This article is the first in a series through which we intend to explore the alternative protein industry and discuss legal considerations for companies and investors operating within it.
With an expanding global population and finite resources, our food systems are under significant pressure. Alternative proteins are increasingly presented as the solution to relieving the pressure that our food systems are under and to improving global food security. They can provide excellent nutritional value while also helping food systems become more sustainable and environmentally friendly. Investing in and partnering with companies specialised in the production of alternative proteins is fast becoming a key trend.
The alternative protein industry
Types of alternative protein
The main types of alternative protein are listed below – the first three are commonly consumed, and the remainder are still being developed for widespread consumption.
- Soy protein: Highly digestible but often genetically modified, thought to have possible estrogenic effects and carries origin concerns (including deforestation of the Amazon rainforest).
- Pea protein: Not as digestible as soy, tastes earthy and beany.
- Whey protein: Extracted from dairy, quite digestible and neutral in taste. However, consumer preferences are increasingly shifting towards dairy-free products.
- Next generation plant proteins: Chickpea and pongamia. Both chickpea and pongamia are high protein producing plants that fix atmospheric nitrogen and have increased tolerance to drought and heat stress.
- Insect protein: made from insects such as crickets, ants, locusts and grasshoppers. Offers high quality protein and other essential vitamins and minerals. Considered environmentally friendly.
- Mycoprotein: made of fungus, usually fermented and combined with glucose and other nutrients. Neutral in taste, easy to digest, and contains less fat and more fibre than meat.
- Microalgae protein: quick to grow, does not require arable land, and very nutritious. However, difficult to digest and has a strong, grassy taste.
- Cultured meat/fish (or cell-based cultured protein): produced by collecting and growing animal or fish tissue samples in a lab. Easy to digest, can be made to taste like real meat/fish and can offer health benefits that conventional products would not; e.g., contains extra nutrients but fewer antibiotics, pathogens and micro-plastics.
- Precision fermented proteins and biomass fermented proteins: precision fermentation uses synthetic biology to direct microorganisms to produce proteins usually made by animals (e.g., egg whites), or plant proteins. Biomass fermentation enables the production of protein cells from protists and bacteria.
Applications of alternative proteins
Plant-based proteins (including soy, chickpea, pongamia and pea protein) can be processed into powder, protein isolates or extracts. They are often used to make protein bars, baked goods and snacks, as well as plant-based “meats,” such as plant-based hamburgers, turkey and bacon. Insects are commercialised for human consumption whole, or in the form of powder, meal, oil or paste, to be incorporated in baked goods and confectionary. Mycoprotein is sold in various forms, such as cubes or mince (e.g., Quorn). Microalgae protein, such as spirulina, tends to be consumed as a supplement and can be added to drinks. Cultured/cell-based meat is consumed in forms similar to regular meat products – e.g., hamburgers, steaks, and chicken breast. Finally, biomass fermentation can create protein substances which can be combined with other ingredients to create plant- or animal-based products such as Noblegen Inc’s plant-based “egg” powder.
Some alternative proteins are also increasingly being explored as more environmentally sustainable sources of animal feed. For example, insect protein may be a viable alternative to fishmeal for use in aquaculture feed.
Global market trends
Europe and the United States are home to the largest alternative protein markets, and both are currently seeing a surge in growth. It is anticipated that the market in Southeast Asia (Singapore in particular) will also boom in the coming years. COVID-19 is expected to accelerate this trend, as consumers become increasingly conscious about nutrition.
The UK’s alternative protein industry is especially well placed to flourish given the opportunities available for regulatory reform following Brexit, and a concurrent shift in agriculture policy towards promoting sustainability and improving environmental standards.
Legal considerations for companies operating in the alternative protein industry
Emerging and established companies in the alternative protein industry should have a range of matters in mind when establishing and operating their businesses in the alternative protein sector. Investors in this space will also need to consider key points. We aim to explore these topics in more detail in future alerts:
- Compliance with regulatory frameworks in the UK, EU and United States.
- Corporate matters, filings, responsibilities and governance.
- Intellectual property considerations.
- Joint ventures, commercial contracts and licences across the life cycle of an alternative protein.
- Investing in and partnering with companies in the alternative protein industry.
- Growing your company, overcoming issues and reaching an exit.
Julia Kotamäki, London trainee solicitor contributed to the drafting of this alert.