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Beyond Meat : The plant-based protein to watch out for…
|11/26/2020 | 03:32am|
The global plant-based food industry is booming. Grocery sales of plant-based foods in the US outpaced overall food sales growth by more than five times in 2019, and
This combined with the growing demand for food, particularly protein, and we are left with the big question of where to source protein for human consumption. Plants and fungi may be the answer, due to their lower carbon footprint and healthier nutritional profile compared to animal protein. While traditional plant-based meat alternatives, such as tofu, tempeh and seitan, have been eaten for centuries, in recent years plant-based meat analogues (PBMAs) have emerged as a new class of plant-based proteins.
Plant-based meat analogues (PBMAs)
The ingredients: protein sources and additives
The bulk of a PBMA is made from plant-based proteins, commonly soy, pea and wheat proteins. Many of these are already used in traditional plant-based products such as tofu and seitan, but PBMAs go further than meat alternatives by using additives to create a more "meat-like" experience. These include colourings, such as beetroot juice and texture-enhancing polysaccharides and hydrocolloids.
As the saying goes, people eat with their eyes first, and this is no different for PBMAs. Consumers feel more comfortable with products that behave similarly to conventional meat, therefore many of the ingredients used in PBMAs help mimic the behaviour of conventional meat during cooking. For example, heat-stable caramel colouring agents, malt extracts and reducing sugars are added to make the PBMA transition from red to brown upon cooking, mimicking the browning effect of conventional cooked meat. Soy leghemoglobin (SLH), an oxygen carrier similar to myoglobin in muscle, is an ingredient in
A fundamental characteristic of conventional meat is its fibrous nature, which contributes to its texture and mouthfeel. This is especially true for "whole muscle" meat like steak, but also for ground meat. However, plant-based proteins are typically globular; therefore, to mimic this anisotropic structure, plant-based proteins must be unfolded, cross-linked, and re-aligned to form fibres.
A well-established technique for achieving this is using High Moisture Extrusion Cooking (HMEC), wherein the protein, water and any other ingredients are mixed, before being heated under pressure and then cooled, forcing the fibres to align and creating a modified textured protein.,, Another technique is shear cell technology, which creates a shear zone using two rotating cylinders and applies heat, generating fibrous structured plant-based protein. Importantly, shear cell technology looks promising for meeting scalability requirements.
Investment into PBMAs
PBMAs have seen huge market growth, and the big players have amassed high levels of investment.
Interestingly, some of the biggest investors in this field are the incumbent meat producers.
Venture capital firms and accelerators are also involved, such as
PBMA companies are partnering with retailers to reach consumers.
US plant-based market growing five times faster than total food sales
PBMAs and IP: what can be protected?
Intellectual property (IP) protection is vital to enable companies to secure a monopoly over their inventions, protect investments and recoup R&D costs. The growing number of players in this field means securing IP rights will become increasingly important. The multifactorial nature of PBMAs offers many opportunities for patent protection. Product patents can protect the novel ingredient combinations used for flavour and aroma, and can protect the PBMA product itself, defined by its ingredients and composition, such as moisture content. Process patents can protect the methods that alter the plant-based protein properties, as well as the specific conditions used in these processes, such as temperature and pH. In particular, methods for isolating and purifying the proteins from the raw plant material may be protected by method claims, and are likely to be relied upon more as attention shifts upstream.
New machines and production systems developed to make PBMAs – such as bioreactors, incubators and shear cells – can be protected by product patents and patents covering their use in the production of PBMA products. Interestingly, it is likely that many of these patents will be applicable across multiple products, meaning innovators could leverage or licence their patent portfolios not only over their competitors, but over those producing non-competing products.
What can we expect next from PBMAs?
Plant-based seafood analogues have been attracting increased funding due to a raised global awareness of global fish stock depletion. There are already some huge players in this area, such as
The first generations of PBMAs relied heavily on soy and wheat protein, which are by-products of other industries and so have the advantages of established supply chains and availability. They have some nutritional and structural benefits, but also present problems in downstream processing, such as anti-vitamins that reduce bioavailability of nutrients in the body. Attention is now shifting upstream: rather than trying to fix downstream problems that are inherent features of the crop used, research is turning towards finding alternative crops or genetic modification of existing crops to prevent these problems occurring in the first place.
Currently, PBMA technology is limited to ground and shaped meat analogues. Although work is ongoing to develop a whole muscle PBMA, such as a plant-based steak, it seems likely that the race will be won by cellular agriculture.
PBMAs are an active area that continues to attract large amounts of investment, which drives the iterative research developing the next generations of PBMAs. Excitingly, they have proven to be largely resistant to the challenges of the current pandemic: in the US, plant-based meat sales increased by 264 percent over a nine-week period to
About the author
Fay is a Technical Assistant in the Life Sciences patent team at intellectual property firm
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