School of Agriculture and Food
School of Population and Global Health
Alternative proteins are plant-based and food-technology alternatives to animal protein. They include food products made from plants (for example, grains, legumes and nuts), fungus (mushrooms), algae, insects and even cultured (lab-grown) meat. The Future Food Hallmark Research Initiative is an interdisciplinary research team that brings together food scientists and social scientists to explore the development of these novel products.
Are plant-based meat alternatives the food of the future?
Dr Jennifer Lacy-Nichols (Melbourne School of Population and Global Health), Associate Professor Gyorgy Scrinis (School of Agriculture and Food) and Professor Rob Moodie (Melbourne School of Population and Global Health) have received funding from the Future Food project to critically analyse the health and nutrition claims made about plant-based meat alternatives. This is a first step in understanding and critically scrutinising these products’ potential role of helping meet the future nutritional needs of a growing global population.
Work to date includes a summary of the key players in Australia’s alternative protein manufacturing sector, a review of their products, a summary of the substitutional role each attempts to play in the market (i.e. the animal protein that products are attempting to substitute), and a summary of the claims that are made about each product.
The claims of alternative protein companies
The research has established that the companies involved in alternative proteins put forward several types of claims. Depending on the product, these include that alternative proteins are able to simulate the taste and texture of conventional meat, are more sustainable, i.e. have a smaller ecological footprint, are as, or more nutritious than conventional meat, protect animal welfare or contribute to food security.
Often the claim is made that, because of the way these benefits combine, alternative proteins are also a good economic choice, as they encourage new technologies and businesses, thus contributing to the economic pillar of sustainable development. Importantly, it also finds that these claims are frequently unsubstantiated and lack supporting evidence. The report constitutes an important first step in interrogating the potential that alternative proteins play in sustainable development.
Plant-based as a ‘healthy’ alternative
A further study is underway that analyses how the largest global food and meat companies are entering into the US alternative protein sector, and how they market the health and nutrition benefits of their products. Initial findings show that many companies focus on messages about protein content and about being ‘plant-based’, and that nutrient claims are used extensively. Furthermore, most products are ultra-processed, which raise questions about their health credentials.
Determining alignment with sustainable development
Further research that builds on these studies will develop an understanding of the factors necessary to identify foods, products and technologies that are likely to achieve broad social, political and ethical goals, information that will be valuable for contributing to the achievement of SDG 2: Zero Hunger and SDG 3: Good Health and Wellbeing.
This work also plays a role in contributing to SDG 10: Reduced Inequalities. As the food system’s most powerful companies enter the alternative protein sector, this raises important questions about whether and how alternative proteins can help create fair and resilient food systems. What regulatory systems are needed to ensure an equitable playing field? How can we ensure that future developments in the alternative protein sector are based on sound scientific evidence and are sensitive to, and emerge from, community-based engagement?
Contributing to the bigger picture
Work funded to date by the Future Food Hallmark Research Initiative has been valuable for analysing these claims and situating the growth of alternative proteins within broader food system dynamics. From there, future work arising from this project can be used to understand how the alternative protein sector unfolds and the consequences of corporate concentration within the sector. Alternative proteins have potential as a response to climate change, food security and sustainable development generally – however it is crucial that their development coincides with efforts to create a just and equitable food system.