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!

Healthy and sustainable food for sustained growth

Iñigo Charola, CEO of Biotech Food, collaborates as an ambassador in the KM Zero Food Innovation Hub which objective is to support the development of alternative proteins that produce healthy diets in sustainable food systems, such as cultured meat.

KM Zero Food Innovation Hub promotes the transformation towards a healthier, sustainable, resilient and fairer food system. Our CEO Íñigo Charola collaborates as an ambassador of this project, which is joined by leaders from all over the world who, through innovation, work on the most disruptive solutions to the challenges of the food sector.

The network of ambassadors is made up of people who are shaping the near future of food. A near future in which the development and production of alternative proteins such as cultured meat play a key role in reducing environmental impact and protecting animal welfare. As Charola explains in an interview with elmundoempresarial, “the idea of contributing to the fight against climate change was one of the motivations that led us to create the company, because, in addition to science, we are interested and concerned about the environment and sustainability”.

But what exactly is KM Zero Food Innovation Hub, and why does Biotech Food support the initiative?

KM Zero Food Innovation Hub explores and works in the same terms of our project: sustainability, food innovation, climate change, environmental impact… The hub, based in Valencia, pursues objectives that involve all of us in seeking new answers to the biggest human challenge: to provide a growing world population with healthy solutions that come from sustainable food systems. That means transforming the way we produce, distribute, consume and reuse food. KM Zero understands that the challenges can only be successfully met by collaborating and investing more in innovation, which must drive the transformation of the food sector, and precisely what we are working on and developing at Biotech Food.

To seek and achieve a better, more sustainable planet and respond to the challenge of feeding an ever-growing world population, KM Zero identifies, connects and encourages collaboration between people and initiatives that are driving change by working for better food. This food innovation hub works with startups, companies and the community, attending various events and conferences on technology and innovation in the food and beverage industry. 

Access to the food tech entrepreneurial ecosystem

Km Zero offers these startups support, experience, knowledge and resources for the projects to evolve and succeed through a four-month mentoring programme, which provides them with a multidisciplinary team of experts in the world of food, industry contacts and resources for generating impact. One of these startups is Trillions, a company that offers cricket protein nutritional supplements. Gabriel and Albert are the two young entrepreneurs and visible heads of this project, which uses cricket flour with pea protein and natural ingredients to formulate new products that improve sports performance.

The innovation hub also supports companies in the food industry with innovation strategy projects, co-creation and access to the food tech entrepreneurial ecosystem. Close to the community, KM Zero generates and shares information and trends in the food sector, as well as offering educational experiences related to innovation and the future of food.

In terms of conferences and events, the hub participates in several of the most relevant activities in the sector, such as the Food 4 Future World Summit, the largest European conference on technology and innovation in the food and beverage industry.

In June, Íñigo Charola attended the Food 4 Future Expo FoodTech 2021 international trade fair to help respond to the major challenges facing the food sector. BioTech Foods was one of the 20 companies selected by the organisation, from among more than 2,000 food-tech startups, to present their progress to the international community, and to place the development and production of alternative proteins, which Charola and his team have been working on since 2017, at the centre of the debate.

KM Zero is also participating in the Ftalks Food Summit, which brings together the key players in the food ecosystem transformation. Focused on sustainability and health, the event serves as an inspiration for entrepreneurs who meet the top global leaders in the transformation of the food system.

How much does the name of food influence its consumption?

Can you imagine going back two or three generations and inviting our grandparents or great-great-grandparents to eat a hamburger? What would their reaction be? They might not even know what kind of food we are talking about and, if they did, they would probably not be very receptive as they would associate it with fast food far removed from their traditions. Perhaps if we replaced the term hamburger with Russian steak or minced beef, their reaction would be very different, won’t they?

It is just one example of the extent to which the name we give to food can influence our decision to eat it or not. The hamburger has had a very particular history in Spain, maybe because of its gastronomy culture. In the beginning, it was considered a fast food product. Today it has found its way onto the menus of many restaurants willing to compete for the best hamburger in the place, made with very high-quality meat and even turned into a signature dish in which chefs of all styles display their creativity.

How many people have ‘mistakenly’ tasted a ‘steak tartar’ without knowing 100% that they were dealing with a raw meat or fish dish? Would they have done so if it had called only ‘raw steak’?

We constantly make linguistic associations for socio-cultural reasons that influence our perception of things and, above all, create certain prejudices in the face of unfamiliar and novel products that, simply because they are new, we consider harmful to our health. We are reluctant to change, and sometimes this is a barrier in the food sector as in others. However, the sustainability of our food system today faces challenges that require immediate responses.

The production needed to feed the world’s growing population leads to overexploitation of natural resources that take an ever-increasing toll on our environment. Relying on the benefits of technology applied to the food sector is more necessary than ever to respond to international commitments such as the European Green Deal. As the demand for protein increases, there is an urgent need to look for nutrients and alternatives to diversify food options for the global population. The cultivation of animal cells and the extraction of plant protein for food production are some of these innovative solutions that, thanks to biotechnology, allow us to minimize the risks of animal-borne diseases and reduce the pollution generated by our current food system. The cultured meat we work on at Ethicameat offers an animal-friendly system and contributes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and the use of water and soil, all of which are essential resources for our survival. The aim of this, and other alternative sources of protein, is to make products available to the consumer that allows us to have a more balanced, and consequently more sustainable, food production system.

In the US, it has been agreed to call meat produced from seafood cells cell-cultured. It has been recently announced by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) after a long discussion with the major players in the industry. As early as the end of 2020, the FDA sent a request to companies producing cell-cultured meat or seafood to propose a possible designation. A study found that both the terms “cell-grown” and “cell-based” would adequately inform consumers and would neutrally present the product.

The European Parliament rejected an amendment calling for limiting designations such as ‘hamburger’, ‘sausage’, ‘steak’ and ‘escalope’ to traditional meat products only in October last year. The intention was to prohibit their use to refer, for example, to plant-based foods in these forms, such as the veggie burgers already on the market. The fact that plant-based products are coming onto the market in popular and internationally widespread formats such as sausages or hamburgers is, in our view, intended precisely to take advantage of the knowledge that we as consumers have of this type of food. Extending the typology of a product format established in our cultures, such as the hamburger or sausage, should not concern us as much as the environmental impact generated by its production.

There is a need for a clear, science-based regulatory system that supports new food production techniques, allows greater consumer choice, and improves food safety. Food sustainability must be underpinned by innovation, so any unjustified vetoes or language barriers to new products that aim for sustainability and progress in our food should be avoided.