Futuristic Food Boom
“The Plant-Based Meat Substitute Have Scaled-up Into One of the Fastest Growing Markets in the Food Tech Industry.”
With growing awareness of the negative health and environmental impacts of the meat and dairy industry there has been a growing demand for alternative protein sources in the past few years, making room for an emerging food technology market. The COVID-19 pandemic has further accelerated the shift in consumer trends towards plant-based and alternative protein sources with food techs raising $18.1 billion and cell-based agricultural startups raising $1.6 billion in 2020.1 In the first wave of the pandemic alone, sales of vegan meat alternatives rose to triple-digit growth rates with predictions of considerable ongoing investment in the long-term.1 Companies like Impossible Meat and Beyond Burger are at the forefront of this emerging trend with their plant-based meat alternatives already being served at large-scale fast food chains and grocery stores around the world. What was once a niche product made solely for vegans and vegetarians has now scaled-up into one of the fastest growing markets in the food tech industry that does not look like it’s slowing down anytime soon.
“Are You Ready for the Lab-to-Table Cuisine?”
Featured in a February New York Times article, journalist Joel Stein wrote about his experience hosting a dinner party using only ‘lab-to-table’ products that had to be animal-free, environmentally friendly, and “made in a sci-fi impressive manner.”2 Not only was the food held to these standards, everything from clothes, jewelry, and skin care had to be up to par with this futuristic technology. One of the first things Stein learned while preparing the meal is that there are a lot of complicated ways to make basic things. Beyond Meat’s approach to making their vegan burgers involves mixing a whole host of plants together to come up with a simple burger-like patty. Another method of producing plant-based protein alternatives involves inserting DNA into algae, bacteria, or fungi which releases a desired protein such as heme, which is an iron, blood-like soy protein spit out by DNA-manipulated yeast. The newest technology uses stem cells to grow real animal cells, similar to the process of growing human organs. By taking lab-grown muscle and fat and layering them in a certain way, companies can make edible substances that closely resemble various animal products such as steak, ground beef, chicken, fish, and more.2
Stein went to great lengths to make his dinner party environmentally friendly and mostly lab grown. Before the food even came out, he used face cream made from fermented spider silk proteins, eye cream made with human collagen that had been fermented from microflora, “unleather” coasters made from mycelium, whiskey made without grains or barrels, and jewelry with lab-made diamonds. For the meal, he started with a salad that had completely vegan bacon, egg and labneh, then served ravioli with a plant-based cream cheese filling, and vegan ice cream made from DNA-tweaked fungi for dessert. All in all, Stein found the dinner to be a fun and delicious success.
“The Growth of Alternative Protein Products Has Been Led by Non-Vegetarians.”
For Stein, and those living in Southern California, it is not too hard to imagine switching to a vegan diet when there is an abundance of plant-based options at their fingertips. For those who do not have that same access, these futuristic sci-fi like protein alternatives might make it easier (and more fun) to cut out or reduce animal products from their diet. One of the most promising, and surprising, results that came out of the 2020 statistics is that 89% of the growth of alternative protein products has been led by non-vegetarians.2 This is significant because it shows that demand is coming from a much wider range of consumers rather than just those who had already cut animal products out of their diets.
“Plant-Based Alternatives Are Appealing to the Broader Public.”
Whether it be for environmental concerns, health reasons, or out of pure curiosity, these plant-based alternatives are appealing to the broader public and are paving the way for a more environmentally friendly source of capital in the food tech industry. However, on the other hand, it seems insane to go the way of this dinner party, considering how easy it is to switch to a largely plant based, minimally processed diet, which has well documented health benefits, is good for the environment, and is less expensive.
Juliette Frank is a UCLA student majoring in Public Affairs with a minor in Food Studies. Her interests include the interrelation between food systems, digestive health and the environmental impacts of food production.