In recent years, concerns about the sustainability of certain farming methods, especially those involved in meat production, have caused some topics in food manufacturing to rise the political agenda. This has triggered a range of research projects, including the development of plant-derived and lab-grown meat alternatives, that have the potential to help deliver sustainable, secure, and reliable sources of protein for human consumption. As a result, the global market for alternative proteins is projected to reach $36.6 billion by 2029, according to a 2023 report published by Meticulous Research. To maximize this potential, alternative protein producers will need to rigorously test their products to provide proof of their integrity.
The Need for Testing
Novel products of all types can face various challenges, including food safety issues. For alternative proteins, for example, the demand in some markets has soared while supply has fallen short, which has led to food fraud in some cases. This is potentially dangerous, as wheat or soya, which are allergens, can be used as substitutes for more expensive plant-based proteins. Other types of common food fraud include concealment, counterfeiting, and mislabeling. All have the potential to weaken customer acceptance, which could constrain market growth and hamper the development of sustainable food sources.
Chris Elliott, PhD, a professor in the School of Biological Sciences and founder of the Institute for Global Food Security at Queens University in Belfast, Northern Ireland, says that testing isn’t just needed to spot deliberate substitution. “There could be a lot of things that shouldn’t be there, things that have been added by accident. Therefore, we need to be testing to look at the overall integrity of the global food supply chain,” he says.
“Safety scientists like me need access to reliable analytical methods to confirm our work to the regulators,” adds Ben Smith, PhD, director of the Future Ready Food Safety Hub at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. “Also, all things have their thresholds for effect, and we need to understand whether these materials could be problematic. Most of them are endogenous (found in the body), but there is still a need for testing.”
Devin Peterson, PhD, distinguished professor of food, agricultural, and environmental sciences and director of the Flavor Research and Education Center at The Ohio State University in Columbus, believes there must be a fundamental understanding of what’s required to meet consumer expectations; it’s not all about safety and compliance. “We often think about consumers in terms of how much they like something, but behaviors towards food go beyond simple ‘liking.’ We also need to consider what people want, which can drive motivation,” he says. “A whole new set of ingredients are involved when looking at plant-based products, which need to be explained.”
He adds that plant proteins can generate aroma and flavor compounds, which all need to be understood. This is especially important, as taste remains a key barrier to the widespread uptake of alternative proteins. In recent years, food manufacturers have significantly improved the taste, texture, and affordability of meat alternatives, but many consumers believe there is still a distinguishable deficit.
Some people are increasingly concerned about veterinary drugs, hormones, and other potential contaminants in meat-based products, however, so they may be more inclined to purchase alternative protein-based options. Proving this, and ensuring a good eating experience, are key to unlocking the alternative meat sector’s growth.
The Future of Food Safety for Alternative Proteins
Testing for contaminants in food products isn’t easy, says Dr. Elliott. “It is quite complicated, because the people who conduct the fraud are generally pretty smart, and they know the testing methods people use, so they try to find ways to get around them.”