While the number of vegans and vegetarians globally remains small compared to meat-eaters, there are an increasing number of flexitarian consumers willing to cut down meat consumption and looking for healthier and more sustainable alternatives to meat. Within this space, fermentation is being highlighted as the “new frontier” of protein and a growing number of companies are entering this arena.
Health and environmental concerns drive meat reduction
According to Euromonitor International’s Health and Nutrition Survey 2022, 29.5% of respondents are reducing their consumption of meat and/or animal products in order to improve their diet. While red meat, in general, has been linked to problems with heart health and cholesterol, processed red meat carries an even greater perceived danger to health.
Meat production also has an extremely negative impact on the environment, contributing to climate change. Factors include the vast tracts of land needed to farm cattle, as well as the water necessary to feed the cattle in terms of both pasture and directly to the animals; both take a heavy toll on the earth’s limited resources and result in deforestation. Cattle farming is also known to contribute heavily to greenhouse gas emissions, contributing further to climate change. Climate change has a significant impact on weather patterns and crop production, and potentially negatively impacts the availability of food for the growing global population.
Fermentation: The potential to improve the meat alternative profile
While health and sustainability drive demand for meat substitutes, the often weak sensory appeal remains an important deterrent of consumption. The addition of high levels of salt, fat and seasonings to improve the taste and texture of meat alternatives is also raising concerns regarding the high level of processing that such products undergo and, consequently, regarding their nutritional value.
This challenge has paved the way to fermentation as a possible solution. Companies and research institutions operating in the fermented meat space claim they can better replicate the flavour and texture of animal-based meat while increasing the protein and fibre content of end-products.
On top of that, the method is claimed to offer additional sustainability benefits given that production can be decentralised and is, consequently, more resilient to weather conditions, helping mitigate the vulnerability of food supply to climate change. In addition, the limited land and water resources that fermentation requires renders the technology suitable for accelerating the production of meat alternatives and securing food supply for the growing population. Tackling global hunger remains critical, especially in Asia and Africa.
Limited manufacturing capacity restricts fermentation growth
While there have been several new entrants creating fermentation meat substitute products in recent years, most of these companies are still at pilot stage, with their products yet to hit retail shelves. Since the products are still being trialled internally, the capacity of the companies to produce the sheer volumes needed to meet potential consumer demand remains limited.
Regulations pose another challenge to meat substitute brands reaching consumers, with the question of how to label and market the product a key issue. How different governments regulate meat substitutes around the globe is another consideration. In addition, price remains an obstacle compared to “mainstream” proteins. While meat, and red meat in particular, is expensive compared to other proteins, plant-based meat alternatives are also expensive in comparison to vegetables and pulses that are rich in protein.
Despite the challenges, fermentation-derived meat alternatives have the potential to achieve strong growth and are expected to continue gaining attention, with B2B partnerships and public funding set to play a crucial role in accelerating production and leading to cost efficiency.
The establishment of the Fungi Protein Association in November 2022 – a new trade group for companies that operate in the fermentation of fungi for food products – highlights the growing importance of the technology in food production and is expected to contribute to the commercialisation of fermentation-derived foods, encouraging more players to enter the industry.
For more analysis on the potential for new protein sources, please see the report, New Protein Frontiers: Fermentation in Meat Alternatives.