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Product, Service & Design Innovation
Could Lab-Grown, Hybrid Foods Be the Future of Sustainable Protein?

While the plant-based protein industry deals with growing pains, cultivated meats — and even a combination of the two — are waiting in the wings to help future-proof our food system.

Researchers at Yonsei University in South Korea have taken food combining to a new level: The team recently blended cultivated beef cells with rice to create a new, protein-fortified rice — and they see this as a more affordable source of protein than conventional beef, with a much smaller carbon footprint. Turning a familiar, staple grain into “a new complete meal” could carry innumerable benefits for developing and food-insecure parts of the world.

“We believe there is a substantial potential market for this hybrid product,” Jinkee Hong, a chemical engineer and lead researcher on the Yonsei University team, told Sustainable Brands® (SB). “This holds true not only for its development into conventional food products but also, and perhaps more significantly, in response to specific threats or unique environmental conditions.”

Could hybrid products, combinations of lab-grown and conventional foods, be the future of protein? The alternative-protein industry is at a crossroads right now. It was not too long ago that plant-based alternatives to animal-based foods were seen as the future of food. According to market leaders Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, their burgers — according to life-cycle analysis commissioned by the brands themselves — create “91 percent less emissions than an equivalent serving of beef” and require 93 percent less land than a beef patty, respectively.

But in 2022, years of rapid plant-based protein growth came to a screeching halt; and 2023 was not much better. The explosion of plant-based meat — which uses ingredients from nature and, via high-tech processing, turns them into products that mimic meat — may have hit a wall, as evidenced by the fact that high-profile Impossible and Beyond partnerships with Dunkin Donuts, Burger King and Taco Bell mostly failed to gain traction. So, why did the movement lose steam?

“By changing the process of production, rather than the food itself, you are asking consumers to change their behavior for the benefit of the planet alone,” says George Peppou, founder and CEO of Vow — the Australian cultured meat startup behind the Mammoth Meatball. “Despite what we’d like to believe, those externalities don’t matter as much as we think to a vast majority of consumers when it comes to purchasing.”

Others feel that the quality of plant-based meat never quite met the hype; while some pointed to high prices and lack of consumer willingness to pay a premium for more environmentally sustainable products in a period of high inflation. The meat industry hasn’t helped — going all out to discredit plant-based products and shed doubt on their sustainability credentials. Health concerns over consuming highly processed foods may also be playing a role.

But as we know, when it comes to protein production, the status quo is problematic. Conventionally raised meat is a major contributor to climate change and has an outsized impact on soil health, water and pollution. According to Hong, investors are still looking to support new, innovative alternatives.

“We have already received various proposals from investors and companies, and are currently exploring multiple opportunities through these channels,” he says.

This is part of a wider trend — increasing attention, and hope, on the potential for lab-grown alternatives to popular livestock food products. Companies including Aleph Farms and Vow hope to build on the market that plant-based meat brands build and create even better solutions.

“Companies like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat have accomplished a lot in educating the public about sustainable food choices, helping forge a path for more sustainable food systems,” Yoav Reisler, Aleph’s Senior Manager of Marketing Communications, told SB.

The Israel-based company is focused on an emerging technology with a lot of potential — cellular agriculture, or lab-growing meat products from animal cells vs from raising a whole animal. The company recently received its government’s approval to sell cultivated beef — a first step toward wider regulatory acceptance, as cultivated-chicken producers Upside Foods and Good Meat achieved in 2023 when they received FDA and USDA approval — and Reisler says they feel their process can provide higher-quality alternative proteins.

“We believe that cellular agriculture ... is strategic in terms of providing diners with what they want: new and exciting choices that don’t compromise on quality,” he says.

Similarly, Peppou thinks that providing a better product will help Vow attract more customers: “We innovate instead of imitating — and therefore offer something that consumers will selfishly choose because it is deliberately different.”

While lab-grown protein products are already available in a few places, such as Singapore, mass-market expansion is still a ways away. But despite the attention and optimism, Hong cautions that it will take time before any of these products — whether it’s cultivated meat or hybrid products such as beef rice — appear on your local grocery shelves.

“As for market introduction, it does not appear that lab-grown beef rice, or similar products, will be available in the near future,” he says. “Even with technological maturity, the clarification of regulations in different countries and acceptance by consumers represent separate challenges.”

Thankfully, many aren’t waiting for the future of lab-grown meat; in the meantime, many are looking to other alternatives — such as regenerative farming and plant-based proteins — to reduce the impact of agriculture on our planet. But we’ll need all the tools in the toolbox to future-proof our food system.