Alternative Proteins

Illustration by Gabriel Ebensperger

In a world where climate change is increasingly consequential, we all need to take action to prevent further damage to the earth and our global population. Today, conscientious consumers look for ways to reduce their carbon footprint-which often entails making major lifestyle changes, including dietary choices. Why? The livestock and fisheries industries are responsible for 31% of food production emissions , that of which makes up 26% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Research by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) further proves that production of red meat such as beef is responsible for draining vital resources and releasing detrimental chemicals such as toxic compounds from pesticides. Luckily, meat isn’t the only way to get protein-especially considering the burgeoning growth of the alternative protein space-and it’s important for everyone to be educated about their options.

Before we explore meat alternatives, a primer on nutrition is required. Proteins are composed of 20 amino acids, of which our bodies produce 11 naturally , and are integral in nearly all of our bodily functions. We must obtain the other 9 “essential” amino acids through food. In our diet, it is vital that we get enough of the right type of protein. When a food contains all 9 essential amino acids, it is categorized as a complete protein . One major qualm about meat alternatives is that the substitute may not have equivalent protein content to meat; vegans and vegetarians often experience certain nutritional deficiencies for nutrients that are abundant only in meat. However, one main remedy is to combine incomplete plant proteins to form an aggregated complete protein . Nutritionists recommend that people aim for a diverse array of proteins in their diet, from a variety of plant and animal sources.

With a comprehensive understanding of protein in its various forms, consumers can make better dietary choices. Looking at how consumer trends have evolved over the past two decades, there is a fast-growing focus on reducing meat and seafood consumption to make a positive impact on public health and the environment . Some of the benefits include: decreasing carbon footprint, improving health outcomes, and promoting animal welfare. As concerns about population growth, supply inadequacy, and environmental damage from livestock production increase, calls for the development of alternative protein sources have intensified. Technological innovation in the alternative protein space continues to expand, and is drawing attention for being one of the most promising solutions to climate change and fighting food insecurity.

The alt-protein space focuses on 3 general categories: plant-based proteins, new biological sources, and cellular agriculture. While combining incomplete proteins is one way to obtain plant-based protein, the food industry is now trying to develop novel products that can provide adequate protein on their own. These options mimic texture, consistency, and overall taste of traditional meat without the need for large scale livestock operations. Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are currently the top consumer contenders with transparent marketing and overall consumer satisfaction. In 2017, Impossible Foods paired up with FEED Berkeley to bring alternative protein options to the UC Berkeley campus through a promotional food truck that gave away free burgers for students during the Impossible Burger Tour. Since then, Impossible Foods has thrived, pairing with fast food chains such as Burger King and Red Robin and expanding its consumer base to countle. Similarly, Beyond Meat had a massively successful IPO and is now sold at supermarket chains such as the popular Swedish superstore, IKEA, where shoppers can enjoy alternative protein burgers. Make sure to watch out for IKEA’s new meatless (plant-based) meatballs starting August 2020 in store!

Many alternative meat brands have also popularized meat substitutes that are traditional parts of foreign cultures- apart from tofu, tempeh and seitan have also gained a following outside of their Asian origins. offers a variety of plant-based “meats” derived from seitan such as chicken, sausage, beef and more; if you’ve eaten the Vegan Chicken Tenders, Vegan Szechuan Beef, or other vegan meat options at UC Berkeley’s dining halls , chances are you’ve tried Gardein’s products! Caldining also serves vegan sausages and Celebration Roast from Field Roast . Plant-based meat sources are becoming widely popularized in common grocery store chains such as Target and Trader Joe’s, offering consumers the chance to make a pivotal change.

The food industry is also turning to new biological sources such as insects, algae, and fungi. Insects-including crickets, scorpions, and silkworms-are a common and integral animal protein option in many parts of Southeast Asia , providing high quality protein with beneficial amino acids and vitamins. Insects are particularly important in the fight for global food security because they can be easily foraged across the world. Additionally, insects require significantly less feed to manufacture as a product and can be mixed into traditional feedstock, generating lower greenhouse gas emissions and negative environmental impact. These options are affordable and most importantly, sustainable . Another biological source, algae, contains valuable phytochemicals that have anti-inflammatory and disease prevention properties. Algae is easily farmed, although the main concerns about its sustainability are whether it can grow in non-coastal areas and be distributed , and how nutritionally effective the multitude of algae species worldwide is, since each varies in nutrient composition. Finally, fungi are showing promise as a top quality and highly-concentrated source of protein; current efforts are underway to use natural compounds from shiitake mushrooms to derive proteins from peas and rice , creating a new tasty and complete vegan protein. Nonetheless, more research is needed as algae and other novel biological proteins are projected to become global superfoods.

Image source:

One of the most innovative projects in the alternative protein space is cellular agriculture: using synthetic biotechnology, tissue engineering, and molecular biology to grow “cultured meats” and animal products from animal cell cultures in a lab. Cellular agriculture has innumerable benefits -not only does it contribute to the development of a sustainable and eco-friendly system for livestock agricultural products, it also enables consumers to keep eating real meat. The only difference is that no animals have to be slaughtered to put lab-grown cultured meat on the table! Of course, cellular agriculture is still a field in need of improvement and has some drawbacks. Perhaps the top concern about making cultured meat is the cost to develop the system and industry, especially with the demand for research and innovation. As well, there are qualms about the media used to feed and grow animal cells into edible quantities; at the moment, most companies use Fetal Bovine Serum to stimulate cell multiplication. FBS is extracted from the necks of baby cows in slaughterhouses, making its use highly controversial, non-vegan, and expensive. Only time will tell whether cultured meat will dominate the industry as companies continue to formulate and refine products; the cellular agriculture firm Memphis Meats has already made first lab-grown meatball and is the the first company to make lab-grown poultry, specifically chicken and duck.

Ultimately, it is undeniable that alternative proteins will be a critical part of our future. By 2050, the global population is expected to reach over 9 people . Simultaneously, consumer demand for meat will have skyrocketed from 60 billion animals in 2016 to 100 billion animals in 2050. Without intervention and innovation, the current animal products industry and systems in place to produce meat from livestock will be unable to meet future heights of demand, exacerbating food insecurity and poverty. Industry leaders hope that the alt-protein space can revolutionize our global food systems, helping advance the goal to feed everyone in the world by 2050 . How do we get involved in this movement? Firstly, consumer education about the alternative protein space is vital to integrating alt-protein products into mainstream markets. While news outlets such as The Economist can play an influential role in achieving this, word of mouth is also important. By spreading the word about novel alternative proteins, we can ensure that our society is well-informed about the dietary options it has and the broader industry, environmental impacts, and food systems associated with such products.

Originally published at on April 7, 2020.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Rachael Deng

Rachael Deng

Is loving writing a personality trait?… I'm a designer and startup founder, makeup/skincare junkie, foodie, and published poet! Almost always smiling :)