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Alternative Food for Thought

Updated: Aug 31, 2022

Beyond the voices of vegetarians or vegans, it would seem there are not many others championing the switch from consuming traditional sources of protein, such as chicken or beef farmed from animals, to alternative proteins like lab-grown or plant-based meat. But are views beginning to change? Alternative protein is being seriously considered by world leaders Based on the world’s current level of demand for animal-based protein combined with an expanding population expecting to reach 10 billion people by mid-century, it is clear that the current mode of animal protein production is unsustainable. But some important questions, often overlooked in the arguments provided by supporters, remain unanswered. What are the long-term health risks associated with the production and consumption of this nascent form of protein? How does the true unit economics of producing alternative proteins compare against natural forms of protein? What are the alternatives to this alternative protein? Despite this, the potential of this sector is vast and the need for investment is imperative.

Venture capitalists have certainly taken note. In the last 5 years, there has been record investment figures for alternative protein start-ups in what had previously been a below the radar investment sector. With the rise in vegetarianism/veganism and growing consumer awareness of the impact of traditional protein sources on the state of the planet, investment in this sector has been growing rapidly. According to Crunchbase Data, since 2016 around $4.2 billion was invested by VCs on the hunt for high potential, tech induced alternative protein start-ups in another record-breaking 363 funding deals. In 2020 alone, a sum of just below $3.1 billion was invested into plant-based, fermentation, and cultivated food companies indicating investors clearly growing appetite for new forms of protein. Tracxn data notes companies such as Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods as the top players in the space with funding of $144 million and $1.5 billion, respectively. Furthermore, the top investors entering the space include the likes of Y Combinator, Unovis Partners, and New Crop Capital who have invested in 30 companies as a collective, with a strong focus on the US market given 84% of companies funded originate from the United States. This record year reflects the potential of agriculture, as research provided by McKinsey suggests the market’s value could rise to $17.9 billion by the year 2025 should alternative proteins hit the estimated 11% of all meat, seafood, eggs, and dairy consumed globally. If complemented by positive governmental initiatives to increase alternative protein consumption as well as further innovations in technology, this figure could rise to an astounding 22%.

The greatest advocator for switching to alternative proteins must be the huge list of health benefits associated with the consumption. Weight management, diabetes, gut health are the first obvious positive implications of switching, with further benefits associated with hyperextension and one’s cardiovascular health. The WHO (World Health Organisation) have referenced their concerns of traditional protein sources containing carcinogens contributing to the increased risk of cancer, with the American Heart Association implicating plant proteins will help to improve heart health for individuals. A study in 2020 was conducted comparing the diets of alternative proteins and animal proteins with findings highlighting improvements to numerous cardiovascular disease risk factors for the participants who consumed the former.

So, surely everybody should make the switch to alternative proteins today, right? There are still some drawbacks. It is well known plant-based proteins fail to offer the same nutritional benefits as traditional sources of protein. Vitamins and minerals such as Iron, zinc, and vitamin B12, essential elements to the human body providing the ingredients for healthy blood and nerves, are lacking in alternative protein products yet are abundant in traditional animal proteins. A recent study detected only 24% of plant-based products contained all three aforementioned components in a sufficient capacity clearly indicating a pressing need for fortification of nutrients in plant-based foods. Another essential drawback to alternative protein produce is the apparent shortage of nutritional info provided on the labels of the products. Basic info relating to minerals, such as calcium and zinc, and vitamins, A, D, and B, is often underrepresented. This is concerning to less discerning consumers who may assume alternative protein products are superior to meat products. On the topic of ingredients, thickeners, colourings, flavour enhancers, additives, and emulsifiers were all present in alternative protein products upon further inspection conducted in a recent study into the nutritional properties of alternative proteins. Hardly the components of a healthier alternative to traditional meat products, characteristic to the ultra-processed food groups identified by FAO. A cautionary narrative often referenced by alternative protein opposition is that these products are not ‘real’ food, labelled artificial and synthetic compared to their natural counterparts. This belief further raises eyebrows by the techno-scientific nature of production involving biomedical techniques, labs, and genetic engineering methods, potentially exposing them to bacteria’s, fungi, and harmful viruses. Hardly something you want to eat!

Having heard the arguments of both sides, as a consumer it begs the question as to whether alternative proteins are truly superior. Based on the nutritional values, it would appear traditional protein sources are better for the individual given alternative proteins suffer with poor offerings in the form of vitamins and minerals. Yet research has suggested traditional protein source consumption can contribute to an increased risk of cancer whilst also worsening cardiovascular disease risk factors. Ultimately it seems, consumers who are conscious of their protein consumption’s impact on the planet will make the choice to switch to alternative proteins. Combined with ever-growing investment in the sector will make it far more likely for alternative protein sources to become far more commonplace in the average person’s diet.

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