The future of protein could be a meal worm, a fungus, an obscure plant or a run-of-the-mill pea.
“If we look around the world, there’s a big consumer trend on more protein,” says
vice chairman and chief scientific officer at
“The question is: How are we going to do this in a manner that’s sustainable? Protein isn’t cheap. And animal protein has the greatest footprint on the planet.”
The maker of Cheetos, Rice-A-Roni and Quaker Oats this year issued a request for proposals on “novel protein sources” for its snacks and beverages. PepsiCo is focused primarily on plant-based proteins but said it would also consider insects or mycoprotein—an ingredient made from fermented fungus.
Indeed, companies from startups to conglomerates are expanding their portfolios to serve consumers concerned not just about what they eat, but how their food is grown.
More U.S. consumers are looking for healthy, minimally processed ingredients sourced in a way that is kind to the environment.
While U.S. per capita consumption of meat and poultry combined grew 6% from 2014 to 2016, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, consumption of meat substitutes is also growing. U.S. retail-store sales of products using meat substitutes climbed 16% over the same period to $700 million in 2016, according to research firm Euromonitor International. The firm projects that meat substitutes, including frozen, refrigerated and shelf-stable products, will reach $863 million in annual U.S. sales by 2021.
Packaged foods labeled “vegan” represented $9.7 billion in global retail sales last year and are projected to reach $11.8 billion by 2021, according to Euromonitor.
“The consumer is demanding more and more plant-based solutions,” says
chief executive of Beyond Meat, a Los Angeles-area company that uses peas to make burger patties with a texture, taste and sizzle similar to ground beef. The company last year sold a 5% stake to
the largest U.S. meat company by sales. Tyson, which raised some eyebrows with the move, said at the time that investing in plant-based protein would help it meet consumer demand for more choice and keep tabs on innovations.
Nestlé SA last month agreed to acquire Sweet Earth Foods, a Moss Landing, Calif., company that substitutes plant for meat proteins in meals such as curries, stir fries, breakfast wraps, burgers and pasta. Nestlé didn’t disclose the terms of the deal.
As shoppers look for healthy, natural ingredients, big food companies are investing in startups that offer alternatives to traditional dairy products as well.
venture-capital fund in January announced an investment in Kuli Kuli, an Oakland, Calif., company that makes smoothie mixes and bars from the protein-rich leaves of the moringa tree, cultivated in West Africa, the Caribbean and elsewhere.
venture-capital fund, too, has invested in such companies as Kite Hill, a producer of nut-milk-based cheeses and yogurts; and Purely Elizabeth, which sells granola and hot cereal made with ingredients such as kaniwa, a protein-rich seed grown in South America.
Alternatives to traditionally raised animal products are coming from some surprising sources. Take jackfruit, for example. It isn’t high in protein, but when cooked it has a texture similar to pulled pork. Then there’s Memphis Meats Inc., which is developing technology to grow meat from self-reproducing animal cells. Cargill Inc. invested in the company in August.
PepsiCo’s request, posted on a website that helps match projects with researchers, notes that the company has already done “extensive work” on ingredients including soy, moringa, duckweed, cricket powder and mealworm powder. But don’t expect a Quaker cricket bar soon. The company says that “extensive work” could mean reading the research literature on a given subject.
The company has set goals for lowering the amounts of sugar, fat and sodium in its products and is shifting its portfolio to include more of what it calls “everyday nutrition” products containing whole grains, fruits, vegetables, dairy and protein. These products, such as overnight oats, granola and hummus-based sandwich spreads, now represent 27% of PepsiCo’s net revenue.
In its search for new protein sources, the company says it is looking for ingredients that are affordable, easy to pronounce and have minimal impact on the flavor and texture of a drink or snack.
“Ask anybody who enjoys cooking,” says Dr. Khan, a former endocrinologist. “Take anything with protein; if you mishandle it, it either curdles, denatures, gels, tastes bad. It is not easy to cook with.”
In some cases, PepsiCo has taken a conventional ingredient and given it a new form.
The company’s latest innovation is a patented process that makes oats soluble in water so they can be consumed as a protein-rich beverage. The resulting drinks don’t have the viscosity or granularity one might expect from mixing oats and water, PepsiCo says. The company is developing products made with “SoluOats” for the U.S. and other markets that vary by seasoning, flavoring and texture. Some may include additional protein from dairy.
Food companies are also looking for ingredients that address concerns that meat production—because of the amount of land, water and energy it requires—won’t meet the world’s growing protein needs.
That’s where the use of insects could come in.
chief executive of a Texas company called Aspire Food Group, is aiming to introduce American palates to insects—a protein source consumed by two billion people around the world.
“We are growing in numbers and we are growing in appetite,” Mr. Ashour says of the world’s population, noting that raising livestock requires much more water, land and fossil fuels per pound of meat produced than insect farming does. “We have to start shifting how the world’s resources are used.”
In a newly expanded indoor facility in Austin, Aspire produces a cricket powder that is used in protein bars, cookies and dog treats. The company also makes whole-roasted crickets, a crunchy snack that comes in flavors such as Texas BBQ and sour cream and onion. The roasted crickets were a hit this year at the Seattle Mariners’ Safeco Field, where concession stands served them in a 4-ounce cup with chile-lime seasoning for $4. Aspire is now in talks with an NBA team, Mr. Ashour says.
“There’s definitely a psychological hurdle,” he says. “A lot of insects are just simply gross to look at. This isn’t an overnight shift.”
Meanwhile, Beyond Meat is exploring protein sources beyond the humble pea.
“People don’t like to eat the same thing every day,” Mr. Brown says. A mix of proteins can create a better mouthfeel and a more complete amino-acid profile. The company is also looking to increase the stability of its amino acid supply by diversifying the crops it uses.
Among other crops, it is considering lentils, mung beans, mustard seeds and lupin beans, a legume eaten in the Mediterranean. The company’s next product will likely use a combination of protein sources.
Ms. Maloney is a reporter for The Wall Street Journal in New York. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Appeared in the October 16, 2017, print edition as ‘The Future of Protein (the Meatless Variety).’