The growth of population, coupled with our expansive lifestyles, is rapidly depleting natural resources on the planet. If we continue to put off the necessary steps to be taken, the human race will face a cataclysmic future riddled with the disasters of global warming, famines and desertification.
Meat, in particular, has emerged as an environmental problem. Not only does meat require a lot of land and of water, but it produces way more greenhouse gas emissions per calorie than most foods. Red meat is especially problematic, both for the environment and your health. But a change may be a-coming, in the form of alternative meat.
According to Statista Global Consumer Survey, 86% of people in 39 countries consume meat in their diet. This growing demand for meat consumption cannot be met solely by livestock due to a lack of enough land and water resources. The livestock, already occupying nearly 80% of global agricultural land, already has a large environmental impact, contributing to acid rains, acidification of ecosystems and accounting for 14.5% of global greenhouse gases.
It doesn’t stop here, as a massive increase in worldwide meat consumption is expected, which is going to result in further environmental deterioration including reduced biodiversity. So do we have a plan for meat?
Seeking alternatives is a necessity
The increasing global demand for meat combined with the need to minimise the negative environmental effects of livestock necessitates an alternative to traditional meat production methods. People are willingly shifting to a greener lifestyle, and are also interested in exploring healthy and environmentally safe alternatives to natural meat. But the crucial question is, are we there yet?
Meat analogues and substitutes are imitations of real meat in appearance, flavour and texture and are offered as alternatives to real meat. With the passage of time, food industries have developed cultivated meats, insect, and plant-based meat analogues. Here are three main routes.
1. Plant-based meat analogues
Protein-rich bioresources including wheat proteins, soybean, fungi and oilseeds have been used since centuries to mimic animal meat and have come to be known as plant-based meat analogues. Tofu, Tempeh, and Quorn have long been staples of some cuisines, and the range of these options is continuously expanding.
Plant-based analogues are an appealing alternative for people with health issues, because these substitutes contain little or no cholesterol and more fibre than animal meat. They’re also very important for people not eating meat for ethical reasons, or simply for those looking for alternatives.
2. Edible insects as meat substitute
Insects are believed to be the largest group of organisms on the planet with extreme diversity, making them a viable alternative for animal meat. Edible insects such as grasshoppers, caterpillars, and crickets are generally considered to have more proteins than even meat itself.
The digestibility, mineral and vitamins profile and bioavailability of edible insects appear to be promising however it varies depending on the insects’ gender, species and growing environment. However, for many consumers, insects are unpalatable, at least for now.
3. Cultured meat envisioned as the future of the meat industry
It is a genuine form of meat produced through in vitro cell cultures, by deriving cells from live animals and using tissue engineering techniques without having to rear entire animals. Cultured meat is compatible with the consumer preference for cruelty-free food products and brings almost the same texture and flavour to the consumer’s plate as real meat.
Proponents of this method (several factories already exist, and in Singapore, cloned meat is already legal) suggest that cultured meat could be cheaper, more sustainable, and more customizable than “regular” meat.
How far have we come in the journey of substitution of meat?
The market for meat replacements is growing quickly. Textured vegetable protein, prepared by these methods, holds the biggest marketplace among meat analogues. The TVP market size is expected to reach $ 2,139.6 million by 2027.
From a consumer standpoint, people have begun to see meat substitution as a viable option. People in Europe are shifting to legumes as meat substitutes, and there has been a remarkable increase in the growth of meat substitutes in Europe for this reason.
The texture of plant-based meat has been a concern for many and advances in technology have led to the use of methods like spinning, thermoplastic extrusion and steam texturization for the structural organisation of plant protein. Basically, the main argument against meat replacements is their taste and texture — but that’s improved dramatically over the past few years.
The colour of natural meat comes from oxymyoglobin which converts to metmyoglobin when cooked brown. Tomato paste and beet juice extract have been used in meat substitutes to impart the same colour to meat analogues. Now that the market is evolving, leghemoglobin has been introduced to make meat substitutes look like regular meat. It also imparts the same flavour as myoglobin enhancing the sensory qualities of meat analogues.
Research is being conducted to produce cultivated meats on commercial levels and to use cultured meat for space missions. Companies and governments are increasingly looking towards cultured meat as a reliable alternative, and large-scale production seems to be right around the corner.
The impediments to complete meat substitution
However, there are also challenges in producing acceptable meat substitutes, and more research and developments are required for a smooth transition from animal meat to meat analogues. Here are just some of those challenges.
1. Difficulty in achieving sensory acceptability
Consumer response still shows reluctance to accept plant and insect-based meat analogues because of the product’s sensory characteristics. Especially in the case of insect-based food, consumers may exhibit neophobia — an aversion for the new — and a general dislike for insects.
Sensory evaluation of plant-based food shows that low content of fat in it affects its palatability and that flavours must be added to enhance its taste. With increased awareness and demand for organic and natural foods, this is viewed as a negative factor in favour of meat substitutes.
According to studies, the consumer market is not ready to introduce lab prepared meat in their diet because of the artificial methods of preparation and general lack of awareness about cultivated meat.
2. Nutritional limitations
When the advertising agencies label meat analogues as meat-like, they create the false perception that perhaps meat analogues can also replace animal meat in nutritional demand.
Plant-based meat substitutes, according to the studies, lack Vitamin B12, zinc and Iron which are naturally present in animal meat. PBMA also lacks essential amino acids found in natural meat such as lysine, cysteine, and methionine. However, products may be fortified with the lacking nutrients, though this is not often the case currently.
3. More expensive than natural meat
Despite growing meat analogues markets, the average person cannot reach for these meat substitutes in a grocery aisle, because it puts a strain on their pocket to buy these meat substitutes, even if they prefers them to natural meat.
4. Safety concerns about anti-nutrients and need of more research
The addition of several flavour additives and the presence of insect-based anti-nutrients such as chitin, toxic substances like cryptotoxics and plant-based anti-nutrients like protease inhibitors, lectins, and polyphenols warrant additional research to back-up their use. Allergic cross-reactive proteins of arthropods have been discovered and further studies are needed to provide more data on food allergies.
Ultimately, meat analogues are relatively new and we don’t have all the information on them, but things have been progressing rapidly.
The bottom line
With the US market value of meat substitutes expected to reach $3 billion by 2027, and the global meat substitutes market already at around $9 billion, we can expect a major growth in this sector. Cultivated meat, plant and meat based analogues look promising for the future of the meat industry. Factories have already been built, products already exist, and we’re now at the stage where alternatives are trying to break into the mainstream.
We aren’t quite there yet, but we aren’t far from a future where we could completely substitute meat with other products. Whether it’s plant-based products, insects, or cultured meat, the replacements are coming.