingredients as possible, or where all the ingredients can be recognized, understood and pronounced by consumers (source).
We include here the traditional tofu or seitan, which can be cooked and seasoned to replace meat. Tofu is based on soybeans, and seitan is essentially wheat protein, or gluen.
Seitan. Screen capture from Google Images search, 24 June 2021.
Tempeh is a food originating from Indonesia from the 1800s, and it has been a staple protein food ever since. It is made by lightly processing beans in a production of soaking, boiling, inoculating them with a culture, then leaving them for 1-2 days to ferment in a warm room. Its flavour is nutty, mushroom-like, and meat-like, and depends on the types of beans used.
Capture from beanlife.be.
Newer innovations are products made from ingredients transformed to look like meat: for example pulled oats, or pulled jackfruit, or mushrooms. Unlike tofu or seitan, they show limited applications in the kitchen because they replace meat in a unique way. For example:
Pulled oats and oat bites. They are an alternative protein made from oats that resembles pulled pork, patented by the Finnish company Gold and Green. The two products only contain five ingredients and are free of additives (source). Gold and Green is part of the Paulig Group, a company with a clear sustainability approach.
Pulled jackfruit. Unripe jackfruit fibers can also be pulled in production to imitate pulled beef or pork. Producing these are The Jackfruit Company in the US, a newer Dutch startup called MeetJack, and possibly others. They sell pulled jackfruit flavoured and ready to be added to a meal, but there are also many companies producing canned pulled jackfruit in a brine, with no flavouring. The only issue here is that while jackfruit is great at mimicking meat, its protein contents are low (2g/100g).
Mycelium ham. The company Atlast (US) uses biotechnological innovation for a new form of agriculture, where mycelium (mushroom filaments) grows together in a network similar to animal muscle tissue, and is used to produce plant based bacon and steak. Their brand is called MyEats and have so far released MyBacon, declaring: Unlike other plant-based meats, which are extruded and highly processed, this is a whole structure which means there’s almost zero processing (source). Atlast uses solid state fermentation in their production process.
What are the ways forward? Where are the markets evolving to?
The production of fake meats and cultured meats is growing and could have its large share in the market. But what is next for most sustainable plant based alternatives? A technology for the future: Fermentation is gaining speed when it comes to plant proteins. It is used both in tempeh production, as a natural tastemaker, and for the mycelium ham, though Atlast uses solid state fermentation in their production process. Fermentation is an age-old technology and can also be the innovation of the future, that lends foods complex tastes and textures. The simplest way to define it is: the transformative action of microorganisms such as microbes, yeast and fungi. In the transformation, enzymes are created, whose activity breaks down nutrients into more complex components. Today, we know much more about fermentation and the multiple benefits natural fermentation can have- here is a good source for reading more about it.
According to the latest report by the Good Food Institute (source), in 2018 only 23 companies worldwide were working on alternative proteins through fermentation, but by mid-2020 the number almost doubled (44). In 2019 fermentation-based protein companies raised 3.5 times more capital than cultivated meat companies, and by September 2020 they had raised $435 million (almost a third) of the total $1.5 billion invested in alternative proteins.
How can one think about the sustainability of the different categories of alternative proteins? By now, in 2021, there is consensus about which kinds of foods are more sustainable than others. We know that reducing the meat and dairy production and consumption is the way forward when it comes to our food systems’ sustainability. But is that enough? Can we feed everyone on tofu? Perhaps not.
It is understandable that markets evolve to incorporate new trends and products, and surely there is a place for cultured meat, which is probably the most GHG efficient. But we also have to look at what makes for healthy diets - and no healthy diet can yet be built on lab grown food, with very limited natural nutrients. Perhaps in the distant future, when our bodies will evolve to survive on that.
Until then, food security and prevention of diseases remain important components of sustainability. The plant based alternatives (III.) in particular tend to be nutritious, which is not the case of fake meats (I.). Fake meats have a lot of salt or fat added, which poses risks for high cholesterol, and all the potential vitamins are added and do not exist in natural form in the ingredients. Plant based proteins that are less processed and use real ingredients can have an entirely more positive combination of nutrients. Below is an example of comparison between Beyond Burger (300mg salt, 18g fat, 2g fiber) versus tempeh (0g salt, 8g fat, 12g fiber). The Beyond Burgers lacks fiber and does not contribute to the digestion process, whereas tempeh allows the body to burn the calories slowly. Tempeh is also cholesterol free and a natural source of protein from practically whole beans.
To conclude: while we are far from making real diet recommendations (and frankly, we think health is a personal choice!), the choice for a diversified diet includes a lot of natural plant protein foods, and those based on grains, pulses, peas are a no brainer for mindful consumers. These are real plant based foods, people! There is also a caveat: for example, a lot of plant based foods, rich in protein are based on soy, which we know can be genetically modified or can contribute to deforestation in areas such as Latin America. Even when soy is produced and sourced locally, it is rare that the producers have a full life cycle analysis, which means we don’t know if it’s actually more sustainable than other crops. Many things considered, when it comes to sustainable meat alternatives - we need to think about the environment, but also about global public health and food security, and choose from widely available and affordable alternatives. We can't rely on fake meats for our future: they are not proven to be good for our health. Diversify, diversify, diversify!