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The Rise of Alternative Protein

Angel Ching, HK BioTek Intern


A new player in the food industry

In recent years, it is observed that a new player is emerging in the town. This player is widely known as an “Alternative protein”. With this alternative protein, we can now get a taste of plant-based burgers, seaweed noodles and even insect snacks. The world of proteins is expanding much faster than ever before, driven by health concerns, environmental sustainability and animal welfare. Viewing this uprising trend, let's discover the exciting realm of alternative proteins to find out their differences compared to real meat.


What is alternative protein?

Alternative protein refers to any source of protein that is not produced from traditional agriculture such as meat and dairy. Its sources include plant-based protein, insect protein, algal protein as well as lab-cultured meat.


To investigate this issue deeper, let us take a look at what makes alternative protein special. Alternative protein is gaining popularity as people claim that this protein source consists of several benefits. First, alternative protein doesn’t rely on traditional animal agriculture. Instead, it mostly uses plant, insect or lab culture. Therefore, it reduces land use, water use and greenhouse gas emission. Moreover, the production of alternative proteins is more efficient in terms of resource utilization. For example, it takes less water and feed to produce a pound of plant-based protein than it does to produce a pound of animal protein. Most alternative proteins provide essential nutrients such as fiber, minerals and vitamins. Apart from these, many people are also concerned that the sustainable production of alternative protein also helps to develop long-term sustainability of the food system with the decreased dependence on animal agriculture. Also, many people think that alternative proteins are produced more ethically as it doesn’t involve practices of factory farming. Thus, these claims about the sustainable production of alternative protein have served as major reasons why some people are big fans of alternative protein.


Differences between alternative protein sources

Among all alternative protein sources, plant-based protein is the most common one in the current market. It is a rich source of essential nutrients such as protein, fiber, minerals and vitamins. They are generally produced from seeds, legumes, grains or vegetables through various processes including extrusion, isolation and fermentation. Therefore, it generally has a lower environmental footprint compared to animal protein as they require less water, land and energy.


Taking the most typical plant-based protein source, soy protein, as an illustration, it is considered a complete protein because it contains all essential amino acids required by the human body. Moreover, it is also rich in minerals like calcium and iron. At the same time, soy protein is low in saturated fat and has no cholesterol. Therefore, this makes it a healthy and popular option for people seeking to minimize their animal product intake.


Another plant-based protein source, algal protein, is similarly considered a complete protein and contains all essential amino acids. Apart from containing high amounts of minerals, algal protein is also rich in omega-3- fatty acids, which are important for brain function. Also, it is high in antioxidants, which are important in regulating anti-inflammatory responses. As well as soy protein, it also contains no cholesterol which is suitable for people with different needs.


Aside from plant-based protein, insect protein is also a typical alternative protein. Now, there have been more researchers and local companies working on this protein source. When we talk about insects, many people may be afraid of these little organisms. However, it is also considered a protein source that provides us with different types of nutrients such as vitamins and minerals. Insect protein is also known as complete protein. Compared to traditional livestock, insects possess higher feed-conversion efficiency which requires less water, less land and less energy. Therefore, it has been gaining high popularity for its lower environmental footprint.


To find a more sustainable and ethical protein source, the researchers are also currently exploring the way of lab-cultured protein. This refers to the production of animal-derived protein from cell culture techniques instead of traditional animal agriculture. This process involves harvesting cells from animal tissues and culturing them in a laboratory using a nutrient-rich media to grow them into meat-like products. In terms of nutritional value, lab-cultured protein shall be similar to traditional meat as it is derived from animal cells. But, the researchers are still doing more research to ensure this lab-cultured protein meets the recommended nutritional profiles for human consumption.


Conclusion

To conclude, alternative protein plays a game-changer in this food industry and the field of health and nutrition. The application of alternative protein sources by the food industry is also highly driven by the increasing demand for protein-rich snacks, health supplements and ready-to-eat food including chocolate, meat and even plant-based ice cream. The trend and application of alternative protein sources are likely to continue to grow. This offers more new choices for consumers seeking diverse protein options. At the same time, consumers could feel free to choose different protein sources including animal-based and plant-based in the market and enjoy their best meal! In the near future, there may possibly be more types of alternative proteins to be investigated that could meet different consumer needs. Therefore, let’s look forward to the future development of alternative protein and the food industry.


References:

Lima, M., Costa, R., Rodrigues, I., Lameiras, J., & Botelho, G. (2022). A narrative review of alternative protein sources: Highlights on meat, fish, egg and dairy analogues. Foods, 11(14), 2053. https://doi.org/10.3390/foods11142053


Quintieri, L., Nitride, C., De Angelis, E., Lamonaca, A., Pilolli, R., Russo, F., & Monaci, L. (2023). Alternative protein sources and novel foods: Benefits, food applications and safety issues. Nutrients, 15(6), 1509. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu15061509

Rojas Conzuelo, Z., Robyr, R., & Kopf-Bolanz, K. A. (2022). Optimization of protein quality of plant-based foods through digitalized product development. Frontiers in Nutrition, 9. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnut.2022.902565

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