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How to Make Alternative Proteins More Than a Fad

2022. It was the best of times for meat alternatives, it was the worst of times. Many plant-based meat companies expanded into new markets or launched new products, such as Beyond Meat’s steak tips. The FDA cleared Upside Foods’ cultivated (aka cultured or lab-grown) chicken—made from replicating animal cells in vessels similar to those used to brew beer—as safe for human consumption, an industry milestone. The Netherlands announced a 60 million euro investment in cultivated meat, the largest amount invested by a government at the time, with Israel, California, and other governments increasing their support as well. And Israeli startup Believer Meats broke ground on the world’s largest cultivated meat facility, to be built in the US.

Yet at the same time, plant-based meat sales fell substantially, casting doubt on the future of all meat alternatives. As Bloomberg’s Deena Shanker recently reported, U.S. supermarket sales of refrigerated plant-based meats—like Impossible Foods sausage and Beyond Meat burgers—fell about 14% from December 2021 to December 2022, with food services sales of plant-based burgers down as well. To many industry analysts and observers, Shanker writes, “meatless meat…seems less a world-changing innovation than another food trend whose novelty is wearing thin.” Investments in plant-based protein companies were also down in the first half of 2022 compared to 2021, with greater investment in cultivated meat and other alternative protein companies.

There’s nothing inevitable about the alternative meat industry’s growth let alone that of individual products or companies. Alternative meats may fizzle, like the electric car initially did. Despite the high gas prices of the 1970s, the release of concept cars from major auto companies, and private sector interest, electric vehicles never took off in the 20th century. Simply put, the technology didn’t yet meet customer needs. The electric cars of the 1960s and 1970s, for instance, were tiny two-door “glorified golf carts” with a small range and low maximum speed. For the most part, alternative meat products today are similarly lacking. Even company insiders readily acknowledge their products are not nearly identical in taste or texture to animal meats, prices remain higher, and high-quality alternatives for many products like fish filets, chicken breast, pork chops, or steak are non-existent.

Yet, with continued innovation, alternative meats may live up to the hype, just as electric cars have. Breakthroughs in battery technology—driven in large part by government investments in R&D—such as the development of lithium-based batteries enabled the industry’s growth starting in the 2000s. Today, 10% of all new car sales globally are electric.

Fortunately innovation in alternative meat abounds, as demonstrated at February’s XPRIZE Feed the Next Billion Semifinals, in which I participated as a judge.

Launched in late 2020, Feed the Next Billion (FTNB) is a three-year competition to develop animal-free chicken breast and fish filet alternatives that mimic the taste, texture, and other sensory properties of the animal versions while having similar nutritional composition, a minimal environmental impact, and an affordable price. The competition, with a $15 million in prizes for competitors, is primarily sponsored by ASPIRE, a branch of Abu Dhabi’s Advanced Technology Research Council. This large investment in alternative meat from a relatively small government is no anomaly. Beside the United Arab Emirates, other countries such as Qatar, Singapore, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Israel—small, rich and concerned about being dependent on food imports—have invested sizable sums in researching and commercializing meatless meat.

The semi-final judging consisted of a tasting in Abu Dhabi of products from 8 teams: SeaSpire, MeatOurFuture, CellX, TFTAK, The PlantEat, ProFillet, Eternal, and Revo Foods. Other companies also qualified for the semifinal, but pulled out due to disagreements about the competition’s licensing and investment requirements.

As the companies that qualified for the semifinal have demonstrated, there is a lot of progress occurring today in developing structured alternative meats that mimic whole meat cuts.

New School Foods, originally an FTNB semifinalist, just unveiled a product that appears very similar to salmon—pink, translucent, and striated when raw, turning flaky, pale, and opaque when cooked. Other semifinalist qualifiers such as Wild Type have also developed products that could fool some eyes.

Others have developed chicken breast substitutes with long fibers derived from soy, wheat, animal cell cultures, and other ingredients that mimic the sinewy strands of chicken. For instance, CellX, China’s most-funded cultivated meat company, is using 3-D bioprinting and other technologies to develop whole cuts of chicken, pork and other meats. Some of the largest startups in the space, Upside Foods and GOOD Meat have also showcased various products that reportedly look and taste like chicken. These may even be available for purchase soon; FDA recently determined that Upside Foods’ chicken is safe for human consumption. Since 2020, GOOD Meat has been selling cultivated chicken in Singapore, the only country that has approved retail sale, but has also applied for regulatory approval in the United States.

While there has been tremendous progress in simulating the texture and taste of various animal products, there also remains tremendous room for improvement. Some early tasters of cultivated chicken breast have noted a remarkable similarity in taste, but clear differences in appearance and texture.

There is an immense need for government and private sector funding for basic and applied research to improve and bring down costs for a wide range of alternative meats. This is doubly true for cultivated meat. Arguably the pursuit of developing cultivated meat as a commercial product is little more than ten years old. It was only in 2013 that the Dutch scientist Mark Post unveiled the first cultivated burger. The industry has made enormous progress since then, cutting the price over 99.9% since that initial $330,000 burger. But researchers and product developers must further improve texture—making the chicken chewier for instance—and better integrate fat into products, as this often imparts much of the flavor in animal meats. While the cost of cultivated meat production continues to rapidly fall, costs must also come down further; GOOD Meat has said it loses money on each cultivated chicken sale.

Ultimately, researchers and companies are rapidly improving alternative meats, spurred in part by XPRIZE’s $15 million prize. My hope is that the prize will catalyze private sector funding for the companies that participated in the semi-finalist or qualified for it. But this alone is likely insufficient to develop affordable meat alternatives indistinguishable from animal meat. For that, governments’ must provide long-term, risk-tolerant support for research, similar to what they’ve provided to other high-tech industries such as electric vehicles.