What climate and capital interests are cooking
It is annual peak MICE season, #szn, and on my schedule, the Good Food Conference was the first to get things going. Hosted by the Good Food Institute, which admittedly I have viewed as more of a lobbying body before attending, brought together a variety of panel speakers to talk about not just good, but better food.
While a lot of people hold their opinions on what food is, how it should be made and who gets to decide what we eat, the conference was a lot less about propagating an opinion, but rather to bring together a variety of opinions and enable a discussion between stakeholders of the food industry.
Since it took place in San Francisco, VCs and founders obviously made up a good amount of the attendees, not to my liking as neither seemed to understand the matter and industry very well, but for them, it provided an environment to meet and pitch their approaches and products.
Now to the event itself. Two days of panels which I have to say were extraordinary diverse by anyone’s definition, and I am not just talking about the gender ratio, which usually pretty good in the food industry. It was the geographic and opinion diversity that made the panels interesting and valuable. Followed by the obligatory networking sessions and plenty of alternative foods to sample, it was as productive as you wanted it to be.
Alt Foods are Mainstream
Kroger’s launch of its line of alternative food products at the beginning of the conference was certainly the announcement that made it into the mainstream. Since Kelloggs announced its brand of plant-based meats, Incogmeato, 48 hours earlier, even those who did not already know, were now fully aware of the fact that plant-based meats are now a mainstream product category.
I have for a long time said that these 2nd generation proteins are only a step towards a larger variety of foods, which in a decades time, will taste like today’s animal products, but not require current production processes. That said, I do not see either one dominating any time soon. Animal and plant protein products will cohabit the store aisles.
Printed Meat / cultured animal protein
Both are a long way off than the number of articles written about them may suggest. In short, the issue is technology. Cultivating cells is doable, we have had the first lab burger patty in 2013, produced by Mosa Meats. Today, however, cultivating large amounts of cells in a controlled environment, such as tanks, many compare them to today’s brewing tanks, is difficult.
For one, even minced meat consists of more than just muscle cells, it also requires fat cells. Both of which have to receive quality nutrients and kept from any contamination. The cultured matter then still has to bring into the right shape and consistency fit for commercial use. Then there is the requirement for a frame that the cells would latch on to in order to multiply into the corresponding product, an issue which has also yet to be tackled to achieve a commercially viable production process.
Since we are talking about food, there is also flavor. While producing the cells gets you a plain product, it does not produce the flavors. The environment animals are exposed to contribute to the product’s flavor. While obvious to those who have dealt with animal meat/protein, many of the startups working on these proteins seemingly were not aware of this. May want to try a Prosciutto di Parma once. One alt seafood company elaborated on how they achieved the salty ocean-like flavor, which is encouraging progress.
Seafood, in general, seems to be further along in the process of providing plant-based and lab-made alternatives. As one of the panel speakers said, crustaceans are easier to replicate and the products may make it into supermarkets within 2yrs time.
Strides are also made in fermentation. Not simply in current products, but areas like protein fermentation. The importance of this area may not be obvious to the general public yet, but as science discovers the value of fermentation for our well being, this might be the most important area of innovation to achieve better foods, not for corporations, but consumers.
As some have confirmed, it is good to see that there now seems to be a general understanding that we do have the opportunity to establish more sustainable supply chains and make more nutritious products with the increasing demand for non-industrial animal proteins.
Alternative foods are here to stay.
The discussion is not about if our food will be engineered, but how it can become more sustainable, more nutritious and longer-lasting. There are two different opinions on how we can achieve that. One represents those who want to blend and process ingredients in different and more elaborate ways to commercialize more plant proteins (processing plant proteins/fermentation), and there are the ones who see genetic modification as the way forward.
While my personal opinion is that we are way too smart to rely on genetic modification and that alternative, less controversial, technologies and approaches, such as fermentation and cell cultivation, can get us a lot further than the public is currently aware of.
Look forward to products with more nutrients and more sustainability.