In the years to come we will include in our diet alternative proteins based on products as diverse as microalgae, yeast or fungal ferments, protein extracts of plant origin or even insects or laboratory meat. Massimo Castellari, who coordinates the strategic initiative for sustainable protein production at the Institute of Agrifood Research and Technology (IRTA) and is researching these new foods there, is convinced of this. Castellari (Castel San Pietro Terme, Italy; 60 years old) points out that research is already being done on these and other materials with a view to sustainability – because we should eat less meat – and their positive nutritional properties, albeit with the challenge of making appetizing products to create at a reasonable price.
Questions. What new food proteins are being studied?
Answer. Many new protein sources are being investigated. Vegetable sources (in English, plant-based or plant-based) are already coming onto the market, from soybeans, peas or other legumes. They are purified extracts or concentrates of fairly neutral proteins, making them easier to incorporate into other types of foods. Other quite advanced sources are those of fermentative origin, that is, whose biomass is produced by yeast or fungal microorganisms. And then there are a number of sources such as microalgae, insects and other lesser-known vegetable sources that are in an emerging stage, are potentially very interesting, but have not yet reached the industrial development to have a significant place in the market.
P You coordinate the European project Pro-Future on microalgae, what can you contribute to human nutrition?
R Microalgae have many environmental benefits: they are microorganisms with photosynthetic metabolism and absorb CO₂ during their growth, and they can be grown on land that cannot normally be used for growing conventional crops. They can be in very extreme environments, even in the middle of the desert. And from a nutritional point of view, they are quite high in protein: in the case of spirulina, it can have up to 60% protein by dry weight; In addition, it has a fairly complete amino acid profile, also providing saturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids, fiber, vitamins, pigments, antioxidants…
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P If they have so many benefits, why aren’t they mass marketed?
R This is the reason for the research and innovation projects: to bring these plants to an industrial scale that allows mass production of these ingredients. For this it is necessary to select the most adapted species, to develop the technologies that allow scaling to industrial levels and all the processes that this production entails are still in the study phase. And then you have to get them to market at a competitive price, which hasn’t happened yet. We already eat microalgae in pasta, bread, baked goods, creams… But they are niche products.
P At what point is the development of cultured meat?
R Cultured meat is in a very emerging stage and is still very expensive, but some companies are doing a lot of research. It consists in taking a biopsy of stem cells and cultivating them so that they first multiply and then differentiate between tissue types. It was already possible to get a mass of cells that isn’t exactly a tissue, because muscle tissue is much more complex, but a mass of cells that is then mixed with other ingredients and becomes something similar to a hamburger. It is a product that is already being sold in Singapore, but in a very limited area and with very limited production. There is still a long way to go before the laboratory ribeye, because muscle tissue is not so easy to reproduce. These products will first arrive in the US or Israel, but Europe is also working on it.
P Will we include insects in our diet?
R Europe has already approved ingredients from three species of insects and others are pending approval. There are many studies being conducted on how we can incorporate them into our diet. As westerners we have a cultural reluctance to eat them, but they are also being studied as a protein source for animal feed. The market is still quite limited, but it may evolve in the future.
P And are there new proteins in mushrooms?
R Yes, fermentation proteins or microproteins show promise as alternative sources. There are several companies beginning to market meat analogs, but no one has a crystal ball to know what will happen in the future.
P Will These New Proteins Help Fight Climate Change?
R These sources are being pushed to make food production more sustainable and potentially more sustainable, but comprehensive data on this is not yet available. For cultured meat, for example, there is very little data on it being said to be more sustainable, but studies are still very small and there are no industrial-scale production systems. The projections for the next 10 or 15 years are that alternative sources can cover between 10% and 20% of the global protein market, but that means that we will still have an important part of proteins from conventional sources, which also produce more can become sustainable. These are global predictions, but they also depend on countries, acceptance of products, customs, cultural habits…
Massimo Castellari and Toni Ferragut
P Does the regulation allow the incorporation of these new proteins?
R In Europe we have laws that protect the consumer heavily and that is an advantage, but it also slows down the introduction of certain new ingredients to the market because their safety has to be proven in order to get onto the market. For example, only a few microalgae are food approved, such as spirulina and chlorella, but there are many more species that have food potential.
P What are the advantages of these new proteins?
R A good diversification of the diet and more sustainability. Regarding climate change, some of them can be grown in extreme climates. And on a social level, they will make it possible to obtain local food with high nutritional value in disadvantaged areas.
R What would you say is the main obstacle to including them in our diets?
R The two main obstacles are the price of the ingredient and its organoleptic properties. [sensoriales]. We eat not only to take in nutrients, but also because it makes us feel good. And then there are other factors like ethics if I want to go animal free… That can affect the acceptance of these new products. And then the legislation, these products must pass an assessment to ensure their safety, which can delay their launch, making it more difficult to make forecasts. Therefore, the projection range is very wide.
P Which ones come first on our plate?
R Microproteins, fermentation proteins and herbal ingredients are already on the market and more will be added in the future. Microalgae production will grow strongly in the future. And as for other sources, like insects, cultured meat… there are a lot of expectations that they will eventually arrive, but there are still almost no products in Europe.
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