Protein is a dietary requirement because humans cannot synthesise all of the necessary amino acids needed for life; they must be taken from the diet. The search for alternatives to animal meats is critical to ensure that future generations will not suffer from nutritional deficiencies.
For some people, the phrase “alternative proteins” might bring to mind crappy tofu burgers, tasteless meat alternatives and the infamous meal replacement drink Soylent. Consumers tend to assume that switching to a meatless diet necessitates the sacrifice of animal products’ familiar, beloved flavours and textures.
But animal agriculture is wasteful, harmful for the environment and unsustainable. As early as 2006, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) described livestock farming as one of the most significant factors causing our planet’s most serious environmental problems.
With the global population expected to reach 10 billion by 2050, the problem of protein is a pressing one. Protein is a dietary requirement because humans cannot synthesise all of the necessary amino acids needed for life; they must be taken from the diet. The search for alternatives to animal meats is critical to ensure that future generations will not suffer from nutritional deficiencies but instead, enjoy healthy lives.
In our hunger for potential solutions, SGInnovate hosted The Alternative Proteins: Balancing Food Quality and Quantity seminar, learning from a panel of leaders in the alternative protein industry as they discussed the challenges and potential solutions regarding our food resources.
The decades-long search for delicious alternative proteins
The global search for alternative proteins has actually been ongoing for years — since the 70s and earlier. Tofurkey caught on in the States in the 90s, with some die-hard fans professing soy to be the future of food. Elsewhere, like in Asia, tofu, soy and other plant-based proteins have been the norm for centuries.
Different countries have their own initiatives regarding food: Singapore, for example, is working towards the “30 by 30” goal of raising national food production levels from 10% to 30% of total food and nutritional needs by 2030. This is part of the latest Green Plan 2030 that the government has rolled out for the next 10 years.
The two goals of raising food production levels and searching for alternative proteins work in tandem to create a more sustainable food chain. To solve these problems, scientists around the world are researching plant-based, cell-based and insect-based protein sources.
Regardless of which alternative protein source we pursue, we must take regional differences into account and consider solutions that are safe and delicious. The more the taste and flavour profile of meat alternatives improves, the more global consumers will become interested in reducing their meat consumption.
There are many challenges in scaling alternative proteins
Scaling alternative proteins and preparing them for the mass market is not easy. Scientists and producers must grapple with food safety, production costs and consumer preferences as they develop their ingredients and products.
Challenge: Are alternative proteins super-processed?
The challenge of processing and preserving food safely is a problem for the whole industry, not just alternative protein producers. Even “regular” meat products — and products such as milk, fruits and vegetables — can be processed and sorted in a facility or preserved with artificial ingredients.
Science is the solution to this conundrum. The more we research, the less we can rely on chemicals. Support for research can help us scientifically replicate and replace the foods we eat today with healthier alternatives.
For example, startup Amai Proteins uses Agile Integrative Computational Protein Design (AI-CPD) and fermentation to analyse sweet proteins and prepare them for the mass market as healthy, plant-based alternatives to artificial sweeteners. This is just one example of the power of Deep Tech when it is used for good.
Challenge: How can we ensure it is safe for consumers?
Some of the research being done into alternative proteins is resulting in entirely new ingredients that have never been tasted. More work must be done to ensure that the food from these creations is safe for consumption.
For example: insect protein is highly novel. It has exhibited cellular similarities to seafood and shellfish, so it could incite an immune response in consumers.
Fortunately, researchers can analyse the product’s structure with AI and other technologies to determine their similarities and differences to existing food and ingredients. Professor Benjamin Smith, Director, Singapore Future Ready Food Safety Hub & A*STAR Innovations in Food & Chemical Safety Programme, said, “We use what we call substantial equivalence. If the thing is similar to what we are actually eating already or found in nature, then it is substantially equivalent and we can manage it safely based on current consumption and practices.”
Challenge: How can we keep production costs low?
“Give the market time to reduce pricing and it will get to a point where it is much more affordable than conventional meat,” said Dr Sandhya Sriram, CEO & Co-founder, Shiok Meats Pte. Ltd, She credited this to simple supply and demand — if you cannot afford “real meat” because of lowered supply, then naturally the only alternative is to seek more affordable types of protein.
Kelvin Ng, Business Development Director (ASEAN), Green Monday, echoed her claim — explaining from Green Monday’s experience that the demand for alternative food is already there. He reported that OmniPork’s products experience very high demand in supermarkets, and that as time passes, the cost of protein alternatives will continue to lower as interest grows.
Challenge: How can we maintain flavour and nutrition?
New Deep Tech advancements in Artificial Intelligence allow scientists to understand ingredients’ and dishes’ unique texture and flavour profiles. Rather than trying to shoehorn an ingredient into an incompatible recipe, researchers can replicate beloved taste and texture on a molecular level.
Take a look at Green Monday’s product line OmniPork. Luncheon meat is a staple in the diets of many Asian consumers — but it is high in fat and sodium content. Fortunately, through a proprietary blend of pea protein, non-GMO soy, shiitake mushrooms and rice, the product’s food technicians have successfully created the same delicious texture and flavour of luncheon meat. Not only that — their research into plant-based preservatives allowed them to reduce the sodium content by 64% compared to original SPAM.
“I dare you to compare our product and the original. This is one of the few cases where I can say without a doubt that consumers cannot tell the difference. When we create protein alternatives, they must be healthy, but still delicious and appealing. Consumers must want to go buy it and eat it,” Kelvin asserted.
Food research has also helped cell-based meat company Shiok Meats successfully provide a more healthy, nutritious alternative to traditional shrimp. Their analysis showed that a shrimp’s composition is 95% muscle and 5% shell and cholesterol, so rather than growing the whole shrimp, they focused solely on growing muscle cells. This achieves the same addictive texture of shrimp meat, without the harmful cholesterol. Dr. Sriram shared, “We are making indulgent foods healthier, so that people can eat more of it and enjoy more of it.”
AI is integral to unlocking a more sustainable food chain
Artificial Intelligence has been integral in unlocking these new food opportunities and understanding the makeup of what we consume. Science allows us to understand the molecular structure of proteins and the chemical interactions that transform a raw ingredient into part of a delicious meal.
AI can answer some of our most pressing questions. How do new proteins interact with other ingredients? How does a small chemical change impact texture? From a safety perspective — might these ingredients bind or interact with human immune cells or other food ingredients and cause allergies down the line?
It can also speeden genome analysis and quantitative polymerase chain reaction (qPCR), so that we can quickly and efficiently peer into the DNA structure of different animals. At Shiok Meats, the qPCR process used to take 8 to 12 weeks. With AI, it takes just four.
By eating and investing in non-animal proteins, we can contribute to building a more sustainable world. The field of alternative proteins is an exciting one that may one day soon change our entire diet and way of life.
To gain more insights into Singapore’s innovation and resilience in its food system, as well as the tech and trends that are helping it attain food security, come attend an upcoming SGInnovate session.