Plant-based protein, lab grown meat and the future of food

28.10.19 Eat, Learn Blog SumoSalad
Plant-based schnitzel

The meat-free movement is making headlines. In the past year, there’s been an influx of plant-based burgers, a wave of food tech start-ups promising lab grown meat and new vegan alternatives busting out of health food stores and on to supermarket shelves. At Sumo, we’ve launched a vegan bowl topped with Fry’s plant-based schnitzel. In Australia, ‘vegan’ was googled over 40,000 times in the last month alone. Whether you’re vegan, vegetarian or just interested in some plant-based alternatives now and again, there are more options than ever. 

With the buzz around new players in the scene, you’d be forgiven for thinking this meat-free revolution is a relatively new movement. In fact, plant-based meat substitutes, albeit fairly simple ones, have been kicking about since the late 1800s. Experimentation with nut, soy and wheat-based proteins continued throughout the 20th century.

One of the biggest players today is Fry’s Family Foods – they’ve been cooking up vegan sausages, burgers and more for over 25 years. Tammy Fry is the marketing director at Fry’s. Her parents crafted the first Fry’s products with a Kenwood Chef Mixer at their home in South Africa. From there, it grew to become one of the most popular meat alternatives in the world. “Fry’s never came about as a commercial project,” Tammy explains. “My father Wally had been an avid meat eater and when he went vegetarian he really craved meat-like dishes. He wanted to go to a barbeque and not be sitting at the salad table. In those days, it was such a strong belief that you got protein from meat and if you didn’t have that you’d be weak and unhealthy, so he wanted to create a protein alternative. We were never looking ahead saying, ‘This vegan thing is going to be huge in 30 years, we better get a head start!’ We asked friends to try our products and it just grew organically.”

Meat-Free in the Making
Today, plant-based start-ups have popped up in Silicon Valley, where scientists and entrepreneurs are racing to develop the next generation of meat substitutes. Yet in the 90s when Fry’s was starting out, the challenges were far more rudimentary – the technology and equipment simply didn’t exist. “We got our first retailer listing about two years after we started in our kitchen at home. It was a big retailer of about 400 stores. We had to design packaging and get machinery that could replicate what we were doing at home. It was probably the most challenging time because there weren’t machines that you could buy off the shelf, Wally had to design them. We had to source raw materials that nobody was using at the time, like cases for sausages because we couldn’t use animal skin. There was a lot of complexity around how to make food on a larger scale. 27 years later, we now sell our foods in around 20,000 retail outlets and 20,000 food service outlets in 28 countries. Our traditional sausage and our original burger, that we first made in our kitchen, are still sold today – along with a whole range of products that use newer technology.”

One of the biggest challenges with the meat-free movement is public perception. Plant-based meat often gets tarred with the same processed, ‘frankenfood’ brush. Most people have little concern with eating heavily processed snack foods, sauces and the like, but meat substitutes attract a different kind of scepticism.

Tammy, for one, is keen to demystify the whole process. “There’s no need to be fearful of meat alternatives,” she says. “Think of it like making a muffin at home. Say you’re making an apple and bran muffin – you mix together your flours, fruit and bran, bake it and maybe freeze them for later. The process of how Fry’s is made is very similar. We use a variety of plant proteins, like quinoa, rice, soy protein, pea protein and we blend those together with natural seasonings. As an example, our nuggets are flavoured with rosemary and sage – these herbs create the “chicken” taste. Our nuggets aren’t ‘wholefoods’, but they’re a good source of protein, they’re gluten-free, there’s no preservatives, artificial colours, pesticides, hormones or antibiotics in them. They tick all the boxes in terms of nutrition if you’re cutting down on meat. We eat our own food and our children eat our food, we’re very particular about the ingredients we choose to use in our products.”

Plant-based schnitzel

Buddha Bowl with Fry’s Plant-Based Schnitzel from SumoSalad

Petri Dish Protein
The other protein alternative generating buzz is ‘lab grown’ meat. This is less like making muffins and more like a science project. This protein is made by cultivating meat cells. There’s a number of food tech start-ups racing to get these kinds of products to market. Israeli-based biz Future Meat Technologies recently raised US$14 million to build a cultured meat manufacturing facility, which could begin production as early as next year. Meanwhile, Memphis Meats has backing from names like Richard Branson and Bill Gates. This year, Aleph Farms, another food tech start-up, successfully grew meat on the International Space Station. Lab grown meat has quickly progressed from the realm of sci-fi to a very real commercial possibility in the future – when the price is right.

However, right now it’s the plant-based, not the petri dish, alternatives that are dominating shelves. Despite new players entering the scene, Tammy is positive about the booming market. “I think it’s great. We’re a business that’s purpose driven, so we want to see change in the world and we want to inspire change in the world,” she says. “To have more companies coming on board offering plant-based options is ultimately a good thing. Is it competition? Yes. But that only pushes us to continue innovating and improving our products.”

This is also a trend that isn’t going anywhere. Research from Roy Morgan suggests nearly 2.5 million Australians follow a vegetarian, or largely vegetarian diet, compared to 2.2 million people in 2014. “The plant-based movement is not a fad. It’s here to stay,” says Tammy. “It aligns with a conscious way of living and consciousness is growing. People are asking questions, not just about their food choices, but they are concerned about the environmental impact of single use plastics or the effect of toxins in the home. With information more readily accessible, there’s going to be a continuous shift towards a more conscious way of living. Eating plant-based is one way to live with greater awareness.”

So whether you’re looking to have a meat free day or eat a more plant-based diet, there’s plenty more options coming your way – whether that’s from plants or a petri dish.

POSTED BY: Anthea England

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