Meat substitutes are not a new concept in Singapore. Visit any hawker centre and you are bound to find a vegetarian food stall selling an array of soy-based meat and konjac-based seafood.
But despite its prevalence, mock varieties are not popular with the masses. The reason is simple. Why opt for a chewy and rubbery piece of artificial meat when you can have the real deal?
That was over a decade ago. Fast forward to 2022, mock meats are no longer the domain of pious Buddhists. Like many ideas that started in the East and repackaged by the West, in the place of mock meats are a growing variety of alternative proteins, derived not only from plants, but also cell cultures.
Since 2019, alternative proteins have become increasingly popular with the masses in Singapore.
According to Enterprise Singapore, sales of frozen meat substitutes grew by 26.7 per cent between 2019 and 2020, compared to 7.4 per cent for traditional meat products. A survey by food technology company abillion suggests a similar trend, with plant-based pork and chicken growing sevenfold within a year.
What is behind this surging popularity of alternative protein? Is this another food fad that we, a food-obsessed nation, cannot escape from? Or can this be the start of a new food revolution?
The growing popularity of alternative proteins
When Greta Thunberg started her climate protest in 2018, little did she know her actions would lead to a worldwide movement shining a spotlight on climate change.
Dubbed ‘the Greta effect’, her actions got many of us to think about climate action and how we can help.
Considering how meat accounts for nearly 60 per cent of all greenhouse gases from food production, it is almost inevitable that meat eating, a habit since prehistoric times, became the causality of our enlightenment.
As a result, an increasing number of Singaporeans, driven by concerns for climate change, sustainability, animal welfare, and the power of virtue signalling, are changing their diet by becoming flexitarian, opting for a primarily plant-based lifestyle with the occasional slice of Wagyu.
Beyond the “save thy planet, eat less meat” narrative, it helps that meat substitutes today have shredded their association with religion and image as unsavoury and bland.
Instead, meat substitutes are experiencing a culinary renaissance because of the growing innovation of alternative proteins that mimic the mouthfeel and taste of meat.
Besides an ever-expanding selection of plant-based options available at supermarkets, meat alternatives such as Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are increasingly making their presence felt in our food scene.
Environmental consciousness and clever marketing have been vital in increasing our acceptance of alternative proteins, which suggests that such novel foods are here to stay.
A booming startup scene
Alongside increasing consumer demand, alternative protein startups have proliferated from a wealth of government support and VC funding working in tandem.
SEEDS Capital, the investment arm of Enterprise Singapore, has been working with agri-foodtech accelerators to fund and assist alternative protein startups.
Big Idea Ventures, a VC firm backed by Temasek, also runs a bi-annual accelerator programme in Singapore to support alternative protein businesses still in their pre-seed stages.
In their latest cohort of startups is Pullulo, who plans on developing an affordable microbial protein that is allergen-free, non-GMO, vegan, and Halal.
Right now, the alternative protein startup scene is thriving, brimming with innovation and groundbreaking attempts with their offerings.
There is Karana, which is harnessing the versatility of jackfruits to produce a naturally juicy meat alternative. And to combat overfishing, Shiok Meats became the first food tech company in ASEAN to use cellular technology to cultivate lab-grown shellfish.
Besides meat substitutes, many startups are also keen to offer dairy alternatives without sacrificing the nutritional value of the animal by-product. TurtleTree Labs is currently the first in the world to use mammalian cells to produce cell-based milk. Meanwhile, inspired to ensure a consistent egg supply, Float Foods has come up with Asia’s first plant-based whole egg substitute.
With over 30 companies developing alternative proteins in Singapore today, this is a market that will only get more crowded in the coming years.
Reimagining our future diet
When Singapore became the first and only country in the world to approve the sale of lab-grown meat back in 2020, we were in fact on the cusp of a global food revolution, welcoming the advance of lab-grown and plant-based meat as a staple part of our diet.
Already, Singaporeans have expressed receptiveness to switch to a meat alternative if it tastes good and costs the same as slaughtered meat. With advancing technologies and economies of scale, meat substitutes are likely to improve in taste and fall in price.
Beyond the meat substitutes, insects, which are high in fibre and protein, are likely to emerge as the next wave of alternative protein sources.
Currently, the Singapore Food Agency is seeking feedback from the industry to allow insects for human consumption. There are also startups like Altimate Nutrition and Asia Insect Farm Solutions keen to claim the first-mover advantage.
Both have partnered with farms in Thailand to produce protein bars and powders made from crickets, ready to be introduced to the Singapore market once they receive regulatory approval.
While the ick factor towards insects remains strong, it is worth remembering that tinned food was once met with derision when first introduced in the 1800s. It was not until post-war food shortages made them essential, paving the way for their widespread acceptance into our pantries.
Plant-based meat, cellular milk or even deep-fried grasshoppers might not sound appetising in a world where meat is deeply ingrained in our food culture. But like it or not, they will be the diet of the future, and perhaps we will live to see the day when tinned crickets become as ubiquitous as spam.
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