Alternative proteins are gaining space in the classroom

One of the aims of the academic world is to be one step ahead of society. Access to knowledge in the university environment is a decisive driver of change where, more often than not, the future begins to be defined. It is therefore good news that studies specialising in alternative proteins such as cultured meat are gaining space on international campuses.

Biotechnology is, for several reasons, one of the scientific disciplines being highlighted in the context of the climate emergency and the recent coronavirus pandemic. Behind the vaccines developed against SARS-CoV-2, there is a lot of science but above of biotechnology.

Until the beginning of the 21st century, the most relevant advances in the biotechnology sector have been in genetic engineering and medicine. But beyond the health field, its development extends to other relevant disciplines such as agri-food engineering. It is here that biotechnology can use it to increase food production and supply capacity, one of the main challenges facing our global food system.

The application of biotechnology in the agri-food ecosystem allows for the improvement and creation of healthier, fat-free food, while increasing food safety, as there is no exposure to pathogens. In addition, and given the need to save natural resources, the development of alternative proteins has a much lower environmental impact than other traditional foods.   

In the context of the new academic year, we are optimistic that the food of the future and alternative proteins, such as cultured meat, is gaining ground on university campuses. The study of ‘Alt-Protein’ is a fact in the classroom, and the Agro-Food Tech industry is a growing ecosystem that demands professional profiles increasingly specialised in ‘Future Foods’.

Nanyang Technological University (Singapore)

During the 2021-2022 academic year, students at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore could be taking a course dedicated to exploring new meat alternatives. Entitled “Food of the Future – Introduction to Advanced Meat Alternatives”, the subject is open to third and fourth-year undergraduate science and engineering students and will be coordinated by Professor William Chen, who heads NTU’s Food Science and Technology programme. It is the first university course on future food activation in the Asia-Pacific region.

In collaboration with the Good Food Institute (GFI), the elective aims to give students an overview of the three main pillars of the alternative protein industry: plant, breeding and fermentation technologies. Students will carry out a research project that addresses a real challenge facing the alternative protein industry today. The curriculum will also address the sustainability of alternative proteins and how the industry can contribute to global food security and combat climate change.

Wageningen University (The Netherlands)

A group of graduate students at Wageningen University (WUR), a renowned centre for food technology in the Netherlands, began to wonder why there was no official course that gave a good overview of this protein transformation we are seeing or, as they call it, the alternative protein transition. Now, thanks to their work, and with the support of Dr Guido Sala, Professor of Physics and Physical Chemistry of Food at the WUR, there will soon be a specialised module.

Within alternative proteins, the course aims to train students on plant-based solutions, cell-based meats, fermentation-based technologies and even insect proteins.

These are just a few examples of the first official courses focusing on alternative proteins being launched in the university environment, confirming that awareness and interest in the food of the future have only just begun!

Food 4 Future, alternative proteins at the heart of food innovation

Face-to-face events are back! Food 4 Future – Expo FoodTech 2021, the meeting to transform the food and beverage industry through technological innovation, from June 15 to 17 in Bilbao, has placed the development and production of alternative proteins at the centre of the debate.

After a pandemic that has limited us to the virtual world for many months, the international fair Food 4 Future – Expo FoodTech 2021 had met more than 5,000 people. In addition, it has energetically resumed the search for answers to the great challenges of the food sector: how to optimize processes through technology, how to develop more sustainable and efficient business models, and what are the trends in the production of new foods and ingredients.

The food industry represents 11% of the world’s GDP, with expected growth in demand of 70% by 2025, and technology is an indispensable ally to face all the challenges mentioned above.

Alternative proteins leader experts and companies have had the opportunity to reactivate personal contact in this event in which our CEO Iñigo Charola has also participated. BioTech Foods has been one of the 20 companies selected by the organization, among more than 2,000 food-tech startups, to present their progress to the international community.

The development and production of alternative proteins, including cultured meat, which BioTech Foods has been working on since 2017, is aimed at minimizing the energy expenditure that the meat industry generates, through the high consumption of resources such as water, land or feed used in the production of animal protein.

Iñigo Charola explained the keys and opportunities that the development of cultured meat production from a sample of animal tissue represents for the world food sector. Cell culture in a controlled environment implemented by BioTech Foods makes it possible, in addition to avoiding animal slaughter and raising food safety standards, to achieve an enormous proportion of animal protein of high biological value compared to traditional methods. Thus, cells extracted from a single pig in one year can produce the same kilos of meat as those obtained by slaughtering 400 animals.

The consumer, one of the challenges of alternative proteins

Alongside the significant advances in terms of animal welfare and health, there are also benefits for the environment. In this regard, it is estimated that cultured meat and other alternative proteins will account for between 11 and 22% of total protein in 2035. This will allow us “to save the water that a city like London would consume in 40 years”, reminds the CEO of BioTech Foods.

Faced with this door that food innovation opens for all those projects focused on obtaining new nutrients more sustainably, challenges also arise, such as knowing whether current consumers are prepared for this type of alternative proteins consumption.

Thus, one of the aspects that the debate has brought to light is the necessary exercise of the population to overcome cultural and mental barriers. This should not be an obstacle if we take into account, as Carlos Bald, senior researcher at AZTI – marine and food science and technology centre – reminded us, that “many countries consume insects daily, microalgae have been consumed for thousands of years in different cultures, and fermentation with yeast, fungi and bacteria has been used by human beings since the beginning of time to produce bread, beer, wine, cheese and yoghurt”.

Given that, according to UN data, by 2050 the planet will have 9.5 billion inhabitants, the demand for protein, a basic macronutrient in our diet, will continue to increase exponentially. In this scenario, the role of alternatives based on plants and cell cultures to replace animal products becomes indispensable.

One of the main conclusions of this first edition of Food 4 Future has been that higher consumption of this type of food would mean a health improvement, as well as helping to face the current environmental and animal welfare challenges. In short, Food 4 Future stresses that the food sector must focus on offering an extended value proposition to consumers that guarantee traceability, food safety, the choice of healthy and clean labels and environmental management.