Volume 33, Issue 2, 2022
Volume 33, Issue 2, 2022
Alternative proteins from bugs to lab-grown meat
Manuela Callari PhD, freelance science writer
In December 2020, the US Eat Just was the first company to obtain approval to sell lab-grown chicken nuggets to consumers in Singapore, where lab-grown meat was approved for sale by a regulatory authority for the first time.
Diners could taste a bao with sesame chicken and pickled cucumber or a maple waffle served with chicken nuggets at an exclusive social club. Since then, Eat Just has brought more products to restaurant tables.
The world’s first lab-grown chicken product sold under Good Meat’s brand name is “real meat, made without tearing down a forest or taking a life,” the company says.
The current environmental crisis, a fast-growing world population and ethical dilemmas have driven research and investments in alternative proteins.
According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), unless the global agricultural production increases by 70% in the next decades,  we won’t be able to feed a population expected to reach 9.1 billion by 2050.
Yet agriculture is one of the biggest drivers of natural destruction, threatening 86% of the 28,000 species most at risk of extinction, according to a recent report  by the UK-based policy institute Chatham House.
The report says 80% of the world’s farmland is used to raise and feed livestock, even though animals only account for 18% of global calorie consumption. Decreasing meat production would reduce the pressure to expand livestock operations while freeing up existing land to restore native ecosystems and increase biodiversity.
Here is where alternative proteins come into play. These are protein-rich foods that can substitute meat and seafood in people’s diets. Alternative proteins include plant proteins like legumes and nuts and emerging products such as lab-grown meat and insect-based ingredients.
Consumer interest in non-animal-based protein options is increasing globally, and the industry is actively working on providing innovative alternatives to animal products. But, would you eat a steak made by a scientist in a laboratory? Would you bite a pancake made of crickets flour?
Leading alternative protein sources
Four alternative protein sources might offer promising commercial opportunities.
- Plant proteins. These are the most well established and have been on our dining table for a long time. The most popular plant-based protein foods include soy, beans, hemp seed, and ancient grains such as Kamut, quinoa and buckwheat.
- Mycoprotein. This is a single-cell protein made from a fungus called Fusarium venenatum. Fungi contain about 40% of protein, are high in fibre, have limited carbohydrates, and have no cholesterol. To create mycoprotein, manufacturers ferment fungi spores and glucose and other nutrients in a fermentation process similar to that used to make beer.
- Insects. While insects are already part of the menu in some cultures, they have only recently entered the western market. Crickets are the most common source of protein, and some producers are milling them to obtain high-protein flour. Other insects are used as feed for livestock. While insects are already part of the menu in some Asian cultures, they have only recently entered the western market.
- Lab-grown meat. Since 2013, when researchers at the University of Maastricht published the technology’s first proof of concept, research on meat made using tissue-culture technology has expanded. The method involves using a small number of animal cells that are propagated in vitro to create muscle tissues that mimic animal muscles and have the same protein profile. In theory, cultured meat should use fewer of the planet’s resources.
In the following sections, we will explore the two emerging sources of alternative proteins more in-depth: insects and lab-grown meat.
Grasshoppers, crickets and mealworms are rich in protein and contain higher sources of minerals such as iron, zinc, copper and magnesium than beef. They also require less land, water and feed than traditional livestock and produce significantly lower greenhouse gas emissions. Insect farming has less waste, and waste by-product – insect excrement – is an excellent fertiliser.
Australian company Circle Harvest produces pasta, chips, brownies and even lollipops from crickets and mealworms. Established in 2007 by an entomologist and food scientist the then called Edible Bug Shop were Australia’s first insect farm and insect proteins, producer.
Over the past fifteen years, the company has developed robotics and artificial intelligence systems to streamline farming processes and transform insects into powders, oils, pastes and a milk-like liquid.
While two billion people, mainly in Africa, Latin America and Asia, already eat insects, in most parts of the world there are still technical and cultural barriers to overcome before bugs can compete with beef.
Trends are starting to shift. Since 2018, Canadians can find locally produced cricket powder on supermarket shelves. In January 2020, the European Union food safety agency gave the green light to yellow mealworms, allowing producers to sell insect-based foods throughout the continent.
But it is probably naive to think that most meat-eaters on the planet would be happy to swap their steak for cricket chips.
Another Australian company called Goterra produces 1 tonne of livestock feed per week from 40 tonnes of food waste using Black soldier fly and mealworm beetle larvae. The company has created a circular process where food and agricultural waste is converted into high protein livestock feed.
The larvae live in growing rooms for 12 days, where they consume food waste from other businesses like supermarkets and restaurants. They are then transferred to the processing room, where they are sifted from the waste by-product and washed with water in a large sieve.
Most larvae are then euthanised with carbon dioxide, dehydrated and sold as livestock feed. Others are allowed to grow for a few more days until they become pupae, and can mate and produce eggs. And the cycle begins again.
The process generates high-protein feed for livestock within a small land area and saves tonnes of food waste to end up in the landfill.
Insect cells can also potentially be used for lab-grown meat.
Tufts University researchers think they could use insect cells, rather than cow or chicken cells or the actual bugs to grow muscle and fat in the lab and make products that taste like steak, chicken, lobster or shrimp.
Insect cells might make for a sustainable source of lab-grown meat.
Biomedical engineers are now making very small pieces of tissue starting from fruit flies and caterpillar cells.
Insect cells are already widely used in the manufacture of drugs, vaccines, and insecticides, so researchers know how to culture them. They can now apply the same techniques used in lab-grown meat to making meat from insect cells.
Interest in lab-grown meat has increased in the last few years, but production remains small. The science of tissue culture has been around for more than half a century and is primarily used in research laboratories in several fields. But growing enough flesh to make an edible, tasty product at a competitive price remains a challenge today.
Lab-grown meats are cultured in the lab using cells initially derived from live animals without the need to slaughter them. First, scientists extract cells from an egg or a living animal, and these cells are carefully selected and then grown up in a lab to establish a cell line.
Samples of cells from a cell line are introduced into a bioreactor full of culture medium, a liquid that contains all the nutrients cells need to grow, such as sugars, amino acids and vitamins. In the bioreactor, cells multiply exponentially and are then harvested and moulded in unstructured items like sausages and patties. In the future, the industry hopes to use 3D printing and edible scaffolds to build any cuts of meat such as steaks or chicken wings.
But despite all the hype, there are several concerns about this process. Apart from the challenges of scaling it up for large-scale production, research suggests it may be worse for the environment than livestock in the long term. Its production may also release the huge quantities of chemicals, hormones and growth factors used to produce it into the water supply. In addition, it is still produced using cells extracted from animals. More seriously, there are many unanswered questions about the safety of genetically engineered cells and their potential to cause cancer.
Maybe we should stick to plant protein that is provided in abundance by nature and is a healthier alternative to meat, lab-based or not.
- In small groups, discuss why people say we need to find protein alternatives to meat and seafood.
- What are the primary sources of alternative proteins? Which ones are the most commonly found in shops and restaurants, and which ones have only recently begun to be commercialised?
- Why are insects a good source of protein? What are the advantages of farming insects over traditional livestock farming?
- What are some foods made of insects already on the market?
- What are other uses of insects that can reduce the impact of livestock farming and food waste?
- What are the main barriers to insects becoming mainstream food in many parts of the world? Have you eaten insects or food products made of insects? If so, share your experience with your classmates. If not, would you try insect products? In pairs, discuss why or why not and your concerns.
- What is lab-grown meat, and how is it produced?
- What are some of the concerns about lab-grown meat?
- In groups, research and discuss natural protein alternatives such as legumes, nuts and hemp seeds and the many ways they can be eaten. Come up with at least three recipes each that you would like to try.
References and resources
- World Agriculture Towards 2030/2050
- Food system impacts on biodiversity loss | Chatham House – International Affairs Think Tank
- In Vitro Iron Availability from Insects and Sirloin Beef, J Agric Food Chem. 2016 Nov 9;64(44):8420-8424
- Two Billion People Eat Insects and You Can Too – Food Tank
- Frontiers | Possibilities for Engineered Insect Tissue as a Food Source
- Lab-grown meat: The future of food? | FT Food Revolution
- The Future of Meat – Lab Grown Meat ExplainedIs lab-grown meat healthy and safe to consume?
- ‘Cultured’ meat could produce more problems than it solves.
- The myth of cultured meat: A review.