Non-animal-based proteins are changing the game for foodservice professionals

Plant-based meat in a scientific flask

A key question looms on the horizon: how will we feed a growing global population and meet the nutritional needs of more than 10 billion humans in the year 2050, without jeopardizing the well-being of our planet or its inhabitants?

Our current food system is rife with challenges. Since the rise of industrial animal agriculture in the 1950s, food production has become intensive, highly concentrated and unsustainable, negatively impacting public health, the environment, animal welfare and rural communities. The way we produce protein from animals has become a leading cause of many of the most pressing global problems plaguing society today.

Climate change, anti-microbial resistance and pandemic risk are urgent, existential issues stemming from animal agriculture’s vast resource use, potent Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions, deforestation, crowded conditions, and overuse of antibiotics. Compounding these threats are the many ethical issues presented by modern food production: impacts on public health and nutrition, poor working conditions on farms and in slaughterhouses, widespread industry labour shortages, rising global food insecurity, deadly foodborne illnesses, and the jaw-dropping slaughter of some 92.2 billion land animals and one to three trillion marine animals annually.

Fortunately, a much-needed transformation is underway, a kind of fourth agricultural revolution in which new technologies are enabling the production of meat, seafood, dairy and eggs without the animal. These proteins may change the game and put our food systems on the right side of history and the future — by reducing our food’s environmental impact, decreasing public-health risks, and alleviating many of the significant ethical concerns associated with large-scale animal agriculture. Further, they could facilitate protein production at an unprecedented scale.

Foodservice professionals are increasingly familiar with the emerging range of high-fidelity plant-based products that closely resemble their animal-based counterparts, be it veggie burgers that bleed, scrambled eggs made from mung beans, or chicken-nugget analogues nearly indistinguishable from the real thing. New products such as marbled steaks and chewy bacon are expected to appear on grocery store shelves soon, giving consumers (and chefs) delicious new options to experiment with, without the environmental, health or ethical concerns of conventional animal meat.

The evolution of animal-free proteins has advanced in great measure through fermentation and cellular agriculture. Traditional, biomass and/or precision fermentation use microbes to create food products or ingredients that closely resemble animal products, with more realistic tastes and textures than can usually be achieved in plant-based products. Some of these products are already on the market, like animal-free ice cream or animal-free egg proteins that look, taste and function just like dairy ice cream or chicken eggs.

In cellular agriculture, cultivated proteins are made by replicating the biological processes that occur on a cellular level when, for example, milk is made by a cow, or an egg is made by a hen. The culturing process typically happens inside a “cultivator,” where cells can be fed and grown to form muscle and connective tissue, similar to the manner in which breweries grow yeast cells to produce beer. The result is a product identical to the meat and animal by products consumed around the world today. Fermentation-enabled, cultivated and plant-based proteins can also be merged to create hybrid products.

Replacing conventional animal protein with protein from these alternative sources has enormous benefits. These options are kinder, far less likely to lead to disease outbreaks or foodborne illnesses and could have better nutrient profiles. Plant-based proteins have a much lower carbon footprint and require fewer resources to produce, and projections for the environmental benefits of cultivated proteins are incredibly promising: a 2022 study in Nature Food revealed that replacing animal-source foods in European diets with animal-free proteins could reduce global warming potential, water use and land use by more than 80 per cent.

Cultivated meat products are not widely available commercially, though it is only a matter of time. Singapore is the only country where cultivated meat products are already being sold. However, the U.S. government recently determined that cultivated chicken products from two California-based startups are safe to consume, paving the way for these products to be sold to consumers. Canada is expected to follow suit.

The meat industry’s substantial investments in animal-free proteins are a strong indicator of future growth. Just as automakers have embraced the electric vehicle, the world’s leading meat companies are diversifying their product portfolios. Half of the 60 largest global meat, dairy, and seafood companies tracked in the The Coller FAIRR Protein Producer Index are investing in the alternative protein market. As a former CEO of Tyson Foods, the second-largest processor and marketer of chicken, pork, and beef worldwide, said in 2018: “If we can grow the meat without the animal, why wouldn’t we?”

Cultivated meat is expected to become available in retail within the next two to three years, offering the food industry a more sustainable and ethical alternative source of protein that can replace conventional meat at a 1:1 ratio. Chefs are ready to embrace these options. In fact, SuperMeat reported that in a 2022 survey, “Seventy-seven per cent of chefs would be willing to pay a premium for cultivated meats and poultry due to its benefits, most importantly food safety and environmental friendliness”. The overwhelming majority — 84 per cent of chefs — would consider replacing meat with cultivated protein on their menus, if pricing is similar.

The foodservice industry is already changing. Plant-based menu items have increased by more than 60 per cent in just the last four years, and experts predict that plant-based items will find a place on more than 40 per cent of restaurant menus by 2025. Dozens of companies and campuses are reducing the amount of meat they serve for environmental and animal welfare reasons, and health-care facilities are shifting to plant-forward menus to improve the health of their patients, staff and visitors.

As technologies evolve and the range of animal-free proteins expands, the possibilities for industry will be endless. This is truly the future of food, and I can’t wait to taste it.

By Riana Topan

Riana Topan runs Humane Society International/Canada’s Forward Food program, helping institutions across Canada increase their offerings of animal-free food options – free of charge

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