In recent years, concerns about environmental sustainability, land and water use, animal welfare and human health, have drawn more attention to the production of sustainable, healthy, meat alternatives.
Although meat is an important source of protein that contains all the nine essential amino acids (and it is high in vitamin B12, a vitamin rarely found in plant proteins) it is one of the major drivers of global environmental change. It is responsible for 14.5% of greenhouse gas emissions and it is a leading cause of deforestation in tropical areas as well as biodiversity loss. Clinical studies have also shown that an excessive consumption of red meat is associated with bowel cancer, cardiovascular disease, and all-related comorbidities. Nevertheless, a moderate intake of meat is recommended in our diet to embrace a varied and balanced eating pattern. We should consume around 70 g of meat a week.
The fact that the global population will reach 9 billion by 2050, means more meat production and more environmental stress. This has lead to developing novel meat alternatives over the last 10 years.
These alternatives are usually made with soy, pea or gluten. Soy protein has been particularly successful in the preparation of meat alternatives, due to its excellent gelation properties, superior nutritional value, and potential to form fibrous structures that resemble the ones in meat. The technology used to create soy protein is called “high moisture extrusion” and it consists of the combination of starch, fibre and soy. The interaction between these components causes a series of physical and chemical changes to occur, and anisotropic fibre structures to form. The result is a product with high moisture content and a fibre structure closer to real meat. Examples of soy and soy proteins are tofu, tempeh and yuba (this last one is mainly used in China). On a nutritional point of view, soy protein contains all the nine essential amino acids, but it is deficient in sulphur amino acids like methionine. It is therefore recommended to combine it with methionine sources like rice or nuts.
Cultured or in vitro meat, also known as “clean meat”, is a meat substitute produced in a laboratory using bioengineering techniques. The process starts by selecting animal cells from a living animal and put them into bioreactors with essential nutrients like oxygen and glucose that help the cells to grow. The cells then start to divide and turn into muscle tissue that mimic the muscle cells of the animals. The “meat” is then developed with the mature cells. This technique has been developed to reduce the impact of meat and meat products on the environment. However, recent studies have shown that this technology is not as eco-friendly as the extrusion (for the plant-based meat), because it requires a lot of energy to replicate the temperature inside the body of a cow. Moreover, as farm animals naturally produce hormones, there are concerns about the impact of these hormones on human health, in the long term.
Another very popular alternative to meat is the mycoprotein. Mycoprotein is a high-quality protein source, high in fibre and low in saturated fats. It is produced from a fungus, Fusarium venenatum, which goes through a fermentation process and converts carbohydrates into protein. By adding egg whites to the mix or a vegetable protein that acts as a binder, like potato, and then steaming and freezing it, the result is the mycoprotein that has a texture very similar to meat. This alternative is one of the most sustainable options that we have nowadays. The production of mycoprotein uses 90% less land and water than that one of animal protein. The only drawback is the fact that some of the products made with mycoprotein can have a moderate to high salt content. It is always important to check the label.
3 D based Protein:
This is a novel construction technique that uses a computer aided design software to generate three-dimensional objects (blood, fat, muscle). It is therefore able to create a meat surrogate with exactly the same muscles and veins of real meat. It has sustainability benefits such as reduced demand of raw material, energy and transportation. However, some challenges remain to be resolved such as time consumption and cost. The Spanish food tech start-up Novameat, became the first company to use 3D printing technology to produce a meat-free beef steak in 2018.
In 2019 a new revolutionary protein made with air was created. Air-based meat is generated by using elements found in the air and combined with water and mineral nutrients. It uses renewable energy and a probiotic solution to convert these elements into a nutrient-rich protein with the same amino acid profile as an animal protein and packed with B vitamins, which are often deficient in a vegan diet. So far, we know that this protein is highly sustainable and nutritious, but research about consumers’ acceptability is still under investigation.
Looking at the variety of meat-alternatives present in the market nowadays, there is an important question that we need to ask: what are consumers’ associations, perceptions and acceptance of these products?
The majority of customers still prefer meat to these substitutes, as they perceive them as unnatural, expensive and different from the real meat. Surveys conducted in Europe, show that 72% of people prefer meat, 16% plant-based protein and 5% lab-grown meat. The other surrogates were not considered in the studies. It is interesting to notice that, although veganism and vegetarianism are at increased rise, there is a difference between natural plant proteins and meat-alternatives. While beans, chickpeas and lentils are widely used, meat-alternatives have some work to do as they are still perceived as artificial with their taste, texture and flavour still very far from the real thing, meat.