Alternative proteins: Understanding the promises and risks of your meatless Mondays
Author: Jordan Stacks
Achieving adequate protein levels is an essential component of a healthy diet, and animal protein consumption can improve the health of the malnourished. However, as the population grows, the growth in demand and consumption of animal protein brings to light the global health and environmental challenges that livestock production places on our food systems. To create a more equitable and sustainable global food system and meet the growing demands for more protein sources, solutions involving emerging technological innovations, like alternative proteins, could help mitigate these challenges.
Alternative proteins are protein sources that are a sustainable replacement for proteins derived from animals. Food scientists derive alternative proteins from plants, insects, microorganisms, and animal cell cultures. The alternative protein market is growing rapidly. There are many promising alternatives to animal-protein products such as plant-based dairy products, fungal protein, cultured meat, and insect-based products.
Unlike animal-derived proteins, alternative proteins can respond to the increase in protein demand. They promise the potential to improve health, environmental and animal welfare issues and advance the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). At the same time, they do not come without risks and may have (yet unknown) unintended consequences. Understanding some of the benefits and controversies surrounding alternative proteins may become helpful with deciding what you should eat on Meatless Mondays.
Evolving consumer and market preferences
The global alternative protein market expects to reach $17.9 billion by 2025. This growth can be attributed to the shift in consumers becoming more health-conscious and demanding products aligned with their ethical beliefs. Due to the growing awareness of the environmental and health benefits of cutting back on meat consumption, companies in the food industry have responded by providing more innovative food products created with alternative proteins. Scientists make these proteins using various methods through plant-based (e.g., fungi and soy-based products) and cell-based (e.g., lab-grown meat products) approaches. New alternative protein food companies such as Impossible Foods, Beyond Meat, and Oatly have emerged and obtained global reach and success through their products that they develop to mimic the taste and look of animal-based proteins. Many restaurants and global fast-food chains (like Burger King and Kentucky Fried Chicken) have also gotten on board with the trend by expanding their menus to included meatless protein options. Barclays analysts even predicted that the alternative meats market could reach over $140 billion over the next decade and capture 10% of the $1.4 trillion global meat industry. The US even experienced a spike in alternative protein sales with the coronavirus pandemic.
Promising impactful benefits on humans, animals, and the planet
In order to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, global food systems will need to transform to help accomplish goals regarding environmental, social and economic challenges. Alternative proteins can help accelerate this transformation through the following impactful benefits:
If we replaced 10-15% of global animal meat consumption with alternative proteins by 2030, the world would see a reduction in global greenhouse emissions, a reduction in water use, and we could save 250-400 million hectares of free land. In addition, by freeing land used for livestock farming, we can reduce deforestation. Research conducted by Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat on their products hold up these environmental benefits.
Public health and safety benefits
Switching from animal protein to alternative proteins has been marked to reduce the negative health impacts of consuming animal food products. Heavy consumption of animal proteins, especially red meat, has been linked with contributing to many detrimental health problems such as obesity, heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and premature death. Some research states that alternative proteins have comparable levels of zinc and protein to animal meat. However, some researchers have found them to be more nutrient-dense than animal meat with higher vitamin A, calcium, and iron levels. Incorporating more alternative proteins in diets has also been linked to reducing diet-related mortality by 5%.
Unlike its opposition, the meat industry is known for overusing antibiotics. According to the UN, this overuse has resulted in millions of people being resistant to antibiotics, which has created a global health emergency. Also, consuming more alternative proteins like cell-cultured meat reduces the risk of contracting foodborne pathogens or contaminants due to the highly controlled and sterile environment needed for the cell culture process. Then insects utilised as an alternative protein can provide high nutritional value and lessen the risk of transmitting zoonotic infections to humans and animals.
Animal welfare benefits
A primary driver for increased usage of alternative proteins over animal proteins is the growing number of customers (especially amongst the Millennial and Gen-Z generations in developed countries) looking to avoid livestock and possible animal cruelty with factory farms. Alternative proteins, like cultured meat, can give consumers concerned with the ethical implications of the use and treatment of animals for food production the opportunity to experience the best of both worlds by buying products that are similar to animal meat but come without the weight of animal welfare. Meat alternatives also can benefit animal welfare by reducing reliance on industrial agriculture.
Are they worth the risks and challenges?
Cultural and economic obstacles
Culture and economic factors have presented obstacles for alternative proteins in their ability to garner demand in lower- and middle-income countries. The overall appeal of alternative proteins is less in these countries because meat and livestock play a more significant role in their culture (sometimes signalling status and wealth) and economic stability-making it harder for alternative proteins to penetrate these markets.
Potential health risks
Due to the highly processed nature of alternative proteins, many people believe that alternative proteins pose significant health risks. The potential risks from high processing compounded with the unfamiliar ingredients present in many alternative meats have led some nutritionists to advise against them. There is also a possibility of alternative meat proteins to lack in key nutrients needed for good health, which people can receive from consuming animal meat. Also, shifting to alternative proteins from animal proteins increases the risk of becoming exposed to chemical contaminants and developing food allergies.
Negative impact on the livestock industry
The increase in the production of alternative proteins is a real threat to the livestock industry. Alternative proteins substantially threaten the livelihoods of livestock communities by reducing the need for livestock production and increasing unemployment. This reduction disproportionally impacts lower-income communities‘ ability to access food and obtain economic stability.
Governance strategies to mitigate potential risks
By advocating for public and private stakeholders to invest more into alternative proteins for R&D and marketing, alternative proteins have the ability to contribute more to the public and the environment. Greater investments into this emerging technology would further help with improving production processing, ingredients, and product quality (in presentation, taste, and texture), which could also attract more consumers to try alternative protein products. In addition, more investments in marketing could benefit the technology by having the ability to reach more communities through public health campaigns on its benefits and educate them on the importance of eating more sustainable foods.
Companies could mitigate the potential risks involving the public not understanding these alternative protein foods’ nutritional value by improving their transparency with consumers. Companies can promote transparency through clear nutritional labelling on alternative food products. Lacking nutritional information on alternative protein products creates health risks, discourages consumers from purchasing and encourages distrust in advertised dietary and health benefits. By working towards more transparency, consumers will have the ability to understand more about the food they are eating and stimulate trust in the technology.
Implementing government regulations
Government regulations are essential in keeping the public safe from false claims and potential health and safety risks. Regulations encourage innovation in quality and standards amongst alternative protein companies that fall within the public’s interest, resulting in consumers feeling more comfortable transitioning to using their products.
Facilitating future responsible development
Transforming our global food systems and generating ways for people to access healthy, nutritious, affordable, and sustainable foods is crucial to human, economic, and environmental development-which must involve all stakeholders working together to do so. However, despite the potential risks, alternative proteins represent an excellent opportunity to encourage healthy eating and sustainability within our food system.
Jordan Stacks is currently studying for her MSc Business Analysis and Strategic Management at the Alliance Manchester Business School, and she holds a Bachelors in Operations Management and Supply Chain. Her interests lie in sustainable development issues along with consulting.
An earlier version of this blog was prepared for BMAN73592 Global Challenges, Emerging Technologies and Governance, Alliance Manchester Business School, The University of Manchester.