Exploring the Rise of Alternative Proteins: Cell-based Meats

Exploring the Rise of Alternative Proteins: Cell-based Meats


The food industry is undergoing a transformative revolution fuelled by environmental concerns, changing consumer preferences, and technological advances. Amid this revolution, the quest for novel protein sources intensifies, spanning plants, microbes, insects, and isolated animal cells. 

However, challenges persist. On top of providing comparable taste and texture, it has proven to be complex to adopt alternatives to foods that are widely seen as commodities, readily available and at low-costs such as milk and eggs. The alternatives offered with disruptive tech bring these new products to a level of “premium”, meaning a (very) high price and limited availability, which consumers just won’t go for. 

Our research into this space at Hello Tomorrow reveals two key findings.  First, the emergence of hybrid meat products, which fuse plant-based elements with cutting-edge technologies and can tackle technical and cost challenges with nuance. Second, the significance of navigating these challenges collaboratively and sustainably, particularly in making alternative proteins accessible globally. 

Why do we need new sources of protein? Escalating environmental and ethical concerns, shifting nutritional preferences, technological advances, and evolving consumer choices are just a few of the imperatives driving new practices in the food industry. As a result, new sources of proteins and overall ingredients are on the rise.

While plant proteins take the lion’s share of global alternatives consumption, they are plateauing at 90%, and insect-based products are hindered by the not-so-rational “ick factor”. Hopes (and funds) are therefore being poured into more tech-intensive categories, such as cellular agriculture. (Also, fermentation. Stay tuned for our article on that!). Cell-based, or cultured foods, are produced by cultivating animal cells outside of an animal through a combination of technologies and optimal environmental conditions. These processes leverage some of the most complex technologies, and are being applied to meat, eggs and dairy products. Currently, almost 200 startups are racing against the clock to cut costs, scale up volumes, and drive change in these areas. So, where are we at with it?

Mapping the current cellular agriculture landscape: where do we stand?

It probably comes as no surprise that alternative proteins developed with cellular agriculture are more expensive than animal proteins, and much less accessible to the consumer for many reasons. The commodity of eggs and milk in particular, regarding their price and availability, will hinder the adoption of alternatives. They are currently too expensive and seen as “premium” products. To date, therefore, only meat analogs leveraging new technologies have received positive feedback, driving Hello Tomorrow to focus research and analysis efforts on that consumer product. 

Interestingly, technical difficulties (brought by the need for scaffolding and large-scale bioreactors)  and cost constraints (assuming 5.7L of cell growth media are required to produce 1 kg of cultivated meat, the amount spent on growth factors alone for it would be of $2,000, following a Gfi study.) have led to the development of products that combine multiple ingredients and technologies, rather than from a single source: otherwise known as “hybrids”. These mixed products combine plant-based ingredients with those produced from technological processes, such as cellular agriculture. Their commercialisation and adoption will rely on a set of factors specific to each. 

While that might sound like science fiction to some, it might be closer to reality than we think. Nonetheless, there are a few crucial components that continue to drive costs and complexity, and here are some pioneering startups working on overcoming them…

Key barriers to scaling, and who’s working on them…

Cell lines: We need to isolate a stable and immortalised population of cells, (pluripotent, multipotent or specialised stem cells). For better productivity and reduced costs, cells can be engineered. Players to keep an eye on in this field: Biftek.co, Orbillon Bio

Culture media: Scaling up the number of cells requires the right media, traditionally sourced from animal serum. Keep an eye on NUProtein, biochrom, Future Fields, as they work towards reducing the costs of growth factors and recombinant proteins to make cell-based products more accessible.

Scaffolding: It’s crucial to identify the best support structure for cell growth, which is abundant, edible and affordable. Research is going into both synthetic and naturally derived scaffolds, as well as complex “scaffold-free” approaches. Keep an eye on: Gelatex, Seawith, Excel Modular Scaffold, who are exploring various materials to ensure the attachment, differentiation, and maturation of cells.

Bioreactors: The key to any cellular agriculture process, where raw materials are converted into valuable products. They need to be optimised for cell differentiation, maturation and with tissue perfusion. Sensors, computational modelling, and renewable energies could optimise their efficiency and sustainability. Keep an eye on Unicorn Biotechnologies, at the forefront of this. 

Current status 

These barriers in mind, the question we all want the answer to is: when can we expect to see cell-based meats in our daily lives?

First of all, production capacities need to increase drastically before that can happen, they still fall short of the 10,000 tons per plant required to keep up with global meat demand (CE Delft analysis), and global regulatory approval must advance. Singapore, and most recently the USA, are the only two countries with an approved commercialisation of cell-cultured meat, as other nations struggle between safety assessments and adequate regulatory frameworks.

Secondly, in terms of consumer acceptance, positive strides in the USA and the Middle East contrast with Europe’s struggle between sceptical and enthusiast nations (in 2023, Italy banned cell-based altogether while the Netherlands approved tastings). What holds consumers back? In general, the product itself probably won’t be the main issue, with it being the closest meat alternative in look, feel and taste. However, price parity will play a big role, and our predictions show this to be expected by 2030. Finally, the prominent use of Bovine Foetal Serum, sourced from bovine foetuses, poses an important challenge to overcome, as the resource is not easily available worldwide and consumers expect more ethical production processes and products. 

On the sustainability front, cultured meat holds promise, but only if produced with clean energy. Assessments reported in Nature Communications in 2020 actually show that cultured meat consumes 1.4x more energy than conventional animal husbandry, highlighting the need for continued innovation.

Incorporating cell-based ingredients into hybrid products: how to proceed?

While cell-based ingredients may represent a promising alternative for meat analogs, their incorporation in hybrids still relies on a number of factors, of which texture is one of the most prominent. Indeed, the possibility to develop all types of meats (ground meat, minced meat, but also whole cuts), will bring the segment to new levels of interest and adoption, as consumers continue to thrive toward products resembling “the real-thing”. To date, high-moisture extrusion is the most used texturing and shaping method used in the industry, as successfully applied to plant-based proteins. Other techniques such as shear cell technology, 3D printing, or proprietary extrusion such as the one from Umiami, are on the rise and set to enhance product look and feel for increased adoption. 

Future outlook & conclusions

Despite desires for change, this developing B2B ecosystem will, however, need to leverage a diverse range of stakeholders, as only collaborative efforts will allow for the adequate taste, texture, and visual appeal of new products to a broad range of consumers. 

Looking ahead, it will take consequent efforts (and years) for cell-based alternatives to reach scalability and broader consumer segments. Expanded regulatory frameworks may allow it to reach products beyond meat, such as seafood, dairy and eggs, but only technological advances hold the promise of making lab-grown proteins more affordable and available. 

Nevertheless, it’s important to note that while alternative proteins such as meat analogs hold great promise, their current adoption is predominantly observed in the western world, with limited penetration in developing economies. It is crucial to recognize that various regions worldwide, particularly those with a historically and culturally stronger vegan/vegetarian orientation, may not necessarily rely on meat analogs as alternatives. Bridging this gap, as well as making a diverse range of alternative proteins more accessible, will be crucial for ensuring global sustainability and addressing the challenges associated with traditional animal agriculture.

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Hello Tomorrow analysis
The protein revolution,  Roland Berger
State of the industry reports – The Good Food Institute
Food for thought, the protein transformation, The Boston Consulting Group


Alizée Blanchin
Alizée Blanchin
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Director & Partner - Consulting
Chloé Khalifat
Chloé Khalifat
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Senior Consultant
Alba Marrero
Alba Marrero
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Florence Oates
Florence Oates
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Senior Editorial Specialist

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