What really is the future of future food?

Posted: 22 November 2023 | | No comments yet

Professor Chris Elliott reports from the Future of Foods Summit in Thailand and expresses a change of heart when it comes to alternative proteins.

chris' corner

I had the amazing opportunity to attend and present at the Future of Future Foods Summit in Thailand last week. Researchers and food company representatives from many countries congregated to discuss the many challenges, but equally the number of opportunities to help provide safe, sustainable food for the world going forward. Unsurprisingly, the focus was more on the alternative protein sectors rather than how advances in terms of improved sustainability of conventional protein production can be made.

What became very clear is there has been a massive number of market failures in the alternative protein area. We were told over 4000 products were launched in Europe over the past three years and many of these have failed to attract the level of sales needed to make then economically viable.

Many of the ‘fake meat’ offerings have been deemed too expensive and less tasty than the real thing. The clear message is that while consumers want to purchase more environmentally friendly foods and adopt a more ‘flexitarian’ approach to their diet, if they don’t taste good or aren’t affordable then they will largely be rejected. But what also became apparent to me is that food companies will keep working on new product development until they crack the market.

One example of this was a competition that was held for students to design a new alternative protein product that would appeal to the marketplace. There were over 60 entries for the competition and I, along with several chiefs and food industry experts, was part of the judging panel for the top 12 products.

Team GB’s new player in protein

There were a number of very clear themes. Firstly, the sustainability element of the products was clearly a given and the focus on the health properties was much more heavily promoted. Secondly, the taste of the products had been assessed by market research across a range of market segments, but most especially Millennials and Generation Z.

While some of the entries were quite disappointing in terms of being comprised of highly processed plant proteins and lacking in flavour, there were some that really surprised me in terms of their degree of innovation in using natural ingredients with mild processing techniques, the natural flavours that came across on tasting and a range of health claims. A bell pepper plant-based ice cream was a particular favourite and was the overall winner of the competition.

There was another side to the summit, that of taking alternative proteins out of the ‘wild west’ of food and moving them into a much more regulated environment. There are several important initiatives on this front: a UN organisations, the USP in the United States and EFSA in Europe are all working towards introducing legislative frameworks. This can only be considered a good thing, in order to protect consumers and ensure what is sold into the markets are safe.

Based on my own views and that of many I talked to, the cell-based offerings will have the greatest hurdles to overcome. I still view this form of alternative protein as being totally overhyped in terms of the claimed environmental credentials and maintain that it will not make any significant difference to feeding the world’s growing population. Two years from now, when the next Future Food Summit is held, I may well have a different view of course.

For those who think that alternative proteins in a fad and will fade away, I think the opposite is true. I’m much more inclined to embrace the true innovation that I am starting to witness and look forward to buying some bell pepper ice-cream in my local store for dessert after an excellent grass fed steak produced in Northern Ireland.