At the forefront of food innovation
The Future Food-Tech Summit held in London showcased a plethora of new technologies, with a specific focus on building more sustainable food systems. Younger consumers in particular are increasingly trying to make more sustainable choices, and while plant-based offerings have become widespread, there is still more work to be done to truly mimic the original protein. Precision fermentation featured heavily at the summit, with companies on the path to replicating dairy and egg proteins without the use of animals. Cultured meat and fat, fungi and algae were also showcased. The challenge for all these technologies is for the final product to replicate the original as closely as possible. In addition, in many cases there are regulatory hurdles, but there is also an important scaling issue if these alternatives are to become viable and affordable options.
Alternatives or successors?
So far sustainable and/or vegan alternatives have aimed to mimic the original product as closely as possible across the spectrum of senses, with taste and texture the key attributes to match, but appearance and nutritional profile are also important. Over the last decade, there has been a widespread trend towards cleaner labels within the consumer sector. Vegan alternatives have been criticised for being ‘overprocessed’ and for containing additives, thus making them ‘less healthy’, although the additives are necessary to deliver the desired taste and texture. As consumers increasingly switch towards more vegan alternatives, the industry could start to move away from trying to provide directly comparative products, and towards providing a new generation of ‘meat successors’.
Regulatory hurdles to overcome
Most plant-based alternatives currently on the market are not classed as novel foods, but a number of products showcased at the summit were produced using precision fermentation or cellular agriculture, and therefore are classed as novel foods, which require approval in most jurisdictions before they can be marketed to consumers. The regulatory process varies by jurisdiction and by class of product, with more complex novel foods generally requiring a more involved regulatory process. For example, it is currently unclear if cultured meat will require separate regulatory approval for each distinct product.
Scaling to reduce cost
Most new food products are being developed in labs, with scientists and process engineers trying to optimise the end product for the best consumer experience. If these products are to be made widely available to consumers, however, they will need to be produced at scale and at a reasonable cost. Cost parity is generally seen to be a desirable level for the new alternatives, with consumers unlikely to pay a significant premium for an alternative product. As companies start to scale up their processes, costs are likely to fall, but they will encounter challenges. As an example, cellular agriculture is currently limited to 20,000 litre bio-reactors due to cell morphology, while typical industrial bio-reactors are 200,000 litres.
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