Future Of Food: Tasty & Healthy Meat Alternatives
Monday, November 6th, 2017
Plant-based meat alternatives are fast making their way to restaurant menus and supermarket shelves. By Farah Nazurah
A transformation is emerging in the food scene, which sees meat alternatives appearing in the market. As these gain popularity, they could end up being cheaper than real meat. If these meat alternatives are tasty, healthier, cheaper and environmentally friendly, the result could be a revolution in the human diet.
Ricky Lin, founder, Life3 BioTech, shares with APFI on how plant-based proteins are beneficial to the human health as compared to real meat.
What inspired you to start the food technology company?
The company started its work about two years ago when we started looking into what protein alternatives can offer. We are a food technology start-up, and thus our work is more laboratory-based. We wanted to differentiate our products from mock meats, which is popular in some Southeast Asian countries like Singapore and Malaysia. Our product is a meat alternative, and not a meat replacement.
The recent food scandals in the world had really hit the food industry hard. This made me question if there is a better source of proteins (other than meats) for consumers, and plant-based proteins are not a new form of food thus, we developed our plant-based protein—Veego.
Last year, we entered a food innovation competition with students from the National University of Singapore who worked with us on our plant-based protein and they helped us in developing prototypes. Through this collaboration, the students were also able to learn and understand first-hand how to apply food science technologies in real applications, and not just in theoretical work. With food science and ingredients, there should be a fine balance between nutrition and the palate sensation of the product, as its mouthfeel is very important. There is a lot of trial and error in our work.
Define plant-based proteins. What are the advantages of consuming plant-based proteins?
When we talk about plant-based proteins, we first need to understand what types of nutrition plants can offer, and they provide more than just vitamins and fibre.
The plant types that we use for our product go through organic processing (minimally processed without artificial ingredients or synthetic preservatives) to derive our product. It has a unique taste profile of its own and this is what differentiates it. We did not want to engineer our flavours to taste or look like red meats. Some consumers, especially those who have been vegans or vegetarians for years, might not be accustomed to seeing meat alternatives ‘bleeding’ like real meats—such as lab-grown meats—and it might be a disconcerting experience for them.
The global consumption of red meats is expected to reduce, and plant-based proteins are fast gaining traction, according to market intelligence agency Innova Market Insights. Moreover, there have been a lot of research findings which revealed that red meats are not particularly healthy for consumers, and that processed meats as contain carcinogens.
Additionally, red meats do not offer a much higher level of protein than what plant-based proteins can. The big difference between these two products is taste! Meat has a medium taste and flavour profile. If we can develop plant-based proteins to have the same taste and flavour profile, it could be a good alternative to meat products.
Consumers are also now more aware on how animals reared for consumption are farmed, and they do not want hormones and antibiotics in the food they eat. For example, chickens are raised in confined areas and therefore subjected to a lot of stress, and consumers are eating these meats. Researchers are trying to establish that eating these meats means people are consuming their released stress hormones. Plant-based proteins do not have this issue.
How do you plan on increasing consumer awareness on the benefits of consuming plant-based proteins?
It might not be easy to be a vegan straight away, so what I do suggest is for people to look into a flexitarian diet whereby they allocate ‘meat-free’ days in a week. As for me, I’ve chosen Wednesdays to be my meat-free day; it is the middle of the week and thus, easier for me.
Plant-based proteins also need to appeal to consumers; otherwise they would not be motivated to maintain this healthier diet. As we are creatures of habit and like staying within our comfort zones, consumers can start by making little changes in their diet and this will make it easier for them to get accustomed to the new diet.
Moreover, when compared to red meats, plant-based proteins do not contain cholesterol or high saturated fats. Processed meats contain unhealthy ingredients such as sodium nitrite and other preservatives. Our product does not contain cholesterol or preservatives, has a low amount of saturated fats, and no artificial flavouring or colouring. Texture, taste and satiety—the fullness from eating a product—is important to consumers, and our plant-based protein is able to provide this.
To raise consumers’ awareness on the benefits of plant-based proteins, we are currently working with Singapore’s Health Promotion Board to educate the public on healthy eating. We are advocating the consumption of fish and proteins such as tofu in the campaign (as seen in Figure above). In the future, we are looking to add plant-based proteins (instead of tofu) to the campaign in promoting a healthy diet.
Moreover, recent research conducted by a university collaboration—Duke-National University of Singapore—showed that consuming more red meats leads to increased risk of type 2 diabetes due to the presence of haem-iron. In Singapore, the health board is working hard to fight the diabetes epidemic in the country. To achieve this, we need to cut down on carbohydrate and red meat consumption, and increase protein consumption.
Another approach to raise consumer awareness is to work with other businesses in the food industry. We are working with major food centres as well as food establishments that provide meals to uniformed professions—such as the military and police force—to roll out our products into their diet. Instead of substituting meats on their plates completely with our products, we will be starting out with a partial substitution and will increase the amount when they have gotten accustomed to it. Through this scheme, we aim to see these consumers have a better understanding of our plant-based proteins, and choose this option when they dine out with their friends and family.
How do you foresee the plant-based proteins market growing within Asia Pacific in the next five years?
Singapore tends to be a slower market in gaining traction when it comes to new foods as compared to other countries. In Asia Pacific, we see Australia and New Zealand having a better traction for our product as they are more open to trying new products. We will introduce our product into the markets there, and then we will expand in China. The Chinese are more open to plant-based proteins and as you may know, tofu was invented in the China.
Other than these markets, India also has high growth opportunities for plant-based proteins, with as much as forty percent of their population being vegetarians.
In Europe, the growth for plant-based proteins is expected to rise significantly, with a compound annual growth rate of more than 20 percent, according to Innova Market Insights.
As consumers want products that are traceable and environmentally friendly, how can food technology start-ups ensure their products as well as processes are eco-friendly?
Singapore does not produce the majority of agriculture that its people consume, and it has to be imported from other countries. In traceability of food products, it is important for food manufacturers to consider where they source their food and the credibility of their suppliers. It is also important to ensure products get to their consumers fresh.
On our side, we ensure we choose our suppliers carefully. Our suppliers also provide food for some of Singapore’s institutional caterers, and therefore are very strict when it comes to adhering to food guidelines. We also conduct independent lab-testing on our food product to ensure its safety. We also use non-GMO grains for our product. Additionally, the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority in Singapore acts as the gatekeeper in ensuring food sold to consumers are safe for consumption.
Packaging also plays a huge role in ensuring food safety and preventing microbial substances from getting onto food like meats. It is important to use food-grade plastics and thermo-forming packaging—and certainly not use cling wrap—as these are safe to use with meats and will not allow the transfer of microbial substances onto the meats.
What advice do you have for other food technology start-ups in raising funding for their products?
These start-ups should have faith in their products and what it can do for consumers, it is important they persevere to grow their business. Last year, we entered a food technology competition and we won two out of the five awards given out. We expected to grow faster after the competition due to the exposure, but we have only recently begun to grow.
It is also important for start-ups to keep pace with the current global trends. When a product is too ‘innovative’ or futuristic and does not have a market for it yet, it will be hard for it to gain traction and investors would not be too keen to get involved. Therefore, I would advise these start-ups to be realistic and develop a product that the market actually wants and understands.
As a Singaporean food technology start-up, we are the first in Asia looking into providing a meat alternative through plant-based proteins. We certainly hope more investors can look into our technology so that we can build on this growth in Asia.
As for obtaining government grants for SMEs in Singapore, they could look into SPRING Singapore (a statutory board that helps enterprises in Singapore grow) but they would really need to convince the board that their product are both innovative and solving a problem.
For example, our background is in functional food and beverages to solve lifestyle diseases such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Our next product is in this segment, and will see plant-based proteins helping to reduce glycaemic index. This issue is not as prevalent in Europe—as they consume more meats and lesser carbohydrates—as compared to their Asian counterparts.
Also, we are looking into developing our products so that it can be applied in meals for astronauts working for the US-based NASA. Astronauts are out in space for long periods of time and they need functional foods as they face a number of digestion issues when they are out in space, such as constipation, due to their freeze-dried foods. We hope our plant-based proteins, which contain both protein and fibre, will be able to help solve these digestion issues for them.
We are positioned with different products for different markets. With our portfolio, we were able to approach SPRING Singapore to apply for a grant as we are solving a problem in the world, and that is to reduce lifestyle diseases.
If a food technology start-up's product only serves a very small niche market, it would then be very hard for them to receive funding from the government board. These start-ups need to be very clear on their value proposition and what problems their products can solve.
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