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Farming: More on alternative proteins

17 Apr 2018

I had feedback on my article last week about a talk I heard from Professor Frank Griffin. People wanted to know more about alternative proteins and Frank himself had some more to add.

If you want to catch up with the discussion, read my Farming article dated 4 April 2018 on our website.

What about alternative proteins? I can improve on the definitions I gave in my last article.

There are three broad categories of alternative protein, according to Meat & Lamb:

  • Meat (and milk) substitutes derived from plants (E.g. Beyond Burgers)
  • Meat cultured in the laboratory (E.g. Impossible Burgers)
  • Insects (E.g. Barely edible Burgers)

Frank suggests a fourth one:

  • Food from microorganisms (especially yeasts) will become a major contributor in the immediate future and become far more important than insects. (That’s lucky.)

Beyond Burgers

These are 100% plant-based burger patties that can be fried up like a meat patty. They look like meat patties and are meant to bleed like meat patties (beetroot juice) but apparently at this stage don’t have the flavour or texture of meat, according to some of the taste tests available on the web. I haven’t eaten a Beyond Burger although I have eaten vegetarian patties from Frys and Bean Supreme. In both those cases I wasn’t tempted to repeat the experience, although my wife, a pescetarian (eats pesce (fish), but not meat), eats them. They include pea protein, yeast, coconut oil and so on.

Impossible Burgers

This plant-based burger patty is apparently a lot more like real meat. They rely on a molecule that gives blood in animals its red colour, called ‘heme’. It is found in animal muscle but also in all plants, especially nitrogen-fixing plants and legumes. The heme molecule in plants is identical to the heme molecule found in meat.

To make plant-based heme in large quantities, Impossible Foods' scientists genetically engineered a yeast and used a fermentation process very similar to the beer brewing process used to make some types of beer.

Insect Protein

“Not what you’d expected,” could almost be the tagline for eating insects. Because it’s just not as gross as you think it might be. I ate deep-fried crickets at Vault21 in the Octagon, Dunedin, last year and I loved them. But it is mostly the flour of insects that is taking over the alternative protein world.

Apparently, humans eat a lot of insects already, about 2000 different varieties, and have done so forever. It’s normal in most cultures, just not European!

Locusts are up to 75% protein and insects require a lot less feeding than cows, sheep, chickens or pigs. There is the potential to grow insects to feed farmed fish and chickens too, I would have thought.

Microorganisms

Isaac Asimov and other classic sci-fi writers envisioned a future in which great vats of yeast or bacteria could feed humanity. We're not there yet, but some of today's start-ups are using genetically-engineered yeast cultures to produce milk, egg whites, and even coffee.

Yeast are like little factories. They can be programmed to make essentially anything.

They are, of course, genetically modified and then fed sugars to produce the protein they have been modified with. At the end of the process that protein is filtered out of the mixture and the genetically modified yeast is discarded. The result is not considered to be ‘genetically modified’.

Will consumers be disturbed by the process? Compare it with the natural way of making gelatine, which I always thought was pretty gross.

Keep asking great questions …

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