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4 alternative protein trends to watch in 2021

In 2020, alternative protein went from niche to mainstream. In 2021 it might become dominate.

Like Burger with onion rings, lettuce and pickled onions

The plant-based meat market is predicted to grow from $3.6 billion in 2020 to $4.2 billion by 2021. Photo by Line Tscherning for LikeMeat on Unsplash.

It is highly probable your children will be vegans eating a Christmas ham Dec. 25, 2050. Alternative proteins will be the norm very soon and we might look back at this decade as the time when real shift in diets occurred. 

Don’t believe me? Here are a few stats. Venture capital invested $1.5 billion in alternative proteins in 2020. The plant-based meat market is predicted to grow from $3.6 billion in 2020 to $4.2 billion by 2021. And by 2040, 60 percent of meat sales will be plant-based or cultured meat products. 

Every movement has the trends that significantly shape its future and others that quickly die and are forgotten. Here are four trends for 2021 that are expected to last beyond the initial excitement. 

1. Fermentation is king 

Fermentation, using genetically engineered microbes to mass-produce plant-based proteins, is on the verge of dramatically altering our protein food system. The value of fermentation lies in the system's simplicity, effectiveness and flexibility to be used across food categories. Perfect Day uses fermentation to make dairy-like products while startups such as Clara Foods are focusing on egg substitutes. And there is about to be even more competition. According to a Prepared Foods report, 44 new fermentation companies launched in late 2019 and early 2020, a 91 percent increase compared to 2018. 

But it looks like there will be plenty of money to go around. Even as COVID-19 upended global markets, alternative protein companies focusing on fermentation raised $435 million in venture capital by July, 58 percent more than in 2019. High-profile investors such as Al Gore and Bill Gates got in on the 2020 action, leading an $80 million investing round for Nature’s Fynd in March. And in December, Nature’s Fynd added $45 million from Oxford Finance and Trinity Capital. The company uses microbes found in Yellowstone National Park’s famous geysers to grow a protein with all nine amino acids. As we move to 2021 and beyond, fermentation technology likely will become a pillar of the alternative protein supply chain. 

2. A move to direct-to-consumer

In early 2020, some premier alternative protein companies had restaurant-only strategies. Impossible Foods had chefs such as David Chang serving the burger at its trendy restaurants. Soon after, the focus expanded into fast-food chains. But when the pandemic shut down restaurants, it expedited a shift to grocery stores and even direct-to-consumer purchasing. 

You can buy Impossible’s ground "beef" at 15,000 Safeways, Krogers, Trader Joe’s and many other grocery stores across the country. Beyond Meat, which was in grocery stores before Impossible, can be shipped directly to your door. Impossible Foods also created a shop section on its website, bypassing the grocery store middlemen completely. 

Eclipse, a vegan ice cream company based in the Bay Area, shifted from partnerships with popular ice cream shops such as Salt & Straw to chef collaborations on limited-edition pints ice cream lovers can buy directly from Eclipse online. Next year, alternative protein companies will continue to take the pandemic's lessons to heart by giving consumers the convenience of direct purchasing while the companies get to rake in dollars without the help of restaurants or grocers.

Close-up of chicken of the woods mushrooms on a fallen tree in the forest.

Atlast and Meati are two companies using precise mushroom cultivation to produce whole cut substitutes that taste and act like the real heterogenous meat versions. Photo by Ksenia Lada on Shutterstock.

3. An opportunity in whole cuts 

While the alternative protein industry has made huge strides in the areas of ground beef and processed products such as chicken nuggets or fish sticks, a huge section of the meat market that has yet to be successfully tapped into is whole cuts. In fact, according to a USDA agricultural marketing and economic report, about 80 percent of meat purchases are whole cuts such as chicken breasts, steaks and loins. In 2021, the alternative protein industry will need to focus on innovating in this very valuable part of the market. Some are already doing it and planning on coming to market with consumer products next year. Atlast and Meati use precise mushroom cultivation to produce whole cut substitutes that taste and act like the real heterogenous meat versions. 

"The way we make bacon is the equivalent of making mushroom pork belly," said Eben Bayer, CEO of Atlast. "We grow this blob of mushroom like a big piece of meat, and we run it right through a conventional pork slicer."

To create bacon that has different layers and doesn’t act like a standard mushroom, Atlast tightly controls and changes environmental factors such as airflow and temperature during the growing process to create mushroom sections that taste fattier and other sections that get crispy to create that true bacon experience. While the industry inches towards whole cuts in 2021, the companies that figure out how to make convincing plant versions of steaks, chicken breasts and hams at scale will have cracked the alternative protein market wide open.

4. A focus on non-allergenic substitutes 

Many standard ingredients for alternative proteins are soy, oats, legumes and nuts. These are also some common allergens. One percent of the U.S. population is allergic to nuts. And estimates suggest up to 6 percent of the population has a gluten sensitivity, along with the many who have jumped on the trend of cutting out gluten without any intolerance. Legume allergies, such as peanuts and soy, are also frequent. In 2021, the industry will need to start creating products that cater to this demographic. Going vegan or vegetarian for people with allergens can be extremely difficult and limiting. Soy and gluten-free vegan options such as Sophie’s Kitchen seafood products or Atlantic Natural Foods’ Neat Meat will be important in making alternative proteins accessible to everyone. 

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