Understanding the Alternative Protein Market

The current climate crisis coupled with a growing global population means food production must be scaled up, diversified and transitioned to ensure healthy and nutritious diets. Innovation will be at the heart of this process, helping to maintain food safety and quality standards as exciting alternative protein sources are developed. Animal-based proteins still account for a large portion of diets, however consumers, in particular younger generations, now demand a broader and more sustainable range of protein sources. CHAP’s Dr Réka Haraszi discusses how changes in dietary trends, paired with environmental concerns, is creating a prosperous environment for the alternative protein market.

Diversifying diets

The global alternative protein market has been growing at a fast pace in recent years, and is projected to reach an impressive $23b by 2024. To facilitate this ever-growing demand, a myriad of protein sources is required to meet both quantity and quality needs for consumers. As a result, the food product development sector is under pressure to produce a wide variety of healthy, nutritious foods at an affordable price range with favourable sensory properties. Beyond technological hurdles, uptake of an alternative protein diet or individual products is also impacted by cultural, demographic and social aspects.

The alternative protein market is classified based on how the protein is harvested or manufactured:

  • Plant-based protein production: plant proteins in their original form or as an ingredient to manufacture meat substitutes, dairy and egg alternatives or protein supplements (soy, pulses, vegetables, underutilised crops, pseudo cereals, etc.)
  • Cellular protein production: animal proteins generated by cell culture (cultured meat; cultured fish)
  • Fermentation-based protein production:
    • biomass fermentation: growing naturally occurring microorganisms that are high in protein (fungi biomass: mycoproteins)
    • precision fermentation: the use of microorganisms (yeast, bacteria, fungi, algae) as ‘cell factories’ to produce specific functional ingredients, including proteins
  • Novel protein production:
    • Insects
    • Microalgae
    • Seaweed
    • Molecular farming (GMO plants expressing animal proteins)

UK plant-based alternative proteins

From a diversity and availability perspective, the plant-based sector provides the widest range of products for consumers worldwide. However, traditional plant-based diets gravitate towards products that emulate or replace meat, fish, egg or dairy-based foods. Although these products have enabled the shift to a more ‘flexitarian’ diet, they have also raised concerns over global versus local supply chains and the potential health impacts of ‘ultra-processed’ food.

Plant-based foods depend on the supply of healthy and nutritious crops, which in turn require further crop diversification and higher yields to meet demands. To do so, innovative technological solutions are required as they can help to meet challenges for sustainable crop growth in unfavourable environments, or provide more environmentally friendly crop health management strategies.

Around half of the protein content in UK diets originates from four plant species – soy, wheat, corn and pea – so there is a clear need to diversify and introduce more varieties. Some plant protein sources are GMO, others are considered as major food allergens, and some are unsuitable for use in food products due to functional issues such as taste or texture. Importantly, production of plant-based proteins requires a high enough yield to meet the necessary scale implemented by the food industry.

The role of innovation

CHAP colleague, Martin Squire, recently discussed how food security is identified as a key challenge in the National Food Strategy, and addressed the implications for the UK’s food supply chain, with a particular focus on CEA (Controlled Environment Agriculture).

Field-based protein crop production in the UK is fraught with challenges, from climate suitability and seasonality to low yields, lack of biodiversity and processing difficulties to name a few. CEA could mitigate some of these concerns, yet the sector is tackling an energy crisis and is in need of more CEA-suited crop varieties. At present, the main contenders to grow in vertical farms or greenhouses are soya (Home | The Soya Project), legumes (Legumes as a source of fertility in greenhouses – TRUE Project (true-project.eu), ancient crops such as amaranth, quinoa, buckwheat, or aquatic plants such as samphire (Our Samphire Growing Process – Westlands UK) and seaweed.

To expand this, a wider range of underutilised protein crops either currently grown in the UK or beyond, should be explored. There is a need to encourage adoption of such crops that are suitable for UK’s climate or for CEA growing systems. Traditional crop diversification can be achieved by farming new varieties or by introducing new species and varieties into a farming system. Gene editing, which was given the green light in England for research purposes, is an innovative tool to achieve diversification in crops. Plants can be engineered to suit and thrive when grown in CEA, or to produce higher nutritional levels including proteins. This however, is not the solution on its own. Crop management and appropriate agronomic practices are essential to achieve best practice and maintain crop health and quality.


How is CHAP helping the alternative protein sector?

CHAP is actively working with stakeholders to develop innovative projects in the alternative protein sphere, with an added focus on the plant-based protein sector. Our team is engaging with more stakeholders and academic researchers to further boost the sector, and we have published a series of articles to help clarify priorities and raise awareness of key discussion points.

‘Great expectations: the UK’s alternative protein supply chain

The food supply chain must work effectively together to achieve food security and net zero goals, a positive environmental impact, and to contribute to a healthy diet. CHAP has organised a free online event to bring alternative proteins food supply chain experts together to address this.

This is taking place on Thursday 19thMay 9:30–13:00BST and aims to provide an in-depth look at current challenges and opportunities in this sector, summarised in the following themes:

  • Establishing ingredient manufacturing/processing facilities in the UK
  • CEA protein crop growing
  • New, field-based protein crops
  • Legumes/pulses
  • Vining pea – disease management for protein yield

For more information about this online workshop, or to contact Dr Haraszi about this blog, e-mail enquiries@chap-solutions.co.uk

Please note, the opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of CHAP.