Alternatives to animal-derived proteins

There are four main groups of alternative sources of protein.

chopping board holding 3 neutral coloured patties with some chickpeas scattered around

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Protein-rich plants, such as soy and legumes, can be used to replace animal protein in meals or transformed into products that mimic meat. Meat substitutes, such as tofu, tempeh or seitan, usually qualify as ‘complete’ proteins (which means they contain adequate proportions of each of the nine essential amino acids) while also containing less saturated fat and cholesterol than animal proteins. Contrary to meat, plant-sourced food products also provide fibre and other health promoting compounds such as antioxidants and polyphenols. And on top of that, producing meat substitutes has been linked to reductions in green-house gas emissions, making them a more sustainable alternative to livestock. [1,2]

Plant-based products are, of course, popular amongst vegetarians but need to attract the appetites of the broader public, so the industry has been working on making these foods indistinguishable from real meat. Plants, pulses, nuts and mycoprotein are now used to produce vegetarian burgers, sausages and meatballs. [3] One extreme case is a plant-based burger so similar to a beef patty that it even ‘bleeds’. However, enhancing the texture and flavour of meat analogues to the point where they resemble real meat may come at the cost of added calories, fat and sodium. [4] Furthermore, many of them rely heavily on soy and other monocrops which may be endangering our soils and threatening agricultural biodiversity. [5]

blue-gloved hand holding a petri dish containing a piece of red meat

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Meat grown in labs may seem like science fiction, but it became reality when the first invitro burger was created in 2013.

To produce cultured meat, stem cells are collected from living animals and grown in a nutrient-rich medium where they develop into muscle tissue. The goal is to produce safe and disease-free meat without having to slaughter animals in the process. But can these products really be called ‘animal-free’? At the moment, definitely not because the standard growth medium used for the stem cells is foetal-calf serum as it improves the growth and sensory characteristics of the meat. Plant-based serums are being developed but they still need to be optimised to become cost-effective. [6,7]

In theory, cell culturing has the potential to produce meat with tailored nutrient content. Imagine being able to buy beef with considerably less saturated fat. However, while making alternatives to meatballs and mincemeat is fairly easy, mimicking a proper steak may defy technology for some years. [8,9]

Lab grown meat claims to produce less greenhouse gases and require less water and land than farming animals. On the downside, energy requirements could be substantially higher. In fact, establishing sustainable and affordable large-scale production systems may be one of the biggest challenges for the cultured meat industry. Even if safety tests are approved and cultured meat reaches our restaurants and supermarkets, will people choose it over farmed meat? [10,11]

white bowl containing green powder and a pile of the same green powder beside it

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You have probably eaten algae more often than you think. They are found ‘undercover’ as food thickening agents or in plain sight, wrapping your sushi pieces.

Algae are a large group of photosynthetic organisms that grow in various aquatic habitats. The group is divided into macroalgae and microalgae according to their size and structural complexity. Macroalgae, also known as seaweed, are multicellular organisms visible to the human eye. They are an essential ingredient in Asian cuisine, used in many dishes such as sushi and miso soup. Microalgae are single cell organisms only visible through a microscope. These are more commonly sold as food supplements, such as Chlorella and Spirulina. [12]

Algae are good sources of protein with some species being comparable to eggs, soybean and milk. They contain less fat and cholesterol than most meats and remain one of the few vegetable sources of vitamin B12 and iodine. As well as being low in fat, most of it is in the form of polyunsaturated fatty acids such as omega-3 or omega-6 which are beneficial to human health. On the downside, algae are notably rich in fibre which makes them difficult to digest when eaten raw or unprocessed. To be used in our diets, their proteins must often be extracted and processed into food supplements, such as Spirulina and Chlorella. [13-15]

Algae do not consume many natural resources when they grow. They reproduce fast - some species twice as fast as corn and soybean. What’s more, they can be fed on organic waste side-streams and even capture carbon in their use of carbon dioxide for photosynthesis. However, while producing them in their natural habitat is easier, more affordable and sustainable, it is also less efficient. In nature, algae production is susceptible to seasonal climate changes and varying aquatic conditions, which may lead to crop losses and differences in their nutritional composition. To meet the demands of a growing market, algae production requires controlled cultivation systems which have higher economic and environmental costs. [16-18]

Developing mass-production systems that are both sustainable and cost-effective is a key challenge to overcome before algae can become more affordable and routinely available in the Western markets. And it’s still unclear whether their strong taste and colour will allow them to really compete with meat in our diets. [19]

white bowl and wooden spoon containing neutral coloured powder next to a pile of insect larvae

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Although some people may cringe at the idea of snacking on a bug, edible insects are enjoyed in many parts of the world. Those who have tried them claim that fried crickets taste just like chicken and are the perfect snack. While the taste of insects is widely acclaimed, it’s their high nutritional value and low ecological footprint that has been dominating media headlines.

You’ll discover why in the next Step.

Which of these meat alternatives would you be most likely to try?

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