Hybrid Foods: Is it the breakthrough the Alternative Protein Industry is looking for?
By: Leonard Chong
Hybrid foods is a trend that has been gaining traction in alternative proteins. Many food tech experts consider it to be the solution to challenges faced by alternative protein products in terms of taste, texture, nutrition, scalability etc. But how does it actually work? This article aims at discussing that in detail.
Pros and cons of existing technologies
The three major sources of proteins in our modern context are animals, plants and microorganisms. Each category of protein has its own pros and cons.
Traditional meat and dairy is high in macro and micro nutrients essential in our diet. Furthermore, it is considered the most familiar when we think of protein and is ingrained in our cuisines in such a way that many people find it hard to replace with alternatives. However, it is generally high in saturated fats and has been recognised as unsustainable and detrimental to the environment.
Cultivated meat seems like the closest replacement biologically. Using the same building blocks as traditional meat, we should be able to achieve a product similar in taste, look and nutrition. However, most cultivated meat developers are currently still at a stage of figuring out how to lower the cost, remove animal components in their raw materials as well as provide structure to the cells they have managed to grow.
Plant-based meats and dairy are dominating the consumer market for alternative proteins at the moment. Some products are able to derive a high degree of similarity to the animal counterparts, using processing techniques such as extrusion or high shear emulsification. These processing techniques often require certain additives to help with the final product quality, and these products are often not ‘clean label’ in nature.
Using microorganisms can be a highly efficient way to generate protein with minimal resources, occasionally allowing for upcycling of food waste into high quality protein. However, the products created are usually one-dimensional and require further downstream processing with other ingredients like fats or flavor enhancers to turn into an end product.
How hybrid products can help
Hybrids as a concept has always been prevalent in the food industry. The Japanese created ‘surimi’, a mix of unwanted fish meat and other additives that turns into a product that looks and tastes like seafood at a fraction of the cost.
In alternative proteins, combining products created using different technologies are what is often seen. The first and most common is the combination of plant-based meats with cultivated meat. This could allow for a quicker launch to market, as less innovation is needed on the downstream structuring of cultivated meat, and would also lower the cost of the overall product. In turn, the presence of cultivated meat provides taste and nutrition to the overall product.
Another example is the combination of plant-based protein with cultivated fats, or vice versa. Fat is a huge contributor to the flavor of meat. Cultivated meat products often include plant-based oils in their formulation to make up for the fat component that is missing.
BIV portfolio company, Lypid, is working on the microencapsulation of plant-based oils to mimic the texture, heat stability and flavor release of animal fat, which can be used in cultivated meat formulations. Cultivated fat companies, like Impacfat from Singapore, are also looking to work with plant-based meat companies, to create a product that is delicious, lower in cost and high in healthy unsaturated fats.
Another technology that often utilizes hybridisation is precision fermentation. This process uses the genetic modification of bacteria or yeast to develop a specific protein. In food tech, it is often used to create dairy proteins like casein and whey, as companies like Maya Milk and Phyx44 are currently working on. Oftentimes, the effort and cost of R&D does not allow for all constituents of milk to be created using precision fermentation alone. Hence, plant-based ingredients like oils are often included in the final formulation. Much like cultivated meats, this allows for an accelerated launch to market at a reasonable cost.
A survey conducted by Peace of Meat showed that most plant-based meat companies are keen on working with cultivated fat as long as it can show improvements to the final product. Several food conglomerates like Nestle, Tyson and CPF Thailand have also shown interest in working towards hybrid products, by collaborating with smaller scale alternative protein startups to develo products. In November of 2022, Meatable, a Dutch cultivated meat company and Love Handle, a plant-based restaurant and deli in Singapore announced a partnership to create the ‘World’s First Hybrid Protein Innovation Centre’.
Thus many signs show that hybrid products will be the new wave of alternative proteins to hit the shelves, because of the ability of hybridisation to remove some of the hurdles like cost, product quality and consumer stigma. At Big Idea Ventures, we strongly believe in and are constantly fostering collaborations within the ecosystem of startups, large corporations and research institutes that we have built up. Each of them has their own role in the success of this new wave of hybrid food products in alternative proteins.