Alternative proteins – The Big Food Fuss!

Imagine strolling through the aisles of your local supermarket, glancing at the shelves filled with a multitude of products. Among the familiar offerings, there it is, standing out subtly yet intriguingly—a package of ground beef that has the label “plant-based meat substitute”. A curious message indeed! It beckons you to delve deeper into its world, promising a plethora of possibilities and a different approach to nourishment.

Alt protein, a term encompassing a wide range of protein sources derived from non-animal origins, has emerged as a transformative force in the culinary landscape. It most certainly has presented itself as the defacto solution to avail the next generation of food intake that has the potential to bring a whole host of unprecedented benefits.

But while offering this tantalising glimpse into a future, we know that change is scary. Embracing new technologies has always seen the “chasm” where mainstay consumers are on the verge of adapting new ways of living as the norm but have yet to do so. What we learnt in business school looks like this:

A possible depiction of what the “chasm” of adoption looks like. (Source: Omniplex)

We like to see this chasm as actually this:

This chasm is a lot funnier, but still explains the same thing. (Source: Tumblr)

In reality, this chasm symbolises the gap between early adopters and the majority of consumers when it comes to embracing these novel technologies in their everyday lives. While there are benefits, many consumers still remain unfamiliar or hesitant to embrace these new sources of protein.

Alternative protein offers a promising solution to the numerous detrimental effects associated with traditional protein production. The environmental impact of animal agriculture and the transmission of zoonotic diseases to humans are pressing global challenges. Additionally, the growing population and increasing food consumption levels pose significant obstacles for traditional protein production, leading to concerns about food security. Alternative protein emerges as a potential remedy to address these complex issues and pave the way for a more sustainable and secure food system.

This article seeks to explore and provide insights on the following questions:

  1. What are the extent and impact of the negative effects associated with traditional livestock farming for protein production?
  2. What are the existing technologies and methods for producing alternative sources of protein?
  3. Is there a potential for substantial benefit to be gained and a reduction in harm by shifting to alternative proteins compared to traditional choices?
  4. What are the barriers and challenges that impede the widespread adoption of alternative proteins?

1. Negative Effects of Traditional Livestock Farming for Proteins

There are negative consequences associated with traditional meat sources, emphasising the environmental, health and socioeconomic challenges posed by conventional methods of livestock farming:

1.1 Scope 3 Carbon Emissions: The Environmental Impact of Animal Agriculture

Traditional livestock farming is a major contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for an estimated 11.1% of the total amount. This significant impact is attributed to several key sources of emissions within the industry. 

One of the primary sources is enteric fermentation, which occurs in the digestive system of livestock. During this process, micro-organisms in the stomachs of ruminant animals, such as cattle and sheep, break down plant material, releasing methane gas as a by-product. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, with a much higher warming potential than carbon dioxide.

Another significant source of emissions is manure management. Livestock produce vast amounts of manure, which releases methane and nitrous oxide, another potent greenhouse gas, as it decomposes. Improper handling and storage of manure can lead to the release of these gases into the atmosphere.

The production of animal feed is also a major contributor to emissions. Growing crops for livestock feed requires large amounts of land, water and energy. This process contributes to deforestation, as forests are cleared to make way for crop cultivation, releasing carbon stored in trees and reducing the planet’s capacity to absorb greenhouse gases.

Additionally, energy use in traditional livestock farming, including the production of farm inputs and feed, contributes to emissions. The manufacturing and transportation of fertilizers, pesticides, and machinery all require energy, which is often derived from fossil fuels.

1.2 Zoonotic Diseases: Risks Associated with Traditional Livestock Farming

Traditional methods of farming livestock have been closely linked to the spread of zoonotic diseases, resulting in significant public health consequences. These diseases, such as Staphylococcus aureus, Escherichia coli, Campylobacter, and non-typhoidal Salmonella, caused 975,000 human deaths and 35 million illnesses in 2019 alone. To put this in perspective, the number of deaths surpassed those caused by common cancers, HIV/AIDS, or malaria that year. Two distinct farming approaches, intensive and free-range, contribute to the heightened risk of zoonotic diseases as the demand for meat consumption continues to rise:

Intensive livestock farming, characterised by crowded conditions and the extensive use of antibiotics, creates an environment conducive to pathogen transmission. The close proximity of animals weakens their immune systems, facilitating the spread of diseases such as E. coli and avian influenza. Additionally, the overuse of antibiotics in these farming systems contributes to the development of antibiotic-resistant diseases, posing a significant threat to public health. In some countries, approximately 80% of medically important antibiotics are used in the animal sector, often for non-therapeutic purposes such as growth promotion.

In contrast, free-range farming practices, which provide animals with more space and potential welfare benefits, present their own challenges. The lower stocking densities and increased exposure to the environment can result in inadequate biosecurity measures, leading to a higher risk of disease transmission between wild animals, farmed animals, and humans. As free-range farming expands, it encroaches upon natural habitats, displacing disease-carrying wild animals and bringing them into closer contact with farmed animals and humans. This proximity increases the potential for viral spillover and the subsequent spread of zoonotic diseases. Notable examples include the transmission of rabies from vampire bats to cattle and humans in South America and outbreaks of Kyasanur Forest disease following agricultural encroachment in Indian forests.

2. Technologies for Alternative Protein Production

Indeed, alternative proteins offer a fundamentally different approach to protein production, which can help mitigate the negative effects associated with traditional livestock farming. These innovative technologies include:

2.1 Plant-based protein

Plant-based protein, one of the most popular alternative protein options, is produced directly from plants, eliminating the need for animal conversion. Protein is sourced from a variety of plant-based ingredients such as soy, peas, mushrooms, fava beans, and brown rice.

However, it’s important to note that composite ingredients used in alternative proteins may have potential risks for certain groups of people. One such example is Seitan, a plant-based meat made from vital wheat gluten. Although it can be a great alternative for those without gluten allergies, it can pose a threat to individuals with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity. For individuals with diet-related disorders, it’s crucial to be aware of the ingredients used in alternative protein in general as well.

Seitan – an excellent alternative to meat if you’re not gluten allergic (Source: The CheekyChickpea)

2.2 Fermented protein

Another process of creating proteins from non-traditional sources is through Fermentation. It can be further classified into these categories:

2.3 Cultivated protein

Finally, cultivated protein represents an innovative approach to alternative protein production that involves growing animal cells in a laboratory setting. This method eliminates the need for traditional livestock farming practices while still providing protein products. Cultivated protein is created by culturing animal cells in a nutrient-rich medium containing amino acids, sugars, salts, and vitamins, allowing the cells to grow and develop into muscle tissue. So far, Singapore is the only country where lab-grown proteins can be legally sold.

Examples of it include Upside Foods, the first company that received US FDA approval that its lab-grown chicken meat is safe to eat.

Upside’s chicken product, made entirely in the lab. (Source: CNBC)

3. Investigating the Benefits and Harm Reduction of Shifting to Alternative Proteins

Putting it together, there are tangible differences in the production process of these alt proteins compared to traditional livestock farming, which are projected to have the following benefits:

3.1 Environmental Benefits: Reduction of Global GHG Emissions

As previously mentioned, livestock farming for traditional meat production has significant environmental impact, while using a large portion of farmland. In contrast, alternative proteins require less land compared to traditional livestock farming and do not have the GHG emission sources associated with animal agriculture, such as enteric fermentation and manure management. Studies have shown that these alternatives emit only a fraction of the GHG emissions compared to traditional beef and poultry, with plant-based proteins emitting as little as 2% of beef emissions and mycoproteins emitting around 10% of poultry emissions.

3.2 Societal Benefits: Improved Food Security, Reduced Vulnerability to Climate Change

Alt proteins have the potential to address the challenges faced by the 80% of the global population most at risk from crop failures and hunger due to climate change, particularly in regions like Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. These regions are more vulnerable to climate-related factors that can lead to crop failures and food insecurity. Alt proteins, with their resilience to external conditions, offer a promising solution as they are less affected by factors like weather and geography compared to conventional meat production.

Fermented and cultured proteins, in particular, have the advantage of being location-agnostic in their production processes. They are not constrained by factors such as soil quality, rainfall, or land area, which can be limitations in traditional agriculture. This opens up opportunities for sustainable protein production in areas that may face challenges in conventional farming. By reducing dependence on traditional livestock farming, alt proteins can help alleviate the difficulties faced by these vulnerable regions, ultimately contributing to improved food security and reducing their vulnerability to climate change.

3.3 Reduced Incidence of Diet-Related Diseases 

Alt proteins offer a distinct advantage over traditional livestock systems by reducing the risk of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) and the emergence of foodborne illnesses and infectious diseases. This is primarily due to the differences in their production processes. Alt proteins do not rely on live animals and their associated habitats, which minimizes the potential for disease transmission. Moreover, the reduced usage of antibiotics in alt protein production further contributes to the mitigation of disease risks.

In addition to the health benefits, there is a growing body of research highlighting the adverse health outcomes associated with the consumption of red and processed meat. The World Economic Forum conducted a study demonstrating that incorporating meat alternatives, such as beans and lentils, into diets can lead to a significant reduction in diet-related mortality by 5-7%. By replacing traditional meat with alt proteins, there is a substantial potential to decrease the incidence of diet-related diseases in humans.

4. Barriers to Widespread Adoption of Alternative Proteins

Despite the known benefits of alternative proteins, consumers still face inertia in incorporating more of these products into their lives. Research conducted by firms such as BCG, Blue Horizon and Mintel have been actively investigating the factors that affect consumer adoption.

4.1 Health and Taste are the biggest barriers

BCG and Blue Horizon asked 3,700 people in seven countries across North America, Europe, the Middle East and Asia about their consumer preferences in alternative protein. They found that consumers are open to alternatives but want better tasting and healthier products. Consumers cited taste, nutritional value, and price as the attributes that they valued the most. This could point towards the gap that the current realm of alt proteins have to fulfil.

One key concern is the health aspect of alternative proteins. While these products are considered substitutes for protein, not all of them are necessarily healthy. For example, plant-based proteins have been found to contain high amounts of unhealthy ingredients such as sodium or saturated fat. Along this vein, there have also been consumer complaints about saltiness as well as concerns raised by nutritionists with regards to the high sodium content found in alternative protein products such as the Impossible burger, This discrepancy between the perception of alternative proteins as healthy and the actual nutritional content of some products can be a deterrent for potential consumers. However, it’s important to note that these criticisms may be limited to a few early products in the market, which have not yet fully optimised their nutritional profiles. Nevertheless, negative feedback can have a detrimental impact on reputation.

75% of respondents cited health as the primary motivator, and it is the top driver in all markets other than France, which was the second highest (Source: BCG x Blue Horizon)

Taste is another crucial factor for consumers when it comes to alternative proteins. They seek products that can provide a similar sensory experience to traditional animal-based proteins. However, many alternative protein products currently on the market still fall short in replicating the taste and texture of conventional meat. This lack of sensory satisfaction can hinder consumer adoption and consumption.

The study conducted by BCG reveals that taste and health concerns rank highest as barriers to greater consumption of alternative proteins across all markets. Consumers want products that are not only healthy and environmentally friendly but also deliver on taste. Addressing these obstacles is crucial to driving increased adoption and consumption. If these barriers were resolved, the study suggests that the number of exclusive and near-exclusive users of alternative proteins could double.

4.2 Tackling the premium of price as well

Price remains a significant challenge for the widespread adoption of alternative proteins. Consumers are hesitant to pay a premium for products that offer only taste parity with animal-based proteins. This reluctance is influenced by the perception that animal-based proteins are superior across multiple attributes.

Consumer perspectives on acceptable pricing vary, but the overall pattern holds true across different characteristics, including income and environmental concerns. Even high-income consumers who prioritize environmental sustainability are not more willing to pay a premium for alternative proteins. Notably, consumers in China and Germany show a greater willingness to pay prices closer to conventional animal protein equivalents.

Mintel reports that among adults who do not currently consume meat alternatives, 20% consider high prices a barrier.

Achieving price parity in the alternative protein market is essential to attract mainstream consumers who are not willing to pay a premium for products that only offer taste parity with animal-based options. Lowering the price of alternative proteins is a critical factor in driving wider adoption and overcoming barriers to entry. By achieving price parity or competitive pricing, the industry can appeal to a larger consumer base and break down the price hurdle. This will enable alternative proteins to reach a broader market and facilitate the transition to more sustainable and inclusive food choices.


By having read this far, we hope that you now know a little bit more about alternative proteins and how they hold the great potential to mitigate and counteract the negative effects that traditional livestock protein production brings to the environment and society.

While seemingly a desirable product, the industry in its nascent form is facing barriers in adoption for mainstream consumption. Compared to traditional counterparts, the product as a general is not sufficiently on par with regards to health, taste and affordability.

This begins a race within the realm of alt protein industry today. Venture Capital firms are very much aware of the potential benefits alt protein can bring, and are identifying the brands that can bring advancements to the industry through cutting edge R&D and nutrition expertise. With continued innovation and awareness, alternative proteins have the potential to reshape our approach to food and contribute to a more sustainable and inclusive future.


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