Alternative proteins: demand is rising but will bugs ever be mainstream?

30 September 2017

The market for alternative proteins is growing. It’s driving some intriguing innovations and attracting big investment but also presents some unique challenges.

What’s driving consumer interest in alternative proteins?

The increase in interest has come from consumers gaining a deeper understanding of sustainability, traceability, animal welfare and, especially, health. Researchers at the US National Cancer Institute found a connection between eating red meat and a 26% increase of contracting nine non-communicable diseases including cancer, type 2 diabetes, strokes and Alzheimer’s. Indeed, many studies (from WHO and the University of Oxford to name a few) now conclusively point to increased health risks associated with red, and processed, meats.

Europe is driving the new wave

Findings from Mintel show that seven of the top ten markets for launches of products with alternative proteins are in Europe. Indeed, Europe constitutes the largest market for meat substitutes (taking up 39% of global sales). Half of Italian consumers state they are lowering their red meat intake, while 24% are increasing their consumption of vegetarian processed foods. Meanwhile, two of Sweden’s largest supermarket retailers (Coop and ICA) have launched campaigns aimed at raising awareness around the environmental impact of eating meat and promoting meat alternatives. Germany and the UK have also become attractive markets for plant-based snacks, in particular. Growth in the alternative protein sector in these European markets is significantly higher than that of the food sector overall.

But it’s not just Europe. The meat-free vibe is spreading around the globe. As Quorn’s CEO Kevin Brennan observes: “You’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere where it’s not starting to have some degree of traction… We’ve started to hear reports in South America of the category starting to gain momentum, even in big meat-eating areas like Argentina.”

Significant R&D investment

The leading producer of alternative proteins, Quorn, invests around £10m a year in Research and Development. Their focus is on renovating existing products to improve their taste and texture as well as extending their product range. San Francisco-based Memphis Meats recently received an investment of $17m from a number of food industry giants and Impossible Foods took five years to develop their plant burger – in which time they also received $80m of investment.

It’s interesting to note that big players in the meat industry are behind some of the largest investments, demonstrating that they can see the potential of this new market.

What is ‘clean meat’?

Clean meat, or cultured meat, is produced in vitro, rather than from an animal, so it comes without antibiotics, cruelty and risk of disease. It offers a solution to the non-sustainability of current meat production. This is an important selling point for many consumers. The sector is still in its infancy, but some key companies have emerged: Dutch-based Mosa Meats, Israeli crowd-funded SuperMeat and the aforementioned Memphis Meats. These groups are at the forefront of developing unique laboratory methods to produce meat.

Currently, though, lab meat isn’t being produced at scale, so prices are higher than for conventional meat. What’s more, the technology for rapid production scale-up isn’t quite there. However, lab-grown meat may well fall to half the price of conventional meat. Mark Post, co-founder of Mosa Meat, stated that: “Surveys performed in various European countries and in the USA indicate 20 to 50% of consumers are willing to try cultured meat.”

The potential of insect protein

Amazingly, at least two billion people worldwide regularly consume insects. However, many of us in the western world aren’t used to this way of eating.

Why eat insects? The benefits have been documented by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation which states that edible insects not only contain high-quality protein, vitamins and amino acids but are rich in fibre, a good source of healthy fats and offer a more efficient way of producing protein than using traditional livestock. Crickets require six times less feed than cattle yet produce the same amount of protein. Moreover, insect-based products have a smaller carbon footprint than livestock.

For insects to be introduced to the rest of the world, food producers will need to present highly appealing foods. One answer is to integrate insect protein into established and familiar products such as processed foods and snacks. In 2015, Jumbo, one of the largest supermarket chains in the Netherlands, became the first to offer customers insect-based products. This leveraged familiar products such as burgers, nuggets and schnitzels. It would seem that this was successful as in 2016, the company announced it would be introducing algae burgers following the success of its insect line.

One of the most acceptable, and therefore more widely available, insect-based products is flour. Ground to a fine powder, it is easier for the more squeamish to consume. Companies like Bush Grub Organic and Cornish Edible Insects are progressing in this area.

Another area open to insect protein is the snack and sports nutrition sector. Exo Protein, Eat Grub, JIMINI’S and Jungle Bar are producing foods that include insect flour to boost protein which are gaining popularity.

According to Dr Marcel Dicke, a professor at the Laboratory of Entomology, Wageningen University, getting Europeans to consume “through stealth” is an effective way to increase consumption. As is education, which “must be supported by attractive and tasty products.”

The beginning of a revolution?

However, progress in getting these products onto the shelves seems to be slow and European regulations provide an additional hurdle. This is beginning to change, as the European Commission has initiated legislation which may well open the way for more innovation.

At Froghop, we’ve incorporated a range of alternative proteins into customer recipes. If you’re looking to find out more or investigate the possibilities for your products, contact us to start the conversation.