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What is the protein of the future?

VIEW: Sustainable, nutritious and delicious. Scientists need to step up their efforts to meet this urgent need.

by William R. Aimutis 

In the last few years, media coverage has highlighted the need for most people to eat less meat, both for their own health and to reduce the burden our food system places on the environment. This sounds like a simple message. But the best solution to the perfect diet of the future is more complex than it might seem at first glance. Meat and milk contain important nutritional factors, and many consumers love their taste.

So what will we eat in the future?

I’m the executive director of the North Carolina Food Innovation Lab, which is funded by the North Carolina state legislature and works with food processing companies to develop and scale plant-based foods. One of our areas of focus is helping companies fine-tune and bring to market alternative protein products such as plant-based burgers at our pilot plant. For example, we helped develop Todays chicken nuggets and Memore, a powder focused on cognitive health.

Through my job, I can see that foods like this have the potential to play a huge role in feeding humanity a nutritious, sustainable future. I can also see how much room there is for improvement.

Global protein demand will be a challenge in the 21st century. Alongside the boom, with the world population expected to reach 10 billion people by 2100, we will see an increase in the wealthy population who crave and can afford high protein foods. This will put pressure for more sustainable protein production.

Meat is an excellent source of protein and provides all the essential amino acids humans need. Red meats provide iron and vitamin B12 to protect against anemia. Egg proteins provide amino acids with antioxidant properties that can help fight all manner of conditions, including vascular disease, cancer, and Alzheimer’s. While some skeptics have questioned the value of cow’s milk and dairy products in recent years, research shows that they aid growth and bone density and may even protect against some cancers; Babies and children given only plant-based alternatives such as almond milk may experience nutritional deficiencies and health problems such as kidney stones. Of course, eating too much red meat can cause adverse effects such as high cholesterol. And the creation of animal food products consumes a lot of land, water and energy per calorie, putting a heavy burden on the planet.

Plants are less burdensome on the environment (although they can still have a big impact). But to get the recommended daily intake of essential amino acids and nutrients from plants, people need to eat a wide variety of foods, from beans and lentils to peas, leafy greens and more. This can be challenging at times.

To satisfy people’s cravings for meat, alternative protein sources have entered the market that aim to mimic the texture of meat while balancing nutritional needs and reducing the environmental load: primarily pea, rice and mung, and legume proteins and soy protein, respectively, such as the Beyond and Impossible burger patties. These alternative proteins are a great idea, with the potential to help shift the developed world’s diet away from excessive meat consumption. For example, they may promote resilience, an increasingly popular dietary option where people still eat meat but eat less meat.

But so far, alternative proteins have largely underperformed. Meat consumption in the U.S. is thought to have dropped by a modest amount in 2022, but Americans still eat a lot of meat and there is huge room for growth in alternative proteins. In 2022, the global plant-based alternative meat industry was valued at $7.9 billion, compared to the global meat market value of $1.3 trillion.

Making a good alternative protein with desirable color, taste, and texture is much more difficult than most people realize. Several dozen companies are now experimenting with ways to produce alternative proteins from different sources. Over the last half century, developers have focused on soybean and wheat gluten as the main plant-based protein source. However, many people dislike the taste of soy or are concerned about consuming estrogen-like compounds; others need or want to avoid gluten.

Over the past decade, developers’ focus has shifted to pea protein: The pea protein market is currently valued at $213 million and is expected to grow to $1.14 billion by 2029. Other legumes are also noteworthy. Next on the list will probably be chickpeas because their flavor is milder and their concentrates have good foaming and gelling properties. And further on, insects and algae like seaweed will likely become more common protein choices.

However, there are great difficulties. For starters, to pair high-protein meats, these products should contain 60 percent to 80 percent protein in terms of calories. For example, it is extremely difficult to find the right processes to extract so much protein from algae and insects. Until now, the main commercial products made from insects are meals or meals, whose protein content often falls below 60 percent. Many herbs, including peas and soy, have a bitter “beany” quality that people dislike. Chemists have created taste blockers that camouflage or hide those tastes by interacting with the taste buds or by blocking the regions on molecules that cause bad tastes. Products also need to be bonded to oil or water to hold their shape and provide the right texture. Plant-based dairy alternatives need to froth to perform well for baristas.

There is much more that can be done. Several large companies genetically select or modify plants to produce better protein. Their aim is to achieve a wider distribution of essential amino acids such as lysine in amounts that can compete with animal proteins. Global farmers can expand their crops and crops to fill the protein supply chain, especially in sub-Saharan African countries. And the food scientists in my team are working on improved methods to extract protein from plants, algae, and insects and make the results taste good and feel great in the mouth. A final option is to culture meat cells in the laboratory with all the nutrition of the meat but with less concern for animal welfare and (hopefully) the environment.

From start to finish, it will be difficult to ensure that these products are truly sustainable. The production of plant-based protein products certainly uses less land, but it also uses plenty of steel, water and energy – it’s hard to know if all of this is factored into the environmental lifecycle analyzes of proprietary products. Bühler Group, a Swiss company focused on building food processing equipment, has announced aggressive targets to halve both energy use and food waste. Other manufacturers in this industrial sector will surely follow suit.

I believe the future will include many alternative protein products, most of them hybrid products containing a mix of protein from sources including meat, soy, chickpeas, insects and more. I still eat meat and will continue to eat it. But now I also enjoy plant-based alternatives.

Like many Americans, I want my food to be tasty, nutritious, and better for the environment. There is much room for improvement in alternative proteins to achieve these goals.

10.1146/knowable-012523-1

This article was originally published Known Journal, an independent journalism initiative from Annual Reviews. Sign up for the newsletter.