10 Challenges in Alternative Proteins

There’s no question that the alternative proteins market is the one to watch. Accelerated by consumer demand regarding health, environmental concerns and animal welfare, the alternative proteins market is projected to reach $127 billion globally by 2028. If we consider the challenges of increasing world population, urbanisation, rising wealth inequality, and eating habits, we’re left with many drivers contributing to the growth and diversification of protein production. 

Alternative Proteins, What are they?

Protein is well known to be an essential part of a healthy diet. Protein is a building block of living beings and provides amino acids for repair and growth. An alternative protein is any plant-based, insect-based or biotech protein alternative to conventional animal proteins. Alternative proteins include protein-rich seeds, grains and plants (soy, pea, wheat, chickpea, rapeseed, lupin, potatoes, rice, mung beans, seaweed, and others), which can be used as functional ingredients to optimise texture, viscosity, emulsification, stability, foaming or fat binding properties in a wide range of foodstuffs. Microorganisms (e.g. fungi, yeast, microalgae), insects and cultured (lab-grown) meat are also considered alternative proteins. Today, the challenge exists to produce products competitive on taste and texture of meat, sustainability (i.e. smaller carbon footprint and waste profile), clean label, nutritious and respectful to animal welfare. With so much potential also comes many challenges. Here are 10 important challenges for alternative proteins.

1. Protein Extraction

Within plant-protein technologies, many companies are using protein extraction methods to achieve high protein products (e.g. isolates, concentrates). The challenge here is  to use techniques that require less electrical energy, water consumption and waste water. Many companies are actively looking for green solutions that will allow them to replace commonly used hazardous chemicals (e.g. hexane) with GRAS (Generally Recognised as Safe) solvents, to create protein products with desirable functionalities. Further development is needed across the board to ensure safe and cost effective protein extraction methods. 

2. Ingredients

Never ending improvement of protein products and consumer health awareness are challenging companies to use natural alternatives to ingredients such as fat, sugar, salt, binders (methylcellulose), stabilisers, thickeners, natural flavours and colour additives, and many more. While many solutions are being developed, they need to prove their value as a crucial ingredient, so as not to be easily replaced but rather guarantee their place on the market amongst other innovations. 

3. Taste & Texture

Consumers expect an authentic experience from the first bite and throughout the entire food experience. This is even more the case with alternative proteins that aim to mimic the taste and texture of meat by providing a firm, cohesive and juicy mouthfeel. For others (e.g. dairy alternatives), the goal is more aligned with a taste experience that delights consumers with creaminess or another sensation in the mouth. Regardless, many products in the space still struggle with off-taste and unusual consistency. Getting this absolutely right is a big opportunity for the alternative protein companies in the coming years. 

4. Clean Label

“Clean label” is a large goal for food tech, creating ‘healthy’ products, free from artificial additives or preservatives. Consumer awareness in clean label products is growing and consumers want ingredient lists they can actually understand. The key to success here will be simplicity. Products should have recognisable, short and easy to understand ingredient lists for the purpose of both clean label and allergen advice.

5. Regulations

Regulations are a hurdle for many groundbreaking technologies and it’s certainly the case with alternative proteins. It is a time consuming and capital intensive process that often is not well understood by companies. As an example, fermentation technologies must meet GMP (Good Manufacturing Practices) and be CFR (Code of Federal Regulations) 211 compliant. However, regulation is very dependent on the strain. In regard to cell-based meat, despite seeing the first cell-cultured meat from Eat Just hitting Singaporean supermarket shelves, regulators aren’t making big steps in allowing these products in other regions of the world. 

6. Scale

Scaling alternative proteins might not face a smooth road given the potential issues with supply chains, especially concerning raw materials (like we’re seeing now Russia’s war in Ukraine). Scaling could also prove challenging for cell-based meat, where technology simply has never achieved or been tested on an industrial scale, meaning growth will be capital intensive. On the other hand, looking specifically at fermentation, there are many physical and chemical limitations of the systems. There are also many process dependent parameters that must all be managed and optimised before scaling (e.g. oxygen transfer rate, heating/cooling, mixing, pressure, solubility of gases, foaming, tank/fermenter aspect ratio, sourcing and optimising feedstocks/media components, fermentation by-products (inhibitory activity), cleaning, equipment fouling/failure, CMO/CRO – incompatibilities with the process and equipment). These need to be addressed to ensure minimal hindrance to growth trajectories of alternative proteins.  

7. Contamination

Contamination is a potential challenge for all food products, but especially for fermentation and cell-based meat. Cell-based meat has no immune system or response to pathogens meaning that innovation to protect products from bacteria and viruses on industrial scales is much needed. Cultivated meat production will need to take place in aseptic, Class 8 clean rooms (enclosed space, purified oxygen flow, hooded workers), which could prove challenging on industrial scales. Considering the consequences, contamination during the fermentation process could change the chemical nature of nutrients, making them non-utilisable for fermentation or reduce the yield of a product. This is largely a result of the microbes that contaminate the process utilising most of the nutrients in the fermentation media, making them less available to the fermentation organism. Contamination can also change the pH of media resulting in an adverse effect on the products and causing a possible foaming problems. 

8. GMO

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are one of the most controversial subjects to regulatory oversight in food systems today. GMO labels largely influence customer decisions in food purchases, especially in European markets. Most researchers claim that GMOs in foods are safe for human consumption and offer higher nutritional value and other benefits. At the same time, many consumers have negative connotations to GMO on product labels. Genetic modifications may be seen by consumers as contamination due to intervention in DNA, which can generate aversion to such products. The consequence of which explicates why people feel more opposite to GMO and create bad marketing around it*. That raises the question: If an alternative protein company is to have global success, must it really be 100% GMO free?

9. Price

Pricing alternative proteins is a challenge but could be one of the largest drivers for market traction in the future. Without the subsidies seen across meat markets, alternative proteins can be expensive by comparison. Many alternative protein solutions are energy intensive, further driving up costs. As an example, within fermentation, an in depth economic analysis to estimate CAPEX (capital expenditure) as well as the total OPEX (operating expenditure) is needed. Pilot plants are often excellent ways to trial production and costs associated with manufacturing. However, as pilot plants are also one of the most expensive aspects within product development, they’re frequently outsourced. This in turn leads to issues with compatibility, process control and contamination. This is especially the case with liquid/submerged fermentation in contrast to dry fermentation. 

10. Consumer Acceptance

Two notable drivers of acceptance of alternative proteins are taste and health. A scientific study from Wageningen University discussed this matter around 5 alternative proteins (plant-based proteins, pulses, algae, insects, and cultured meat). The research concluded that acceptance of plant-based products is the highest, while insect-based protein and cultured meat are of lower acceptance. Nevertheless, consumers will need to be open to consuming not only plant-based products, but also insect-based, single cell proteins, and cell-based products to overcome the challenges of our global food system. The idea still exists that food should be grown on a field, even in the case of animal-protein where greenhouse gas, land, water and energy use are far higher. Significant education and awareness will be required if perceptions are to shift and this shift is needed rapidly. It may be up to the alternative protein brands to lead this perception shift themselves, as we’ve seen with vegan burger companies, plant-based milk company Oatly and others. If acceptance around alternative proteins can shift faster, this sector will thrive.

Understanding these challenges

Upon reflection, plant-based proteins are one of the more developed alternative protein technologies, yet still face the challenges of clean label, intensive processing, texture, flavour and off-taste. On the other hand, price is not such a big issue here, as with the case of cultural meat, which faces the major time consuming issues connecting to large-scale production. Furthermore, fermentation derived protein technology has to deal with many system limitations, as well as with regulatory approvals, such as with cell-cultured products. Ultimately, staying within the planetary boundaries and under 2 degrees warming relies on multiple strategies. Alternative proteins face many challenges, but are promising in being one of the bigger solutions going forward with the aim to reach a nutritionally healthy, safe, efficient, affordable, sustainable, and inclusive food system.