The price of alternative protein: Tech developments and funding boom propelling the sector

By Cheryl Tay

- Last updated on GMT

The cost of the technology used for lab-grown meat has dropped significantly, and companies hope to make it commercially available by 2021. ©Getty Images
The cost of the technology used for lab-grown meat has dropped significantly, and companies hope to make it commercially available by 2021. ©Getty Images
Technological advances and billions of dollars of investment from private equity and food MNCs are propelling the alternative protein sector, but consumers may need some persuading to jump from meat to lab-grown products.

That was the view expressed by Mintel's food science and nutrition analyst Michelle Teodoro at the market intelligence firm's Big Conversation event on 17 April.

"Technology influences the food we eat, why we eat it, how we make it, what we know about it, and how we buy it," ​she said, citing examples such as 3D-printed food, lab-grown meat, blockchain technology, personalised diets, and driverless or drone food delivery.

The price of protein

She went on to highlight the growing pressure on food manufacturers and suppliers to provide alternative sources of protein.

According to UN estimates, global meat supplies would need to increase by over 50% by 2050 if current demand levels persist, leading to a significant rise in CO2​ levels worldwide.

This has resulted in much debate about the potential for sustainably produced alternative protein sources, and products such as burger patties made from peas, mung beans made to mimic scrambled eggs, and vegan 'dairy' products have appeared on the market.

Some companies have also been working on engineered food and drink such as lab-grown meat and animal-free dairy, but they are still too expensive to make commercially available.

However, investments by major companies like General Mills, Tyson, Unilever, and tech tycoons such as Bill Gates may change that in the near future.

Tyson, the world's second largest processor of chicken, beef and pork products, has launched its own 100% plant-based range of ready-to-eat meals. It has also invested in Memphis Meats, a food tech company in San Francisco that aims to grow sustainable cultured meat.

In February 2018, Singapore's Temasek Holdings led a group of investors who raised $24.7m in Series A funding for Perfect Day Foods, a start-up that produces animal-free dairy products.

Teodoro said, "Big companies are now hastening the pace of technological developments and investments to support the production of alternative protein sources.

"Since 2013, the cost of the technology used for lab-grown meat has dropped significantly, and companies hope to make it commercially available by 2021."

Indeed, in 2013, it cost the Netherlands' Maastricht University $330,000 to produce a 140g burger from cow shoulder stem cells. Last year, it cost Memphis Meats a far less exorbitant $9,000 to produce 450g of meatless duck and chicken tenders.

Meating sustainability goals

Even 'traditional' meat producers are exploring ways to lessen the environmental impact of their production processes, such as blending their meat products with vegetables, herbs and legumes so less meat is used.

Teodoro said, "Companies that have been producing animal-based protein sources are unlikely to dive into cellular-based agriculture, as it is still very niche and would be too expensive a change.

"However, they are reformulating their meat products and turning to more sustainable practices, such as reducing the amount of meat in their products."

Plant-based proteins paving the way?

This shift away from meat is not just a Western trend; according to Mintel's 2017 Metro Consumer Survey, 24% of urban Indonesian consumers planned to follow a plant-based / vegetarian diet, 16% of urban Thai consumers said they were eating more non-animal protein, and 34% of Australians — the second-largest consumers of meat globally — were avoiding or planning to avoid red meat.

However, Teodoro said that apart from the issue of affordability, another deterrent to eating lab-grown meat was consumers finding it "conceptually scary"​.

Unlike commercially available alternative protein sources, which are typically plants made to resemble certain meat or dairy products, lab-grown meat is created from scratch, engineered from start to finish using technology unfamiliar to most consumers.

Despite this, Teodoro believes the concept and eventually, the commercialisation of lab-grown meat can catch on gradually.

"Animal-free eggs and milk, as well as plant-based 'meat' products, could be a good introduction for consumers to lab-grown meat."

Still, she acknowledged that taste is king: A 2017 Lightspeed / Mintel survey of 1,876 US Internet users aged 18 and above showed that 65% of the respondents felt taste was the most important factor in deciding whether or not to purchase plant-based protein products, followed by the absence of artificial ingredients (41%), and protein content (35%).

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