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Alternative proteins – a sustainability concern for all

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Exploring the role of alternative proteins in the future of sustainable foods.

As more consumers adopt a flexitarian diet approach, it is crucial for the industry to support them with new dietary choices to complement their nutritional intake. Alternative proteins and future foods (AP-FF) is key to protect the environment. Researchers from Switzerland evaluated the role of AP-FF in a commentary piece published in Trends in Food Science & Technology (DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tifs.2022.03.026). They assessed meat-substitutes including plant-based alternatives that replace ‘meat’ choices such as plant-based burgers and chicken; fungi-based products such as mycoprotein; microalgae-based foods; insects; and cultured meat.  

When looking at the AP-FF, plant-based alternatives are mostly accepted and available in the market for consumer purchase, usually in soy or pea proteins forms, which have recognised health benefits. Further, researchers add, “Microalgae such as single cellular organisms like cyanobacteria (e.g., spirulina) and green microalgae (e.g., chlorella) and insect-based products are also commercially available but limited on a wide scale. […] Fungi-based products like mycoprotein, often produced via fermentation, are also available in niche markets. Cultured meat (also referred to as lab-grown or cellular meat), on the other hand, is only commercially available as a hybrid product in limited markets such as Singapore where there is a 70% cultured chicken product that is supplemented with plant protein to add structure.” 

Focusing on the sustainability aspect of embracing plant-based diets, a flexitarian diet is yet to be defined compared to veganism, vegetarianism or even pescatarianism – diets with clear definitions among consumers and industry players. One key concern for vegans and vegetarians is to obtain quality protein to counteract the effects of antinutrients that inhibit mineral absorption. Thus, when it comes to plant-based alternative products, formulators attempt to mimic the nutritional profile of meat-based products widely available in the market. Other concerns toward AP-FF include safety and allergies, and quality due to processing formulations.   

When looking at the benefits of a flexitarian diet, the main advantage is its lesser environmental impact, though this remains a topic of debate as highlighted by researchers:  

“A debated trade-off between AP-FF and C-ASF is that the adoption of certain AP-FF could lead to high energy demands (and potentially high greenhouse gas [GHG] emissions) but lower land use values. Other major considerations include scalability and variability because AP-FF are novel and unoptimized products. Sustainability outcomes can change when estimated at pilot-scale versus economical-scales, and variability in environmental impacts for the same AP-FF product can be high due to differences in production system parameters or species. Accordingly, the role of AP-FF in flexitarian diets with respect to planetary boundaries is unclear.” 

Beyond environmental considerations, nutrition remains of a concern to the industry, especially with deficiencies increasing and nutritional values decreasing in staple foods due to climate change, as well as nutritional variations due to soil differences and conditions.  

With so many different boundaries of concerns around the alternative proteins market, researchers defined 5 categories of context-specific boundaries: environmental, access, nutritional, knowledge, and cultural boundaries. Thus, consumer education appears to be key in product development and commercialisation. The key considerations to incentivise consumers to adopt a flexitarian diet include AP-FF having better or equivalent nutritional profiles compared to meat alternatives; improved health benefits; decreased environmental impacts; lesser animal welfare and antibiotic use.  

Interested in learning more about alternative proteins market? Click here to read Vitafoods Insights industry report on the topic 

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