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What are alternative proteins?

Around the world, entrepreneurs, chefs and scientists are creating delicious burgers, meatballs and tenders using plant protein, precision fermentation or cell-cultivating technologies. Whether animal-free, bioidentical meat and dairy foods, or plant based food, these protein alternatives allow us to feed a growing world, offering people more options to enjoy our favourite dishes, with a lighter impact on both our health and the environment.

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Featured example: Meetballs by MEET

Plant based meat alternatives

A growing number of food start-ups and established industry players alike are harnessing plants and food technology to create plant based meat products that taste, smell and cook like conventional meat. Pioneering products like Tofurky first launched in the 1980s for people following a meat-free lifestyle. More recently a newer generation of hyper-realistic plant based protein products has emerged, designed to attract a broader audience of omnivores and flexitarians and satisfy even the most avid meat-lovers.

Fundamentally, meat is a combination of proteins, fats, trace minerals and water – nutrients that are also found in plants. Chefs and food scientists derive these same components from plants such as legumes, wheat, oilseeds and vegetables, and combine them with spices, seasonings and other plant derivatives, including starches and common food additives. The result is plant based meats that have the taste, texture and overall experience of meat we’ve come to know and love. These products satisfy growing demand amongst people seeking nutritious and sustainable plant based protein options in familiar, convenient formats.

Growing alternative proteins for a growing world

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Featured example: Wildly Good Spiced Chickpea Burgers

Traditional meat alternatives

Plant based alternatives to meat have existed in some cultures for thousands of years. The earliest examples of tofu-style products were created in China some 2000 years ago, while tempeh, fermented blocks of whole soybeans, has been a staple in Indonesia for centuries. More recent examples made from nuts and cereals emerged at the start of the 20th century, with Sanitarium’s ‘Nut Meat’ first sold in Australian supermarkets in 1912. Traditional meat alternatives are typically composed of whole ingredients, like whole grains, vegetables and legumes. These products are generally marketed to vegetarians and are not designed to replicate meat in taste or appearance. This category includes foods long considered to be meat alternatives and made primarily of one ingredient, including tofu, tempeh and falafel, as well as products that combine whole ingredients, such as a lentil patties or veggie burgers.

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Featured example: Pulled before 'pork' jackfruit sandwich (Getty Images)

Wholefood mimics

Various fruits and vegetables have naturally occurring characteristics that offer a meat-like appearance, texture or utility, making them simple alternatives to conventional meat. These wholefood mimics are becoming increasingly popular in culinary settings for their meaty characteristics. Jackfruit has become more widely used for its textural similarities to pulled pork, and banana flowers are gaining the attention of chefs and consumers for having a flaky texture not unlike fish fillets. Konjac can create a chewy resemblance to prawns, and certain kinds of mushrooms, with their innate umami flavour profile, also become firm and fleshy when cooked or dried.

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Featured example: Cultivated rabbit tart by Vow

Cultivated meat

Cultivated meat, also known as ‘cell-based meat’ or ‘cultured meat’, is meat, but grown directly from cells by mimicking the biological process of growth that occurs within an animal. Cultivated meat and other cultivated products like seafood enable us to create foods directly from animal cells.

A small, almond-size sample of cells from an animal is placed in a controlled environment called a cultivator or a bioreactor. Those cells are then fed nutrients such as proteins, carbohydrates, and fats, allowing the cells to replicate and multiply. Genetic modification isn’t always required. At scale, cultivating meat looks less like a laboratory and more like a beer brewery, with meat grown in large steel cultivator tanks.

The result is cultivated meat, bioidentical to components of conventional meat at the cellular level (fats, muscle) but with reduced risks of pathogens and contributing to zoonotic diseases. Cultivated meat has the potential to be produced with a much smaller environmental footprint. 

The first and only cultivated meat product on the market to date is cultivated chicken made by GOOD Meat, which was approved for sale in Singapore in December 2020. 


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Featured example: milk created through precision fermentation by Eden Brew

Precision fermentation products

Fermentation is a powerful, flexible biological process using microorganisms that has been used in food production for millennia – in foods like beer, sauerkraut and miso. 

Precision fermentation is a newer application of the technology, and it has been used for decades to make products such as rennet for cheese, insulin for diabetics and vitamins such as B12 for nutritional supplements and fortified processed foods. 

More recently, enterprising food companies around the globe are using precision fermentation to produce animal foods without the animals. To do this, the genetic code for an animal fat or protein is introduced into a microorganism, which is then fermented in a similar process to brewing beer, to efficiently replicate and grow the fats or proteins at scale. The end product, typically a dairy protein, or an animal fat, is the same as conventional animal foods at a cellular level. However, companies making these ingredients commonly use the term ‘animal-free’ since they can be produced without the ongoing requirement for animals. 

Animal-free fats can be used to add flavour to plant based and cultivated meat products, while animal-free proteins form the base of dairy products such as cheese and ice cream. The first and only precision fermentation dairy products on the market now are on sale in the US, where Perfect Day’s animal-free whey proteins feature in Mars’s ice creams, protein powders and chocolate bars.

Want to learn more about the protein alternatives industry?

Download our AU and NZ alt-proteins industry directory, or get in touch with our Head of Industry Engagement today.

Who’s who in alternative proteins

Australian and New Zealand plant protein, cell-cultivation and precision fermentation companies

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