How Labs Are Supporting the Creation of New Food Products

How Labs Are Supporting the Creation of New Food Products

The last decade has seen a rise in food creation labs because of a growing demand for vegan foods, gluten-free products and high-protein supplements. Laboratories are crucial in bringing many of these foods to our table and could play an even bigger role in the future with products like lab-grown meat. Here Aleiya Lonsdale, Head of Event at the UK’s largest laboratory trade show Lab Innovations, discusses how laboratories are making a contribution to the creation of new, revolutionary food products.

The rise of veganism is one of the biggest factors contributing to the rise in food creation. Between 2014 and 2019, the number of vegans in the UK quadrupled while events like Veganuary saw over 620,000 participants. As the number of vegans in the UK increases, so does the demand for vegan-friendly food products like protein supplements and meat-alternatives. This is reflected in the global vegan meat market, which is expected to be worth $8.3 billion by 2025.

As public attitudes toward food change, it paves the way for innovation as household names like Greggs, Cadbury and Burger King invest in new products that require laboratory testing. Meat-alternatives have evolved from tofu to soy and seitan. Now, we are on the precipice of a new meat-alternative that is still technically meat.

Can we really grow our own meat?

The demand for meat alternatives is apparent. In 2019, roughly 25 per cent of food products introduced in the UK were vegan as opposed to 16 per cent in 2018. One contentious emerging food product is lab-grown meat, also known as cultured meat. This product consists of animal muscle tissue that is produced without slaughter. 

To create cultured meat, microscopic animal cells obtained by harmless biopsy are placed in a warm and sterile cultivator with a growth medium that contains nutrients. With the number of cells doubling every 24 hours, it eventually grows into muscle tissues that look, feel and taste like the animal the cells came from. The process to create cultured meat was originally taken from research into regenerative medicine. Mark Post ,the professor who cultured the world’s first cultivated burger in 2013, had previously worked on repairing human heart tissue. 

One of the main challenges for the adoption and acceptance of cultured meat will be public perception. For many in the UK, the idea of growing meat in a lab may seem like something from a science fiction novel. Natural and organic diets have been marketed as healthy, while processed foods are often labelled as unhealthy and unnatural. The success of lab-grown meat will depend on consumer acceptance, which can only increase with familiarity, time, availability and the change of social norms. 

Consumers may also be persuaded to eat cultured meat because of sustainability reasons. Supporters of cultured meat argue that the process is more sustainable as it requires less water, land and medicine. It will also mean a decrease in the livestock population, which would lower levels of atmospheric methane. However, the true impact of lab-grown meats on sustainability is still not fully known as it is difficult to predict the impact of scaling up production.  

Meeting national demand will also be an issue that will need to be addressed should cultured meat take-off. Currently, cultured meat is only available for consumers in Singapore however facilities are now being set up in places like the US, waiting for governments to approve the sale of cultivated meat. One new facility, in Emeryville, is capable of producing 50,000 pounds of meat per year with room to expand to 400,000 pounds as demand increases. Should this be the case, life-science lab equipment manufacturers will need to aid labs in optimising the scale-up process. 

The rise of pea-protein

Until the day that lab-grown meats become available, many vegetarians and vegans consume plant-based protein products like pea-protein. Pea protein is made by grinding yellow split peas into a flour which can then be separated into protein and starches. It is a key ingredient for a wide range of food products like meat-alternatives, meal-replacement shakes and fitness foods like protein bars. Pea protein contains a better balance of the essential amino acids compared to protein isolated from rice and hemp seed. Other nutritional content of pea protein products depend on the brand and where it is a concentrate or isolate. 

The full potential of pea protein is still unknown, despite being a popular supplementary ingredient for many plant-based foods. Only recently have laboratories discovered that pea protein can be used to replace methuylcellulose in plant-based meats likes burgers and sausages.

Laboratories play a crucial role in testing new food products and quality control before mass production. With the increase in the number of pea-protein products, it is essential for laboratories to offer non-specific, DNA-based meat detection tests to determine whether there has been any meat contamination in vegan and vegetarian foods. Additional tests can also be taken to detect if milk and/or eggs are also present for vegan and dairy-free products. It is vital to make sure food and drink products meet labelling standards and have the correct nutritional information stated on the packaging. 

As the rise in new diets like veganism inspires food manufacturers to create innovative food products, the role of the lab is more important than ever. To discover other food and drink innovations in the laboratory industry, you can register to visit Lab Innovations 2022 on November 2 and 3 at the NEC in Birmingham.

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