NCFIL Executive Director’s Perspective: Jan/Feb 2021
March 4, 2021
NCFIL Facility + Business Update
For the past few months, the NC Food Innovation Lab has been busy. Our Bühler twin-screw extruder arrived in late January, and we’ve worked hard on installing utility connections and constructing a platform to access the feeder. The extruder should be fully operational by late March, and we’ll conduct commissioning runs for a few weeks.
We’ve been commissioning other Pilot Plant components when we are not conducting runs for clients. Also, GEA will finish installing and commissioning our spray dryer in late March. The completion of this last bit of construction enables us to apply for our registrations with appropriate regulatory agencies.
New Contracts for NCFIL
NCFIL has recently been successful in signing several new contracts. Our client base is a balanced mix of entrepreneurs and established food companies in a wide variety of product categories. The continued popularity of plant-based proteins—and their use in beverages, dairy and meat alternatives, and center-of-the-plate foods—is complementary to NCFIL’s capabilities. We are working with several protein manufacturers to identify how their proteins will function under a variety of conditions.
Big Idea Ventures Selects NC State
In January, NY-based Big Idea Ventures announced NC State University would be their anchor institution for a new fund focused on plant-based foods and alternative protein companies seeking to establish in rural areas. The attraction to NC State’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences was prompted by the Strategic Triad of the NC Plant Sciences Initiative, Plants for Human Health Institute, and NCFIL. These three entities and the intellectual property generated by NC State researchers will lead to developments in plant breeding, demonstrating the beneficial aspects of plants to human metabolism and well-being, as well as the ability to manufacture products which maintain those important properties.
Meat Alternatives Garner Attention
Meat alternatives have recently gained considerable attention. The first cellular meat was approved for commercialization in Singapore, a 3-D printed ribeye steak was printed from cellular meat, and Nature’s Fynd raised $150 million to launch their fungus-based products.
Bill Gates: Where’s the (Synthetic) Beef?
Perhaps one announcement was a little confusing. Bill Gates, the software developer and business magnate, recently presented his opinion that all “rich nations should shift entirely to synthetic beef” in his new book “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster.” While Mr. Gates is very focused on the impact of animal rearing on the environment, there is a more pressing reason to consume not just plant-based protein, but to also further develop animal and cellular proteins. In fact, there are 10 billion reasons in the next 20-25 years.
Increasing Global Protein Consumption
Let’s look at this tenuous situation. As the world population continues to grow toward 10 billion people on Earth, and as more countries, especially in northern Africa and Asia, increase their protein consumption, all populations will need to explore novel protein forms to meet physiological requirements. In fact, 40-75% more protein than is produced today will be needed, according to a study published in 20171. Society will not be able to produce enough animals or grow enough plants to meet this demand.
But this story is not just about population growth. Per capita protein consumption has risen and will continue to rise in the aforementioned global regions. Global affluence and protein products’ availability increased in the last two decades, enabling people in these regions to purchase and consume more protein. This trend, coupled with the established global regions of Europe, North America and South America consuming more daily protein than recommended, exacerbates the looming protein shortages.
The Nutritional Importance of Protein
Why is protein nutritionally important to humans? Children in their first three years of life are especially vulnerable to stunted growth if they do not consume enough total protein and essential amino acids2. The mechanism for this is poorly understood. Infectious diseases and poor living conditions in underdeveloped countries also perpetuate a need for higher levels of some essential amino acids. For example, lysine requirements are 20% higher in children with intestinal parasite infections. Adults utilize proteins to maintain the body’s structural characteristics and energy and as a source of amino acids, anabolically synthesizing proteins to maintain homeostasis3.
Can Plant-Based Proteins Help?
But are plant-based proteins healthier for adults? There is no easy answer for this. Honestly, it depends. Plant-based proteins are not as efficiently metabolized and digested as animal proteins and often lack essential amino acids. While these key differences are not as important to middle-aged adults, older adults should supplement their diets with high-quality proteins to mitigate age-related muscle loss4.
Can plant-based proteins fulfill these needs for older adults in the future? The short answer is yes. Food formulators have options of fortifying foods for older adults with specific amino acids, blending several plant protein sources, and blending with animal-based proteins. Plant breeders also play a role by using selective breeding to increase essential amino acid levels in plants commonly used in protein manufacture. Some of these plants will be available by 2040.
Abating Global Protein Shortages
Bill Gates’ recent "synthetic meat" comments earned much media attention. While I am uncertain exactly what he meant by that term, I assume he was referring to plant- and cellular-based proteins formed or 3-D printed into a shape resembling meat cuts. Society can abate some of the looming global protein shortages by eating the recommended levels of all protein sources. In the future, this will certainly include animal, plant, cellular, microbial, fungal, algal, and insect proteins.
Some of these will be from traditional sources. Or we may acquire our proteins from gene insertion into microbes that are raised by fermentation to synthesize “designer proteins” to sustain human life. How is that for innovation?
Thank you for reading this month’s perspective. These are the views and opinions of the NCFIL Executive Director and may not reflect the opinion of others at NC State. We welcome your feedback and perspectives.
The trends we discussed in this perspective are very familiar to the NCFIL team, so let’s talk about how NCFIL can collaborate with you to address where your company interests are in relation to protein.
- Henchion, M., M. Hayes, A.M. Mullen, M. Fenelon, and B. Tiwari. (2017). Future protein supply and demand: Strategies and factors influencing a sustainable equilibrium. Foods 6:53-74.
- Semba, R.D. (2016). The rise and fall of protein malnutrition in global health. Ann. Nutr. Metab. 69:79-88.
- Bilsborough, S. and N.J. Mann. (2006). A review of issues of dietary protein intake in humans. Intl. J. Sport Nutr.Exercise Metab. 16:129-152.
- Berrazaga, I., V. Micard, M. Gueugneau, and S. Walrand. (2019). The role of the anabolic properties of plant- versus animal-based protein sources in supporting muscle mass maintenance: A critical review. Nutrients 11:1825-1846.