: The future of food: Alternative meats, bugs and jellyfish?
SINGAPORE – Huge, hulking, grown-up sums of money have been injected to drive innovation in the plant- and cell-based protein sector, yet it remains very much in its infancy.
To date, about $317 million has been pumped into the industry.
There are now about 60 alternative protein start-ups in Singapore offering a range of plant-based to cultivated meat products, says Ms Sharon Tay, Enterprise Singapore’s director of food manufacturing and agritech.
Over the past four years, the number of start-ups in the plant-based space has grown from fewer than five to more than 40.
According to Singapore-based think-tank Good Food Institute (GFI) Asia Pacific, investments in alternative proteins in the Republic multiplied exponentially to US$169.8 million (S$225.6 million) in 2022, from just US$5.9 million in 2019.
On a global scale, the GFI’s investor survey results in December 2022 show that while interest in plant-based options is declining, there is new interest in cultivated meat and precision fermentation products.
Precision fermentation technology – similar to brewing beer – is used to produce animal-free dairy products. It is touted as a cheaper method to derive a product that is molecularly identical to the animal-based option.
But with rising costs, subdued demand and delays in existing products entering production or achieving scalability, industry players here remain cautious over what the future holds, despite growing awareness of sustainable eating and interest in the sector.
Has plant-based protein peaked?
Mr Vishal Vijay, 35, director of strategic investments for agri-commodity company Agrocorp International, notes that in changing eating habits one plate at a time, consumer education has been a “slow-burn process”.
He describes it as “short-term pain, long-term adoption”, especially when consumers are more health-conscious and looking for products that have “clean labels”. This refers to food that has been minimally processed with fewer than 10 ingredients on the label, he says – something that manufacturers need to look at.
“Products should not look like a chemistry experiment. You cannot offer taste and sustainability, but compromise on health, wellness and affordability.”
Agrocorp’s tofu-like HerbYvore Plant Protein block, priced at $5.89, is made with six ingredients including pea protein. The HerbYvore label is also launching a range of plant-based cheese soon.
Also making mincing progress with her plant-based products is Ms Vinita Choolani, chief executive and founder of home-grown food-tech start-up Float Foods. Her OnlyEg range of legume-based egg products added a Poached Eg at the Food&HotelAsia event in April.
The egg, complete with runny yolk when sliced, was available at Little Farms cafes for a limited period in May.
More time, she says, is required to educate consumers on the benefits of cracking an alternative egg. She has plans to launch it in other cafes, as well as for retail, in the coming months.
Ms Choolani, who is in her 50s, produces plant-based alternative protein yolks at her OnlyEg Yolk pilot plant, which opened in April in Tampines. She is looking to partner companies that can use the “yolk” as an ingredient in cakes, cookies or sauces that traditionally use chicken egg yolks.
To boost support for the sector, she has this bold suggestion: That 30 per cent of all government tenders for food be diverted towards alternative proteins.
“We could have nasi lemak with plant-based chicken and egg, and with the same amount of proteins. This way, we show the world our conviction in the new food system, which will pave the way for mainstream adoption,” she urges.
Notwithstanding the steady stream of plant-based products entering the market in new shapes and forms, chef Eric Low, 50, principal consultant of Lush Epicurean culinary consultancy, believes the sector has peaked.
He says: “Consumers in Singapore have got over the novelty and curiosity of plant-based alternative proteins, and are now looking for the next development that will keep the sector sustainable.
“So far, it has been an ‘Okay, this is what it is’ reaction, versus a ‘Wow, I am going to get this for my everyday meals’ response.”
From his experience working with companies for the research and development of plant-based products, he highlights the common problem areas: the high cost involved, as well as the need for more variety in taste and texture.
Plant-based products usually cost up to 30 per cent more and tend to come in the form of nuggets, mince or patties, which limits what chefs can do with them.
Mr John Cheng, 41, chief executive of food accelerator Innovate 360, is more optimistic. The company provides a platform for agri-food start-ups to scale up and grow in Asia.
He has a bunch of plant- and cell-based start-ups – both local and foreign – that he is rolling out in 2023.
Singapore-based ones include Grasshopper, which makes ready-to-eat plant-based shawarma, and Another, which produces cell-cultured coffee, a bean-free coffee made in a laboratory.
Brands from South Korea include Pensees, churning out cell-cultured beef, and Wemeet, which makes plant-based Korean fried chicken meat from mushrooms.
It is early days yet for the sector, which brims with untapped potential, he says. “There is still a lot of work that needs to be done, in terms of taste and nutrition, the format of the plant-based meats, and flavours suitable for the Asian palate.”
Enter cell-based protein
Mr Cheng notes that the nascent sector could receive a boost from the recent approval of cell-cultured meat produced by Californian food companies Good Meat and Upside Foods in the United States – the first time American regulators green-lit the sale of lab-grown chicken.
This move could have a positive impact on Asia and spur more start-ups to produce slaughter-free meat here.
Mr Cheng says companies manufacturing alternative protein fats are also on the rise. This refers to the practice of incorporating cell-based fats into plant-based meat products, which is said to enhance flavour and texture, and help bridge the gap between lab and conventional meat.
Later in 2023, Singapore start-up Love Handle and Dutch cultivated-meat company Meatable will launch a hybrid meat innovation centre here, to create hybrid combinations of plant-based proteins and cultured-meat products that taste more like animal-based meat and are lower in cost than pure cultivated meat.
It is expected that more cell-cultured products will hit shelves here soon, as local cell-based meat manufacturer Esco Aster will set up an 80,000 sq ft plant in Changi by 2025. Esco Aster is now supplying small batches of cultivated chicken cells to Good Meat for the production of its chicken nuggets, fillets and satay skewers.
Once operational, its ambitious goal is to produce at least 400 to 500 tonnes of cell-cultured meat annually.
Good Meat, the first to receive regulatory approval in 2020 from the Singapore Food Agency (SFA) for its lab-grown chicken, also has an upcoming 30,000 sq ft facility in Bedok Food City that will house a 6,000-litre bioreactor, which will produce tens of thousands of kilograms of lab-grown chicken annually.
But despite these anticipated openings, bold statements and hefty investment infusion in the sector, chef Low points out that there has yet to be a breakthrough in terms of supply volume or affordability.
While the US has started to grant regulatory approval for these products, other countries are slower in jumping onto the cell-cultured bandwagon.
He adds: “Many have yet to secure funding or gain knowledge to start trials. They are also watching how Singapore and the US are doing it, as well as their investment cost and benefits in return.”
Insects and jellyfish
Amid the caution for the many unknowns ahead, the most novel alternative proteins in the market now are something familiar to people – pests.
In April, 16 species of insects, such as crickets and silkworms, were approved by the SFA for human consumption.
Pouring the way forward is eco-conscious bar Fura, which opens in mid-August in Amoy Street.
After watching Netflix documentary Seaspiracy (2021), Fura’s co-founders – Danish-American chef Christina Rasmussen, 28, and Singaporean Sasha Wijidessa, 27 – had a two-hour discussion about the way forward for the food industry.
Ms Wijidessa – who trained as a bartender, then worked with Danish distillery Empirical in Copenhagen before returning to Singapore – says: “Food tech sounds buzzy and trendy, but a lot of the technology to farm more food creates immediate solutions that cause long-term harm.”
At Fura, their menu creation is all about ensuring new ways to eat that will not break the balance of the ecosystem.
Eating pests that are in abundance, such as jellyfish or crickets, could help to restore some balance. If so, they could then move on to using other ingredients.
“It shows that we are adaptable and that no one has to feel like he or she made a sacrifice or was inconvenienced,” she adds.
Drinks on their current menu are made with ingredients once deemed pests – think mealworm margarita and jellyfish martini ($25++ each).
Ms Rasmussen has also created a locust garum mixed with barley koji, which is used as the base of a Pumpkin Layers tart ($20++) made with amaranth grains.
While they are well aware that such a concept may be “ahead of its time”, they are hoping for “collaborative survival” by partnering other like-minded businesses that are on the same mission. For now, reception is expected to remain mixed, with a healthy dose of “eew” and curiosity.
Also banking on pests is Mr Christopher Leow, 36, chief executive and co-founder of insect protein company Future Protein Solutions.
He has spent the past two years doing research and development on how to run a sustainable business using crickets, which he farms as an alternative protein source.
For example, crickets can be used in a protein shake replacement for the elderly who are unable to chew meat, he suggests.
It has been challenging, he says, as the insect protein industry is nascent and there is limited financial support from the Government and private sector here to test new products.
He adds: “We are many years behind our insect protein counterparts from Thailand and Vietnam in terms of product development and knowledge. They have a strong ecosystem in the form of public-private partnerships. We need to build an ecosystem which supports innovation.”
Beyond plaintive cries for more investment and support, industry players that The Straits Times spoke to all had varying responses as to what their dream future of food looks like.
But they were all aligned on the belief that food has to be ethically and sustainably sourced and produced, as well as affordable, accessible and nutritious.
To support this initiative, Enterprise Singapore works with industry partners to provide platforms and shared facilities to expedite the development, scale-up and commercialisation of alternative proteins.
Some recent initiatives include a Food Tech Innovation Centre Challenge, where start-ups can tap pilot-scale manufacturing facilities to bring their products to market; a Meatless Meat Challenge, where 10 Singapore food companies and 30 Singapore Polytechnic students co-create innovative meatless products; and an annual event called Menu 2033, where data on possible scenarios for the future of food is showcased through menus of tomorrow and served as actual meals (see story below).
Enterprise Singapore’s Ms Tay says: “While technologies have led to new innovation and products such as cultivated meat and insect protein that could shape the future of food, it takes time for the general consumer to be acquainted with these novel foods and accept them as part of their everyday diet.”
What is clear is that all these changes will take time to be researched, lab-tested, manufactured in bulk and then plated. But day in, day out, what is being dished out onto dinner plates is changing, one morsel, one segment at a time.
Who knows? One day, when you look down, your dinner could be unrecognisable or crawling off your plate.
Launch of Solein
Solein – a protein powder said to be made out of “thin air” by Finnish food tech company Solar Foods – may kick off the next wave of food innovations in the alternative protein industry.
The powder is produced through a bioprocess similar to winemaking. Microbes are fed with gases such as carbon dioxide, hydrogen and oxygen, and small amounts of nutrients.
Its farm-free method of production is seen as a breakthrough in the sector, as it can be produced in the harshest of climates – even space.
It received novel food regulatory approval in Singapore in September 2022, and made its global debut on May 25 with its first official tasting at Italian restaurant Fico in East Coast Park.
To showcase the ingredient, Fico’s chef Mirko Febbrile – together with chef Oliver Truesdale-Jutras, who is the head of the Singapore F&B Sustainability Council – created a vegan menu for invited guests.
The powder was incorporated into a Japanese-style ozoni soup, pasta, salted egg sauce, beancurd and ice cream.
On its own, the ingredient has a very light nutty, earthy flavour – although the mind might link it to turmeric because of the colour.
Apart from imparting a mustard hue to food, it is an unobtrusive ingredient that is easy enough to use, say both chef-advocates, who believe in the game-changing potential of Solein.
On June 15, Fico launched a Solein chocolate gelato for diners, where the powder replaces the dairy component.
Mr Pasi Vainikka, 46, chief executive of Solar Foods, said: “Food is a very personal thing. We are attached to our favourite foods and their tastes. We want Solein to let those familiar tastes shine, not take their place.”
Shortly after Solein’s debut here, Solar Foods and Japanese food company Ajinomoto announced a strategic alliance to develop products using Solein and conduct a marketability study, which is set to begin in the first quarter of 2024.
Solar Foods’ new facility, Factory 01, is under construction in Finland. It is set to commence production in 2024.
Chef Truesdale-Jutras, 34, believes that more microbial protein products will follow on the back of Solein’s launch, which will help to diversify the human diet.
He says: “Humans will find that we mostly eat the way we now eat out of a sense of tradition and a sort of corporate entrenchment.
“The products we now have at scale and wide distribution are not necessarily the easiest, best or most environmentally friendly. They were just the first to dominate.”
Spirulina crackers, cell-cultured quail or cricket madeleines – which dish is most likely to land on dining tables in 10 years?
These three dishes were part of separate menus, each depicting a different scenario in 2033.
Called Menu 2033, it was the second edition of an experiential event organised by Singapore-headquartered global data consultancy agency Synthesis, which analysed data from Google searches and academic papers to simulate 100,000 versions of the world in 2033.
From there, it settled on the four most likely futures of food, and worked with chef Oliver Truesdale-Jutras to transform the findings into tasting menus.
Menu 2033 was held over a few tasting sessions in May at Open Farm Community restaurant in Dempsey. It was attended by 200 diners, including a mix of investors, government agencies and industry professionals, as well as 60 members of the public.
The first, a plant-based Plant Power meal, included a seaweed tartare with spirulina crackers; and lion’s mane fungus with chickpea curry using Oatside milk – meant to mimic crab curry.
The second, a cell-based Cultivated Cuisine menu, featured cell-cultured quail dumplings, and a carob-based chocolate-looking dessert devoid of any real chocolate. This menu’s main course of Eggless Chicken and Chickenless Egg used lab-grown chicken “larb” and legume-based Poached Eg by home-grown brand OnlyEg, served on Thai herbs.
The fourth future – Meatyverse – where conventional meat remains the preferred choice of protein, did not have a menu offered.
Out of the four scenarios, the first plant-powered one was projected by experts to have a 47 per cent chance of happening – the most likely to play out on dining tables of the future, according to the data. It is a 10 per cent increase from Menu 2030’s report.
The Meatyverse world had a 30 per cent chance of happening, a decrease from 34 per cent in 2022.
The likelihood of Cultivated Cuisine stayed constant at 7 per cent as the future of food, while the third Balancing Biomass scenario was given a 3 per cent chance of playing out.
While it is only 3 per cent, Mr Lee Fordham, 34, co-founder of Synthesis, says he was most surprised by the emergence of this scenario. In Menu 2030, which was launched in 2022, a future involving ingesting pests was so unlikely that it did not factor into the data, he says.
While the sustainable aspects of the Balancing Biomass scenario overlap with the rise of a plant-based diet, he believes that consumption will go way beyond soya beans and oats.
“We will also look to the ocean for inspiration, eating more seaweed and algae,” he adds.
Mr Fordham is already working on Menu 2034 and exploring different formats of the event to make it more accessible to the public in 2024. The by-invitation-only event is supported by Enterprise Singapore.
One brand to watch from this event is Australian cultured meat company Vow, which will launch its cell-cultured Japanese quail – under its Forged by Vow brand – in Singapore later in 2023. After that, it will launch in Australia, says Vow’s chief executive George Peppou, 32.
In March, the company – established in 2019 – made headlines by launching a woolly mammoth meatball at the Nemo Science Museum in Amsterdam.
Even within the cultivated meat sector, it is pushing boundaries beyond a cell-based version of chicken or pork. It is producing lab-grown meat from more exotic alternatives such as kangaroo, alpaca and rabbit.
Mr Peppou says: “We believe we can mix the best across different species to invent entirely new forms of meat that will be sold like most of the food we buy today – just a brand, not as an animal.
“With cultured-meat technology, we have the opportunity to create new, unexpected flavours and unforgettable experiences. So for us, the question is really ‘Why not?’”
Other recent launches
Japanese-style Eggless Mayo ($6.90), launched in July, is the latest product from Hegg, a Singapore-based start-up that specialises in plant-based egg products.
This adds to its two other products – a multi-purpose Eggless Egg powder (from $4.50 for 50g), and Eggless Kaya ($9.50), which was co-developed with home-grown heritage brand Killiney and introduced in October 2022.
All Hegg products are made with canola protein and pea protein.
Hegg, established in 2021, is working on expanding its range of mayonnaise flavours, as well as providing plant-based alternatives to other traditional egg-based food items.
On Aug 4, home-grown agri-commodity company Agrocorp International is launching a plant-based range of three cheese blocks under its HerbYvore brand.
Made from pea protein, the options, called HerbY-Cheese, are nut-free versions of mozzarella, parmesan and cheddar, priced at $9.50 for a 250g block.
Agrocorp International’s Mr Vijay says that while the cheeses will melt and grate like the real thing, the mozzarella is unlikely to have the same stretchy effect when melted.
The cheese production is supported by the Singapore Institute of Technology through ongoing collaborative research in sustainable plant protein extraction.
An upcoming plant-based cream cheese is also in the works.
This cheese range adds to its first product – a Plant Protein block also made with pea protein – that can be used as an ingredient for plant-based dishes.
Love the Milo beverage? A dairy-free option using almond and soya milk has been created.
A ready-to-drink 500ml bottle is priced from $2.50 and is available at leading supermarkets and online platforms. It costs slightly more than the standard Milo Iced Energy, which costs $1.90 for a 500ml bottle at FairPrice supermarkets.
Oatbedient Oat M!lk Barista
Home-grown brand Oatbedient has added a barista-grade oat milk option to its powdered oat milk series.
The ready-to-drink Oatbedient Oat M!lk Barista comes in two sizes – a 1-litre pack priced at $6.85, and a set of six 250ml packs at $15.
The powdered oat milk ($10.90 for a box of 12 sachets) comes in three flavours – the original oat milk, chocolate, and with oats and chia seeds.
Omilk Oat Barista
Food and beverage conglomerate F&N’s dairy-free oat milk brand Omilk was launched in May, in conjunction with Restaurant Asia 2023 and International Coffee & Tea Asia 2023 events.
Its smooth, rich texture makes it suitable for baristas to use in frothing. Priced at $6.25 for a 1-litre pack, it is available at selected FairPrice outlets and online supermarket RedMart.
This is F&N’s first oat milk brand. Its range of other milk options – that use traditional cow’s milk – includes a low-fat, high-calcium milk with oats.
Since May, Indonesian alternative protein start-up Green Rebel has been working with restaurant chain Nando’s Singapore to offer a plant-based twist on its signature sandwiches.
The Classic Chicken Wrap ($15.90), Classic Thigh Burger ($14.90) and Classic Chicken Pita ($14.90) feature its grilled soya-based Chick’n Fillet with romaine lettuce, cheese and smoked chilli.
Green Rebel launched in Singapore in March 2022, its first market outside of Indonesia.
It now has a presence in Malaysia and South Korea, with launches in the Philippines and Vietnam slated for August.
Most recently, it announced a partnership with budget airline AirAsia’s catering arm Santan in Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia to launch vegan and vegetarian versions of South-east Asian dishes on in-flight menus.
Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.