Alternative protein is not something new in Indonesia. Our ancestors have been eating foods such as tofu and tempeh throughout history, which can be categorized as alternative proteins. However, in the last couple of years, significant improvements in food technology have allowed people to create innovative alternative protein products that otherwise might not exist. But what exactly is alternative protein?

According to FAIR, alternative protein is described as “a general term that covers plant-based and food-technology alternatives to animal protein.” This can range anywhere from plants, plant-based meat, to even cell-based meat. Thus, it can be seen how alternative proteins do not require a large-scale animal processing known to have a high level of carbon emission, which means that they are better for both the environment and animal welfare. 

As recent as 2016, the market for alternative proteins is still very niche even in countries like the United States, catering mostly to vegetarians or vegans alike. Back then, a black bean burger was already considered as a good vegan replacement for a traditional meat burger. 

With the rise of alternative protein companies like Impossible Foods or Beyond Meat, there has been an explosive growth for alternative protein products in recent years. This rise can be attributed to personal health improvement and protecting the environment amidst climate change. In addition, the current pandemic seems to only have further enhanced the growth. 

A recent study conducted by Stanford Medicine showed that eating plant-based meat can lower cardiovascular disease risks when compared to eating red meat. This responds to critics arguing that plant-based meats are high in saturated fat and categorized as high-processed foods. 

It is found that there may be a correlation to high levels of TMAO (Trimethylamine N-oxide) and an increased risk of cardiovascular diseases by about 60%. In the study, participants who consumed red meat in the first 8 weeks of the study had high levels of TMAO, while those who consumed plant-based meat did not. 

However, when the diets were swapped between the participants, those who ate red meat after 8 weeks of eating plant-based meat did not see an increase in TMAO levels. Whereas those who ate plant-based meat after 8 weeks of eating plant-based meat had decreased TMAO levels. 

The Institute of Food Technologist (IFT) mentioned in an article that based on the investment firm UBS, the market for alternative proteins is projected to increase from $4.6 billion in 2018 to $85 billion in 2030. Another market research firm, Market and Data, predicts the growth of the plant-based meat market alone is projected to be worth $30.92 billion by 2026. Lux Research even went on to say that by 2050, one-third of the entire food market will be made up of alternative protein products. 

With these factors in mind, it comes to no surprise that food scientists and entrepreneurs alike are consistently coming up with companies that produce new and healthier alternative protein product ideas, including beef (Impossible Foods), bacon (Mission Barns), seafood (Good Catch), egg (JUST), cheese (Miyoko’s), and many more. 

One thing to note is that all these products are catered for the meat-eaters in an attempt to drive these meat consumers away from consuming meat. Impossible Foods has even mentioned in multiple interviews that its target consumer is the meat-eaters, as opposed to vegans or vegetarians. 

In the last few years, more and more restaurants and fast-food chains are starting to carry plant-based products, such as Burger King with the Impossible Whopper or Starbucks with the Impossible Breakfast Sandwich in the United States. 

This growth can also be seen in retail, where practically all supermarket chains in the United States have already carried multiple plant-based meats or dairy products. And interestingly, these patterns are not exclusive only to countries such as the United States, but worldwide

For example, in the United Kingdom, 16% of the ready-meal products offered in supermarkets are plant-based, which is a massive jump from only 3% in 2018. Meanwhile, Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) in Mainland China partnered with Beyond Meat and launched plant-based burgers and fried vegan chicken nuggets for a limited trial run a few months ago. 

It is becoming more common for meat-eaters to adopt flexitarian diets; some have even adopted an entirely vegan diet. In the UK alone, the number of vegans has quadrupled since 2004, while many more have opted for the flexitarian diet. With all the available alternative protein products that are available in the market nowadays to satisfy people’s meat satiety, it is easy to forget why people even consume animal products in the first place. 

Although there is already an abundance of new innovative product ideas in the market, it does not mean that the ‘traditional’ alternative protein products such as tofu or tempeh become redundant and not sought after. In fact, there are companies like Better Nature and Karana who are taking traditional ingredients like tempeh and jackfruit, respectively, in a novel way to give consumers an edge on the power of choice. 

What is happening now is essentially new alternative protein product ideas being built on the ‘traditional’ products to enhance the ecosystem further. As consumers, we can only expect that alternative protein products will become the norm without a sense of exclusivity in the years to come.

Photo Credit: Epicurious by Joseph De Leo