Beyond plants: Diversifying the alternative proteins market

FEATURED SPEAKER Food ingredients Theater

The world of alternative proteins is broader than those from plants, and more diverse sources are important if people want to make truly sustainable, healthy choices for themselves and the planet, according to Pat Crowley, Founder and CEO of insect protein company Chapul.

Non-plant-based protein alternatives include those from mushrooms – which are technically fungi rather than plants – as well as from algae, bacteria and insects, and Crowley said achieving true sustainability and a regenerative agricultural future rely on increasing diversity from all sources. He added that growing interest in the microbiome and how it affects the health of our whole body could serve as a lesson for sustainable proteins, in that every part of the planet’s ecosystem has a valuable role and is worth considering as part of the whole.

“In terms of sustainability, the plant-based movement is headed in the right direction, but it is not an end destination,” he said. “The momentum behind plant-based is very polarised in this good-versus-evil mentality. That has played out in many ways in our food – like fat used to be bad and now it’s good, and cholesterol used to be bad and now it’s good – and that’s got to be stabilised.

“I want to caution that that could happen with plant-based proteins.”

In search of food and water

In 2012, Crowley founded Chapul, the first company to bring cricket protein to the United States. Its first product was a protein bar made from cricket powder in two flavours, and the company’s website now sells pouches of cricket powder alongside four protein bar varieties.

Crowley came to insect protein from a water conservation perspective. With a master’s degree in hydrology, he discovered that crickets – and other insects – needed only a fraction of the water needed for livestock to produce the same amount of protein, and also needed much less land and water than crops traditionally used for meat alternatives, such as soy and wheat.

“The conversation needs to be more about diversification of our food system,” Crowley said, adding that Chapul itself plans to diversify into other insect species and has already started farming black soldier fly.

Plant-based is not the only solution

“We need to focus on less land intensive sources of protein,” he said. “I am opposed to the concept that plant-based protein is a single solution to sustainability. When compared to beef or poultry it is often much more resource-efficient. But it can’t carry the weight alone, and I think it is a dangerous path to go down to think it will because the myth that there is a single solution is what got us into this commodity-focused food system.”

For Crowley, there is a clear parallel with bacterial diversity in the gut microbiome. He said that if the demand for plant-based protein has grown at the rate it has for health and environmental reasons, then people should pay attention to smaller organisms too, those that ensure soil and plants are in good health.

“As I have gotten deeper and deeper into the food system, I have realised we need more of a regenerative system that incorporates damage control of a lot of what we have done already,” he said. “As we just begin to uncover the human health benefits of a diverse gut microbiome, the same knowledge can be transferred to our soil health, and the agricultural ecosystem as a whole: more microbial diversity equals greater health.”

Smaller players on the rise

In the past few years, the food industry has become increasingly diverse, as the combined market share of the top 20 packaged food companies fell 4.4 percentage points to 42.4% in 2018, according to a Credit Suisse analysis. Much of that lost share has gone to smaller brands and start-ups.

Crowley welcomes this shift, saying, “The more diverse that becomes and the more local our food supplies become, I’m in full support of that. The mantra is diversity, diversity, diversity.”

However, there is still a long way to go to diversify protein sources beyond animal products and commodity crops.

“Algae-based proteins aren’t currently at a scale that’s anything like plant-based protein,” he said. “There is a lot of effort that needs to go in, for algae and fungus – and for insects.”

The key for manufacturers and suppliers is to focus on consumer awareness and to tap into other big consumer trends, such as convenience, shorter times from process to consumption, and bringing alternative proteins into restaurants.

“It is going to be most successful by overlapping with other macro trends,” he said.