Alternative proteins: you can’t magic anything out of thin air – or can you?

It’s hard to miss the scale of investor and consumer appetite for sustainable, future foods. Future foods are already big business and look set to continue growing with the cultivated meat sector alone expected to be worth upwards of $12 billion by 2030.  

A key piece of the future food landscape are alternative proteins. What do we mean by ‘alternative protein’? Basically, the term is intended to encompass any protein that isn’t derived directly from traditional animal agriculture (i.e. meat, dairy and fish). At the moment, this includes plant- and fungi-based proteins, insect proteins, cultivated meats (meats grown from animal cells) and other microbe produced proteins.

A recent report from the Boston Consulting Group found that investment in production of meat and dairy alternatives resulted in three times more greenhouse gas reductions per dollar of investment compared with other green technologies. As well as the financial growth in the field, alternative proteins provide great environmental returns on investment whilst helping to address the climate crisis and issues around food security and poverty.

IP has a role to play in the commercial success of innovative future food technologies. Our Future Food team have been gathering experience and insight into the IP issues that will be important for future food technologies. In recent blogs the team has distilled our knowledge to provide guidance on IP Priorities for Future Food, common pit falls (and how to avoid them!) and at how Plant Based Brands can break through in what is fast becoming a crowded field.

One of the great things about my job is that I get to spend time learning about new technologies and about the role technology can play in sustainability. Not only do I find this personally interesting, it gives me hope that some seriously clever people all over the world are devoting their time and energy to help solve some of the biggest challenges we will face as a species.

Today, I’m taking a look at some exciting alternative protein technology. Plant based proteins are relatively well established in the market with fungi-based proteins close behind. Insect proteins are already well established in animal feed. Cultivated meats have been in the public arena since 2013 and are making strides towards large scale market entry in the coming years.

Microbe Produced Proteins

So, what about microbe produced proteins? Well these are not entirely new, yeast proteins have been used since the 1900s at least and fungi proteins are of course microbial proteins.

Indeed, the technology we’re looking at today was first discussed in the 1960’s by NASA when they prepared a report on a closed life‑support system. In the report, scientists working at the forefront of technology in the golden age of the space race looked at a wide range of technological advances that would be needed to support life in space. In one of the studies NASA reported a hydrogenotroph bacteria that converts carbon dioxide and other waste products into oxygen and a protein rich food supplement for astronauts.

Fast forward over 50 years and this technology is being harnessed by innovative companies to support the ever-growing population here on Earth.

Air Protein and Solar Foods have developed proteins making use of the same underlying technology developed by NASA.

In the case of Air Protein, hydrogenotroph microbes are grown in bioreactors, powered by solar and wind energy and fed by hydrogen, oxygen and captured industrial emissions. The microbes grow and reproduce to provide an enriched source of single cell proteins. The protein is then purified and dried, resulting in a "protein-packed flour" which is reported to contain more protein per kilogram than any other meat source.

But this isn’t the end of the story or the innovation needed, not if mass take up of these alternatives is to be achieved. Air Protein aims to make an alternative protein source that is not only nutritious but which has a flavour and texture that is appealing to and familiar for diners. To achieve this, after the Air Protein is created, ingredients and flavours are added to the mixture to make it taste and feel like traditional meat products. This includes experimenting with different oils and nutrients to alter taste and flavour. The resulting products have garnered good feedback in testing and look set to hit the market soon.

Microbial proteins can be grown in a lab without requiring specific types of land or weather, allowing communities across the globe to produce food locally where traditional farming might fail giving them food security and decreasing food miles. There is also the knock‑on effect of less deforestation needed to meet demand for arable land. All in all, this technology could contribute to a number of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (specifically at least the goals for Zero Hunger; Sustainable Communities; and Life on Land) giving it some serious ‘eco’‑credentials.

There are of course challenges with large scale adoption of any technology and the same is true for microbial proteins. Interestingly, as the primary feedstocks for the Air Protein process are waste products and renewable energy, the prevailing trends in renewables and pressures on industry to reduce end-point emissions look set to bolster rather than restrict moves toward scaling. Given the innovation and motivation in this field it seems certain that these challenges will be met head-on and we could all soon be able to try protein made from thin air!