The plant-based meat alternative market is growing rapidly, and cell-cultured meats could be coming soon to your dinner plate once they receive regulatory approval. Gavin Dundas, Patent Attorney at Reddie & Grose, provides his expert perspective on the state of the meat alternative market.
Which is receiving more emphasis based on patent activity: lab-grown meat or plant-based meat alternatives?
Comparing cultivated meat to plant-based meat is a bit like comparing apples and oranges.
Plant-based meat is here - it’s in shops, and it’s in growing numbers of restaurants and fast-food outlets. Even McDonald’s – arguably the world’s most well-known hamburger outlet – released its first plant-based burger in the UK on 13 October 2021: the aptly-named McPlant. The McPlant has been accredited as vegan by the Vegetarian Society, and includes vegan sauce, vegan cheese and a plant-based burger co-developed with Beyond Meat.
Cell-cultured meat is a very different prospect, as cellular agriculture is more high-tech, so companies entering that sector require a higher degree of specialised technical expertise. Companies delving into cultivated meat also require a fair bit of funding, as cultivated meat has not been approved for sale in any country other than Singapore, so it is not yet possible to sell their products to consumers.
The reality at the moment is that plant-based meat alternatives have a huge head-start in the marketplace, while cultivated meat is not yet on sale in most countries. So, for most new companies looking to make money in the alternative protein market, plant-based products are likely to be the easier way to start.
On the other hand, this means that the plant-based meat market is more crowded already, while cultivated meat companies are investing in the hope of getting a bigger share of that market once it matures.
In which food types have you seen a particular surge in patent applications, for example plant-based meat alternatives or lab-grown meat?
Based on searches using patent classification codes commonly used for plant-based meats and lab-grown meat (known as ‘cell-cultured meat’ or ‘cultivated meat’), it appears that there are significantly more patent applications in the field of plant-based meats, but that patent filings relating to cultivated meat are growing more quickly.
Of all the patent publications relating to plant-based meats, 15.2% were published since the start of 2020. Of the patent publications relating to cultivated meats, 27.6% were published since the start of 2020.
This outcome is probably not surprising. Plant-based meats have been around much longer and are now widely established in the market, so many more companies have had time and opportunity to file patent applications for innovations in this area. Cultivated meats are at an earlier stage in their development, but with a large number of new companies having been formed in this area in the last few years, it is not surprising that this has resulted in a high growth rate of patent applications as cultivated meat gets closer to commercial reality.
Beyond Meat’s plant-based meat substitutes have reached the mainstream. | Jonathan Weiss/Shutterstock
How much movement has there been on the equipment and other innovations that will facilitate large-scale meal alternative manufacturing?
There is a huge difference between small-scale production of cultivated meat in a laboratory, and the large-scale manufacturing that would be needed to supply supermarkets and restaurants throughout whole countries and - eventually - the whole world.
Growing meat using cellular agriculture involves the use of animal cell lines to grow animal products in bioreactors, where the cells are immersed in a growth medium that feeds nutrients to the cells as they develop. Over the last decade there have been huge advances in these processes, but as demand for cultivated meat grows there will definitely be continued innovation to improve efficiency and scale-up manufacturing capacity.
Commercial growth medium is currently costly, so the development of more cost-effective growth media is likely to be an area of much research. Another ongoing challenge is the development of high-quality cell lines and scaffold materials that are suitable for high-quality, large-scale production.
Bioreactor design is also expected to be a big area of innovation - up until now, bench-top bioreactors have in most cases been sufficient to meet the demands of cultivated meat R&D, but as demand increases bigger and better bioreactors will be needed. A particular challenge will be to design bioreactors capable of growing thick tissue layers on a commercially viable scale.
While there is scope for innovation in all of these areas, some companies are already ready to manufacture their cultivated meat products on a large scale. Future Meat Technologies, for example, opened its first industrial cultivated meat production facility in June 2021 in Rehovot, Israel - that facility is reportedly capable of producing 500kg of cultivated meat products every day. In November 2021, Upside Foods opened its first large-scale cultivated meat production plant in Emeryville, California, with the capacity to produce 22,680kg of cultured meat annually.
At the moment, however, a lack of regulatory approval is holding back cultivated meat production. While there are a number of companies that apparently have products ready for market, many will be unwilling to plough huge amounts of money into large-scale manufacturing facilities until they have regulatory approval that lets them actually sell their products.
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The UK has cutting-edge companies in the cultivated meat field.
Have any innovations or areas of innovation struck you as particularly exciting? If so, could you tell us more about them?
I am a meat-eater trying to cut down on my consumption of meat, due to a mixture of environmental and ethical motivations. So, as a consumer I’ve been very excited to see the arrival of plant-based meat into the mainstream.
I am particularly excited to try cultivated meat once it is approved for sale. Not long ago ‘lab-grown’ meat seemed like science-fiction, so to get to a point where you can go out and buy it will be incredible. So many people are unwilling to cut down on meat because they like the taste, and because their favourite meals are meat-based, so cultivated meat might hopefully give that same experience with fewer of the drawbacks of animal meat.
I am also excited to see the diversity of cultivated meat products. Cultivated meat chicken nuggets and beef burgers are the products that spring to mind when cell-cultured meat is mentioned, but there are companies out there developing cultivated bacon, pork belly, salmon and tuna, to name a few.
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Given what you know about the patent landscape, where do you think the meat alternative industry is heading, and at what sort of pace do you foresee significant change?
I think the meat alternative industry is only going to continue to grow, as concern over the environmental impact of our eating habits is growing, and the quality and availability of meat alternatives is getting better.
The plant-based meat industry is already doing well, and I expect it to continue on its upward trajectory. I expect companies in this field to continue to file patent applications for their innovations, and eventually we might see some of those patents being enforced to safeguard valuable market shares for the patent owners.
Cultivated meat is the sector that seems to be poised for the most significant change. At the moment, the lack of regulatory approval seems to be the thing holding it back, but if that hurdle is removed there are UK companies aiming to get cultivated meats into shops by 2023. The UK is lucky enough to be home to a number of cutting-edge companies in the field, and a recent report by Oxford Economics researchers forecast that cultivated meat could be worth £2.1 billion to the UK economy by 2030.
The idea of cultivated meat is unlikely to appeal to everyone, so I imagine that it will start out as something of a novelty, but I’d expect to see the availability and range of cultivated meat products grow significantly over the next decade.
Edited by Eoin Redahan. You can read more of his work here.
If you’re a vegan, do you really want to eat a ruby-red slab of plant protein that looks like lamb? If you are a health obsessive, would you opt for an ultra-processed, plant-based product if you knew it didn’t contain many vitamins and micro-nutrients? And why, oh why, are we so obsessed with recreating the taste and appearance of the humble hamburger?
These questions and more were posed by Dr David Baines in the recent ‘No meat and two veg – the chemistry challenges facing the flavouring of vegan foods’ webinar organised by SCI’s Food Group. The flavourist, who owns his own food consultancy and is visiting Professor at the University of Reading, painted a vivid picture of our changing culinary landscape – one in which 79% of Millennials regularly eat meat alternatives.
And this shift in diet isn’t just the preserve of the young. According to Dr Baines, 54% of Americans and 39% of Chinese people have included more plant-based foods and less meat in their diets. Furthermore, 75% of Baby Boomers – those born between 1946 and 1964 – are open to trying cultivated meat.
There are many reasons for this gradual shift. The woman biting into Greggs’ famous vegan sausage roll and the woman who carefully crafts her bean burger may have different reasons for choosing meat alternatives. For some, it’s an ethical choice. For others, it’s environmental or health-related. And then there are those of us who are simply curious.
Pea protein powder is used in plant-based meat alternatives.
Either way it’s an industry that, if you’ll excuse the pun, is set to mushroom. According to Boston Consulting Group and Blue Horizon research, the global meat-free sector will be worth US$290 billion by 2035. They also claim Europe will reach peak meat consumption by 2025, and Unilever is aiming to sell US$1 billion-worth of plant-based meat and dairy alternatives by 2025-27.
In his entertaining talk, Dr Baines outlined the extrusion processes that turn wheat and pea proteins into large ropes of fibrous material and how soy isolates are spun into textured proteins using looms like those used in the cotton industry. He explained how calcium is used to imitate the chewable texture of chicken and how Impossible Foods is using the root nodules of bean plants to produce the red colour we recognise so readily in meat.
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So, how close are we to products with the appearance, taste and texture of, let’s say, beef? ‘I think that will come from cultured meat to start with,’ he said. ‘Where the protein is produced, it will still need to be flavoured, but the fibres will have formed and the texture is already present in some of those products.
‘It’s a big ask and it’s been asked for a long time. It’s going to be a long time before you put a piece of steak on one plate and a plant-based [product] on another and they will be visually, texturally and taste(-wise] identical.’
And what appetite do people even have for these plant-based facsimiles? ‘There are people who want plant proteins not to look like meat, and there are people who want them to look like meat,’ he added. ‘The driver at the moment is to make them look like meat, and the driver is to make it taste like meat too.’
Baines wondered aloud about the bizarre fixation some have with recreating and eating foods that look and taste like beef burgers. In contrast, he pointed to the examples of tofu and soy-based products that have been developed in South East Asia – distinct foods that do not serve as meat substitutes.
Plant-based proteins are undoubtedly part of our culinary future, but these products have other barriers to surmount beyond taste and texture. There is no getting around the fact that plant-based proteins are ultra-processed in a time when many are side-stepping processed foods. Baines also explained that these protein- and fibre-rich foods tend to have lower calorific content, but lack vitamins and micronutrients. ‘Will they be supplemented?’ Baines asked. ‘How much will the manufacturers of these new products start to improve the nutritional delivery of these products?’
We have now entered the age of the gluten-free, vegan sausage roll.
But it’s easy to forget that the leaps made in recent years have been extraordinary. Who would have predicted back in 1997 – when Linda McCartney was at the vanguard of the niche, plant-based meat alternative – that a vegan sausage roll would capture the imaginations of a meat-hungry nation? Who would have foreseen fast-food manufacturers falling over each other to launch plant-based burgers and invest in lab-grown meat?
As Dr Baines said: “This is a movement that is not going away.”
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