Using cutting-edge technology, Estonian researchers are developing plant-based proteins as an alternative to animal-based ones. The goal is to make them not only more sustainable, but also healthier and more ethical.
Located in TalTech, one of Estonia’s top universities, The Centre of Food and Fermentation Technologies (TFTAK) is where 21st-century biological science and entrepreneurship meet. The Centre is a privately-owned contract research organisation that works on nothing less than finding the solution to one of our greatest global challenges: feeding the world’s only growing population in a sustainable way.
“We know that the key to feeding the planet while preserving our environment is transferring food production from the farms and fields to large-scale bioreactors, which are not dependent on the climatic conditions, affected by global pandemics or the availability of agricultural land,” says Rain Kuldjärv, TFTAK’s team lead in functional foods and beverages. And this is where TFTAK comes in.
“Our mission is to accelerate plant-based protein research and support our partners in launching new products and services based on the novel approach of food synthetic biology. Plant-based proteins are a sustainable opportunity for replacing animal-sourced proteins, which benefits not only public and environmental health but also animal welfare. We rely on emerging technologies to extract and process plant proteins into next-generation healthy meat and dairy alternatives with a superior taste and texture and at a reasonable price,” explains Kuldjärv.
Examples of TFTAK’s contribution to the food R&D
In the innovative foods category, TFTAK has developed functional foods and beverages (e.g. enriched with proteins, probiotic bacteria, fibre, vitamins, and minerals) and carried out dietary intervention trials to demonstrate the health benefits of the developed products.
Many such products have reached the Estonian and Nordic market and improved consumer health. The most recent examples of co-developed products were with well-known Estonian dairy company Tere, and were awarded in different categories of Estonia’s Best Foodstuff in 2022.
TFTAK has also worked together with the Estonian company Tactical Foodpack, which created a product line of ready-meals with long shelf-life, but without added preservatives or additives. As the company uses innovative freeze-drying technology, TFTAK has been helping them in new product development and shelf-life studies.
Just recently, TFTAK received a quarter of a million euros in funding from a recognised international fund to create a unique and authentic salmon scent, so that sustainable and delicious seafood can be produced from plant-based raw materials.
Changing the diet, changing the world
If we want to reduce animal-based protein consumption to be more sustainable and address global challenges such as climate change and food security, then it is crucial that we become excellent at educating omnivores on the lifestyle and ethical benefits of plant-based, protein-rich products. But to achieve this positive change, we must make sure that the products that reach the market can be tasted for the very first time by a sceptical consumer. The current price point and promotional awareness are as important as the quality.
‘Cost’ is one of the keywords for TFTAK. As the global rise in inflation is a significant concern everywhere, price is the main worry for consumers. Affecting buying decisions, this then extends to producers and suppliers who must make business decisions that balance the need for consumer affordability alongside their own rising costs. And for the plant-based protein market, the effect is clear and negative – consumers are beginning to ‘trade down’ from plant-based meat to less expensive protein alternatives, including conventionally sourced meats. With conventional meat and meat products often at half the price of alternatives, preferences based on lifestyle or ethical choices are becoming secondary to sheer affordability.
It is vital to bring down costs for manufacturers as it is an important lever to gain market share. It requires that all industry stakeholders start working together on a solution so that plant-based protein products can be more accessible to consumers. Despite the challenges, TFTAK is optimistic – they know that challenging market conditions amplify the importance of re-evaluating new technologies, energy consumption, raw materials, and waste management plans.
“Inflation has reduced the enormous investment growth that we have seen previously, but it has not stopped nor lowered investment. Private investments into plant-based protein in 2019 were more than 500 million USD, growing in 2020 to more than 2.1 billion USD. Cultivated foods and fermentation-enabled foods show a strong increase in investments and will probably level with plant-based proteins in a few years,” says Kuldjärv.
Big players in the game
There are already some big players who are working with TFTAK. Food industry giants like IFF and Lallemand. For example, TFTAK is a strategic partner of IFF (former DuPont) in their focus on developing cultivation and bioprocess capabilities for ‘next-generation’ probiotics. “We work in close collaboration with our partners and clients to first develop the solutions at laboratory scale, then demonstrate the feasibility of the technologies at pilot scale and support our clients during the implementation phase – applying scientific advancements in food production,” explains Martin Lall, managing director of TFTAK.
How does a food giant find out about a small Estonian food lab? Lall says that the industry is not location-dependent. Approximately 35% of their income comes from international collaborations, contract research or scientific collaboration.
“As our home country, we see many benefits to being based there, with the ability to collaborate with other Estonian companies, institutes and farmers to help to solve problems, create value-added products and find new innovative solutions. Developing new functional foods and beverages using local uncommon raw materials is something we are keen on.”
Lall points out that people all over the world want to experience new flavours and taste new food products. “This gives Estonian companies the opportunity to show how rich the natural resources are and that if you can combine traditional raw materials and innovative R&D approaches, you get products that everybody will want to taste and experience.”