According to Barclays, the market for meat alternatives could be worth $140bn (£104bn) within the next decade, or about 10% of the $1.4tn global meat industry.

Global interest is booming, with research from the FAIRR Investor Network revealing that over £850m of venture investment flowed into alternative proteins in the first half of 2020 – more than double last year’s total investment of £412m.

And the next phase of the meat alternative wave – lab-grown meat – is well on the way, with Singapore this month announcing regulatory approval for meat products grown from cells, rather than taken from slaughtered animals. It has been hailed as a landmark moment for the future of the meat industry.

One step back from lab-grown meat, however, is another emerging technological breakthrough which could have equally ground-changing ramifications: lab-grown collagen.

Collagen is a protein that is vital in the animal kingdom. Simply put it literally holds the body together. It is found in bones, ligaments, tendons and in the skin. It’s importance in NPD is that it is a vital component in confectionery and in restaurant cookery.

Collagen is the protein that becomes gelatine – the substance that makes a fruit pastille possible and a jelly set with a wobble. It also adds body to reduced meat stocks which play a valuable part in giving body and richness to a meat stew, for example.

An American company, Jellatech, have pioneered the technique of growing collagen in a laboratory. In time it will provide a replacement for the technique of creating gelatine by boiling bones and ligaments (typically the waste bi-product of the meat industry).

To find out more I spoke to Jellatech’s co-founder Stephanie Michelsen to discover how the breakthrough came about.

“We asked the question – we have cells in our bodies producing collagen, so why don’t we just culture them in a bio reactor and harvest it?” Stephanie said. “I’m a bio technologist and so, instead of going to the animals, we knew we could grow the cells that produce it. But we had to start with an animal cell.

“Our process harvests the collagen from cells as opposed to having to farm animals. In the past this was impossibly expensive but the growth in cultured meat technology has driven the price down meaning it’s not so cost prohibitive as it once was.

A cell-based approach to collagen

“To produce collagen, we are going to be developing our own lab-grown meat to get the collagen cells we need,” explained Stephanie. “We are not the only company in this field. Geltor, for example, use microbes, yeast and bacteria to engineer collagen.

“We decided that was not the route we wanted to take. We use animal cells instead. The way we see it is that those microbes and yeasts don’t produce collagen naturally and a lot of complicated science has to take place to engineer it to have the same ultimate effect.

“Our router was to say: who’s the best collagen producer out there in the natural world? As humans, 35% of our body is collagen. We discovered that the best producer of collagen is the jellyfish. It is literally half collagen. So, that’s what inspired us to take a cell-based approach. All we are doing is optimising it.

“We are building a platform where we have various types of animal cells. It really depends on the industry we are going into. In food and drink the historic chosen collagen was made from bovine cells by turning it into gelatine.

“Other sectors like pharmaceuticals and cosmetics use other collagens from either human cells or marine. We are looking to build a platform so we can offer it to all sectors. It means we can tweak it a bit genetically to produce a better result.

“There is a scientific dilemma and debate going on about this. Our collagen does, technically, come from an animal cell but it’s not an animal – it’s a cell. It’s not multi-cellular which would mean it was an animal.

“The partners and confectionery businesses we have talked to say there is simply no vegan alternative to collagen. There are similar products like agar and pectin but they are not the same and don’t behave the same way – a gummy bear (think wine gum) is stable on the shelf but melts in the mouth. We just can’t get this outside of the animal kingdom. The cell-based approach means that we can grow collagen without having to slaughter animals.

As close to nature as is possible

“Science cultures cells all the time – say for a biopsy – but you also create continuous cell cultures that can keep on growing exponentially. They will divide and grow and grow forever. All we do is to take cells, feed them what they like so they divide and produce the protein that we want. Then we can harvest that from the cells.

“Our short term goal is to have this continuous cell line growth that we harvest from. That’s a very simplistic view of it. The science is much deeper than that, of course. We’re still in the development stage and we hope to have a commercial-grade product in 18 months.

“It will be as close to nature as is possible but what is exciting is that we can actually make a better quality collagen because we can control every stage, from the design of it, the growing, the harvesting and the purifying.

“With the conventional method, you have to go into animal agriculture and take things as they are. You can’t control what you end up with and the process needs a live animal to begin with.

“Our end product will mean the better the quality, the less you need of it. We are thinking a lot about the final product and a powdered form. We will work with the customers to see what they want.”

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