The recent high-profile successes of plant-based meat alternatives (think Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods) are the tip of a welcomed iceberg as plant-based proteins of all types continue to gain traction.
Innovation has converged with consumer education and curiosity, as more people have become aware that substituting plant-based for animal-based foods not only reduces cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes but is also a key to environmental sustainability. The Impossible Burger claims 96 percent less land use, 89 percent less emissions and 87 percent less water use than beef.
A growing number of food companies have made great strides in mitigating long-time barriers to adoption of plant-based alternatives, including taste, texture, satiation, insufficient protein content, availability, labeling and shelf life. At least 200 companies, three dozen business incubators, almost as many nonprofits and several high-profile academic research initiatives are developing or supporting development of new proteins.
But even as we cheer plant-based protein innovation and increased acceptance, there is missed opportunity in failing to address this question: What if the ingredients found in so many plant-based alternatives were not the very same ingredients that hundreds of millions of people must avoid due to food allergies?
The link between food sensitivities, sustainability and climate action deserves more attention.
What if the ingredients found in so many plant-based alternatives were not the very same ingredients that hundreds of millions of people must avoid due to food allergies?
Food allergies afflict up to 10 percent of the world’s population. In the United States alone, more than 26 million adults have food allergies and 24 million more believe they have food allergies because of symptoms from other conditions. So, attitudes toward these allergies impact consumer behavior of some 50 million U.S. adults and hundreds of millions in the rest of the world.
Every three minutes a food allergy sends someone to an American emergency room. These allergies can cause gastrointestinal distress, hives, anaphylactic shock and even death. And they are very much on the rise, having increased by 50 percent among children (PDF) in just one decade.
Perhaps counterintuitively, improving sanitation and hygiene in the developing world will further exacerbate the global incidence of food allergies, as reduced exposure to microbes early in life increases the likelihood that a human immune system will react to otherwise benign substances.
Across the globe, factors as widespread and diverse as pollution and vitamin D deficiencies further increase allergic responses to food. Yet common allergens are major food sources in international food aid programs, while the increased need for allergy-restricted diets among food aid recipients can worsen malnutrition without more allergen-free proteins.
As more emerging-market economies eventually recover from COVID-19 and consumer buying power increases, so will global demand for allergen-free plant-based foods. Satisfying that demand simultaneously will help address hunger, health and environmental stewardship.
Allergens as food ingredients
Let’s bring this plant-based ingredients challenge out of the abstract. On the left side of the table below are 10 ingredients commonly found in plant-based protein alternatives. On the right side are seven common food allergens.
According to a recent study by Kerry Group, 90 percent of consumers of plant-based meat alternatives read ingredient labels. The same study found that, in foodservice, six of the top 10 sources of alternative proteins are from the allergens list above (principally soy, peanuts and tree nuts). Seeing any of these ingredients can trigger immediate rejection from any consumer with a food allergy or a belief that they have allergies.
The obvious-but-inevitable conundrum is this: How do you replace these allergens with safer ingredients without reversing the plant-based progress on good taste, texture and other variables that drive satisfaction and demand?
I am not a food scientist and can’t pretend to know. But just as sunflower seeds have been successfully and broadly used as a peanut substitute, and coconut as a substitute for dairy, expect more non-allergenic ingredients that don’t compromise sensory satisfaction to come down the pike — if enough plant-based food innovators are sufficiently focused on that objective. And that’s a big if.
Still, three tailwinds underscore the attractiveness of the opportunity. First, economics. One would hope that hundreds of millions of potential customers could be sufficient financial incentive to innovate in this direction.
The broader global allergen-free food market already has attracted more than 50 significant players. By one estimate, this market is growing at a compounded annual rate of 9.3 percent, compared to 4.5 percent for the total food industry. The growing incidence of diabetes and asthma add unfortunate but profitable incentives to produce allergen-free foods in general and meat alternatives in particular.
Second, the healthcare system. COVID-19 has exposed the vulnerability of healthcare systems around the world. I hope prognosticators are wrong that deadly viruses that already have emerged in this young century, such as SARS, MERS, Swine Flu, Zika, Ebola and now COVID, have presaged the coming of more frequent pandemics. But if they are right, hospitals and healthcare professionals can ill-afford the additional ongoing strain of treating millions of allergic reactions on a curve that never flattens.
And third, but not least, the climate crisis. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that, if the world’s population refrained from eating animal-based products, greenhouse gas emissions would be reduced by nearly eight gigatons a year — the equivalent of total emissions avoided by all nuclear power globally.
Animal agriculture is responsible for more emissions than all the world’s transportation systems. Less well-known than the adverse climate impacts of beef production and unsustainable agricultural practices is the fact that the animals we eat just in the United States consume more than half of all the country’s grain crops — enough to feed 800 million humans in a world where more people than that go to sleep each night on an empty stomach. Yet global meat consumption continues to increase (PDF) both in total and per capita, and with it the increases in greenhouse emissions, freshwater use and pollutants.
So, meat eating won’t fall off a cliff tomorrow and two-thirds of consumers are still not at all aware of meat’s environmental toll. But my optimist lens sees that as a huge upside educational opportunity. Increasingly aggressive marketing of meat alternatives could make quite a dent if deftly handled. That dent will certainly be larger if all those millions with food allergies are not excluded.
In disrupting and displacing meat production, it’s important to distinguish between two innovation paths: plant-based meat alternatives and cultured meat (sometimes called cell-based, cultivated, in vitro or clean meat).
Because cultured meat is made in a lab from muscle cells biopsied from animals, then grown in a bioreactor, food allergens need not be involved. Estimates range from 40 to 60 early-stage companies currently working in this space, as well as some big players such as Merck in its Innovation Labs and Thermo Fisher Scientific.
The work of the Good Food Institute is an important catalyst as well, demonstrating what a nonprofit can do to bring together scientists, attorneys, lobbyists, marketing and strategy expertise on behalf of entrepreneurs — and also provide research grants.
So, there are high hopes for cultured meat as a non-allergenic alternative to conventional meat, but not until it can be economically produced at scale.
And there’s the rub, for now: Some experts believe that is at least 10 or more years away, even though the cost of making a single cultured burger patty has fallen from more than $250,000 in 2013 (the first patty) to closer to $100 today. When these products finally do appear on supermarket shelves, we don’t yet know to what degree consumer psychology will resist lab-grown meat. Given that and the economics and the formidable technological and infrastructural challenges for scale, even 2030 may be optimistic.
Meanwhile, with every passing year so critical in our climate fight, plant-based alternatives that are as allergen-free as possible are our best hope for accelerating adoption and reducing conventional meat demand among the allergic population.
So, what is needed? It’s certainly not that innovation hasn’t been happening; examples abound. Egg white substitutes from chickpeas and flaxseeds. Wheat flour substitutes from fermented carrots or tapioca. Innovations in pea protein and other substitutes for allergens, from companies such as Ingredion and Puris in the U.S., Roquette Fréres Le Romarin in France and Kerry Group in Ireland. And Beyond Meat’s ingredients, despite legume protein sources, are generally far less allergen-intensive than many other meat alternatives. But some of the best and brightest plant-based allergen-free ideas are predictably coming from small-scale entrepreneurs.
Some traditional obstacles for entrepreneurs have, for meat alternatives, been less of a problem than in other food and tech sectors. Access to capital for plant-based meat alternatives generally has been good due to high investor interest. After all, the global meat industry is worth over $2 trillion, so displacing even a tiny portion of such a huge business is financially alluring.
Allergen-free meat alternatives should be an important target for more grants, improving public health and reducing stress on the healthcare system, water supply and climate.
However, cultured meat requires a very high level of R&D more akin to life sciences. Government funding has been lacking, especially considering the environmental impact opportunity and the fact that we have government agencies whose mission it is to advance the progress of science as well as protect the environment and human health.
Allergen-free meat alternatives should be an important target for more grants, improving public health and reducing stress on the healthcare system, water supply and climate. (The Japanese government has just done that for Tokyo startup Integriculture.) Incentive competitions such as U.K. food retailer Tesco’s Agri-T Jam, or new ones yet to be developed, also could have allergen-free focused initiatives as additional stimulus.
Two other obstacles could be addressed to further accelerate innovation in, and commercialization of, allergen-free meat alternatives. One is regulatory; another is infrastructural and managerial support.
Science-based regulatory streamlining. The race for a COVID-19 vaccine has stretched the limits of accelerating government approvals of new disease therapies. But we all know that fast-tracking approval of anything that will end up in our bodies must be done within the limits of safety and with ethical, science-based oversight.
If regulators of new foods and food technologies could be more aggressive within that frame in prioritizing approval of allergy-sensitive meat alternatives, reflecting the urgency of our climate crisis, getting to market faster will accelerate emissions reduction.
Labeling requirements, certification programs and fiscal interventions such as tax incentives also must be thoughtfully applied but also streamlined for simplicity and not unduly held up.
Infrastructural and managerial support. Business incubators have been powerful catalysts for food tech innovation just as they have been for other technologies. But unlike software and services startups, companies producing plant-based or cultured proteins require manufacturing-friendly facilities adaptable to jumpstarting production at scale.
The CEO of a high-potential startup working on both plant-based meat alternatives and cultured meat explained to me how supportive Harvard Innovation Labs has been as an incubator but, like most innovation labs, it could not provide manufacturing space. Machines and physical systems must be built and noise must be made. That’s why we need more sustainability-focused incubators such as Greentown Labs that can help support sustainable food tech startups’ transition to manufacturing.
Boston Meats is an example of how Greentown can help accelerate a startup when it outgrows the laboratory. Beyond what many other incubators/accelerators offer (office space, expertise and networks of customers and investors), Greentown provides wet lab space, equipment, a machine shop and an electronics lab. First-tier management and sustainability consultancies with some scale also can make a real difference by partnering with early-stage food tech companies focused on protein “free-from” products.
Such companies with strong technologies need seasoned non-technical expertise beyond board level involvement, with access to senior expertise in strategy, regulatory affairs, supply chain operations, sustainability and, not least, marketing/brand building (including the important component of labeling).
Anthesis Ventures, an incubator/accelerator arm of Anthesis Group, is just one example of how a sustainability-infused advisory firm can provide this kind of focused support, further bolstered by consulting practices in both sustainable agriculture and life sciences.
To the degree that such programs can make plant-based protein and meat alternatives more of a priority, that will help. So would more allergy focus from important food tech incubators such as Food-X and Techstars Farm-to-Fork Accelerator and emerging strategy and investment firms such as AgriTech Capital. Food-X already has done this with startups such as Planetarians and Rise. But globally, attention to accelerating allergen-free still has been underwhelming.
All that said, I must acknowledge how complex and challenging it is to make plant-based protein products and cultured meats that can affordably and safely satisfy consumers. It’s one of the great sustainability challenges of our time.
Complexity is further multiplied when also addressing allergies, and not just in R&D. Allergen-free manufacturing facilities carry significant additional burdens and costs that ultimately must be met with scale of demand. Allergens are used in so many products because they have been such a crucial part of delivering plant-based protein with satisfying taste and texture. But the allergy-sensitive population is being left behind, and its size and growth trajectory is becoming a great and expanding opportunity for companies, shareholders and our fight against climate change.
What is required in R&D, sustainable sourcing and consumer education is heroic. But it should all be worth it — not just for the large and growing allergic population but for all of us and the generations to come who must live on this planet.