Alternative proteins: What are they? Why is their popularity booming?

Alternative proteins: What are they? Why is their popularity booming?

November 12, 2020
Everything you need to know about alternative proteins and the main consumer trends driving the growth of this market.

We present a selection of 8 different sources, to help you understand the options there are to animal protein as well as their specific nutritional properties so you start incorporating them into your diet in the best mindful way possible. 

Alternative proteins is a broad term that refers to protein-rich products that are plant-based (quinoa, soy-bean, lentil, etc) or that are obtained as a result of food- tech processes (mycoprotein, tofu, pea isolate, etc.). Alternative proteins are booming in the food industry as an answer to the global increase of people switching to vegan, vegetarian, or flexitarian diets who are demanding non-animal food alternatives to fulfill daily protein needs. The market is expected to reach US$17.9 billion in 2025 from US$10.3 billion in 2019 and is growing at a CAGR of 9.5%.

(source:Meticulous Research, 2019).

Alternative protein market size

Changing consumer habits: Vegan, Vegetarian, Flexitarian

The main reasons why consumer trends that involve limiting or eradicating animal-derived food grow globally are related to the spread of awareness about the high impact of traditional farming processes on the environment, health benefits of reducing the consumption of animal products  and concerns associated with animal well-being.

Alternative proteins therefore fit perfectly: their production tends to have a low GHG emission footprint, a low water consumption, are animal-cruelty free and, overall, are healthy and delicious options to substitute animal-derived, protein-rich products.

Why people go vegan?
Data Source: Health Line, 2020

To date, 5.9% of Europeans are either vegetarian or vegan, being Germany, the UK and Poland the European countries with a higher proportion of consumers of non-animal products. (source:veganbites). 

Although the proportion of global vegan consumers is still low (1% of the world population), it grows mainly thanks to Millennials who are particularly concerned about climate change and animal welfare. 

The potential for veganism to grow is significant because millennials and younger generations represent the future of consumerism and the direction that their food preferences are shifting towards, are made clearer day after day. 

Currently, in the US a quarter of 25-34 year-old citizens consider themselves as vegan or vegetarian (The Economist). And that is why The Economist titled 2019 as “The year of the Vegan”.

A food consumption trend that is growing faster is flexitarianism. According to a recent You Gov survey, 14% of UK citizens consider themselves as flexitarians. This kind of diet mainly consists of eating plant-based-based food as a primary nutritional source and just eating animal-derived food occasionally.

Only in July 2020, alternative protein startups collectively raised a total of US$1.5 billion in funds. Alternative protein lovers: be excited as many, many more delicious products are on their way to you!  

(source:Techcrunch, 2020.) 

What are different alternative protein available options?

If you would like to give a flexitarian, vegetarian or vegan diet a go, it is important for you to understand: (1) your options, (2) the nutritional value of each protein source and (3) the production process of each of them till they arrive into your local grocery store. All this is especially important when going vegetarian or vegan, because a veggie-based diet should be properly supplemented in order to avoid potential nutrition deficiencies.

“It is important that you consider that your recommended diet, which is measured in incorporated kcal per day, varies depending on factors such as age, height, weight, sex and energy expenditure, all of them also related to the degree of physical activity you normally carry out on a daily basis. So if you decide to change your diet to start incorporating protein from alternative sources, I would advise you to have the supervision of an expert to ensure that the diet perfectly fulfills your specific energy needs''. Alejandra Iveth Pérez, Biochemist and lab researcher at Kernel. 


Raw quinoa grains in the front, boiled quinoa grains in the background
Raw quinoa grains in the front, boiled quinoa grains in the background

Quinoa is a type of grain that played a central role in the diet of the Inca civilization during pre-Columbian times. It is satiating and has a soft and fluffy texture. It is considered to be a high-quality source of protein, because its seeds contain not only 15% of proteins but also all the essential amino acids. Although quinoa grains are small in size, they show a value of 0.667 in the analysis of the Protein Digestibility-Corrected Amino Acid Score (PDCAAS)*, which is the best method to measure a protein’s quality according to the FAO, the WHO and US FDA (see Table 1). Its score is low compared to other protein sources such as beef or mycoprotein, but it is definitely a more nutritious option than other popular grains such as wheat, couscous or rice. 

Cooking tip: Quinoa, as a protein-rich grain, has become a favourite option for “foodies”.Try eating this grain by preparing delicious quinoa snack bars mixed with other dry-fruits and prepared in the oven. 

Table1. Protein digestibility-corrected amino acid score (PDCAAS)*

PDCAAS is the best method to measure a protein’s quality according to the FAO, the WHO and US FDA. The highest score is 1.00 the lower one is 0.00.
PDCAAS is the best method to measure a protein’s quality according to the FAO, the WHO and US FDA. The highest score is 1.00 the lower one is 0.00.

Soy bean sprout

Over the centuries, soy has been a central component of the diet in Asia. This plant-based protein source has a high content of protein (35-56%) and a high PDCAAS value, of around 0.91 (see Table 1). It also contains substantial quantities of iron, B12 vitamin, calcium and fiber. Soybeans are especially recommended for people with diabetes, overweight or insulin resistance because of their combination of fibre and protein, which also favours blood glucose balance.

Soybean sprouts
Soybean sprouts

In spite of its health properties, there are consumers, mainly vegans, who avoid soy on their diets due to the issues associated with deforestation and land degradation provoked by soy crop-fields in areas such as the Amazon. Furthermore, it is important to consider that, as a bean family product, soy contains some anti-nutritional factors, such as blockers of digestive enzymes associated with the development of allergies.


Lentils, among the earliest crops cultivated by the human kind are a rich source of iron and fibre. 

Raw red-lentil beans
Raw red-lentil beans

Lentils can reduce cholesterol due to its high content of saponin. Like any other bean, lentils may also contain some antinutritional factors, the reason why nutritionists recommend to boil them at 100º C or to allow for the germination of seeds before their consumption to make sure that all these factors are deactivated. 

Cooking tip:A delicious way of eating and enjoying the benefits of this bean is by preparing a sprouted lentil fresh salad!


Raw tofu squares and raw soybeans 
Raw tofu squares and raw soybeans 

Tofu, curdled soy milk, enjoys many of the nutritional properties of soybeans, such as a high content of fiber, the presence of vitamin B12 or the high amount of calcium. In terms of protein quality, tofu has a lower PDCAAS value than soybean sprouts or milk, which is probably due to the process of curdling. Tofu plays a big role in Asian diets and is a very versatile ingredient in the world of gastronomy, being cooked in many different forms such as boiled or fried.

Cooking tip: To delight your friends at an evening gathering, give it a try stir-fried as part of a red curry along with some wild basmati rice.

Pea beans & pea protein isolate 

Pea beans
Pea beans

Peas are nutritious legumes, rich in manganese, folate, copper, phosphorus, and B6 and B12 vitamins, among many other compounds. As a protein source, they contain all essential amino acids, although its protein quality is lower compared with soybean, with a PDCAAS of 0.74 (see Table 1), and a protein content lower than other plant-based protein sources (8 g of protein/100 g of peas). This is why peas are processed in the form of a dry powder that contains, on average, 21 g of protein per scoop of powder (25 g). This powder is normally used, as a protein source, by sports people who present allergies to soybean or whey (the two main sources of protein-based powders). The pea protein isolate is also broadly used as a protein ingredient of veggie-burgers, generally as a flour. 

Kernel Mycofood (Mycoprotein)  

Mycoprotein is a fungi-based protein with a great nutritional profile. Mycoprotein is rich in fiber vitamins, low in fat, and contains no cholesterol. Like soybean, its combination of low fat and high fiber content, makes it an ideal food to control weight and also for people with cardiovascular diseases or diabetes. Mycoprotein is the main ingredient found in Quorn products and it is the ingredient that we are developing and optimising at Kernel Mycofood. As a protein source, mycoprotein is an excellent option because (1) it contains all 9 essential amino acids in large concentrations and (2) it has a PDCAAS of 0.996, higher than this of beef and very close to that of egg. In our lab tests, we have found 26 g of protein per 100g of dry product. The  combination of a high protein content with a high biological value makes mycoprotein a very-high-quality-protein product. Mycoprotein has a tender texture that resembles beef meat, which makes it a perfect analogue. It is also environmentally friendly: its production emits 95% less CO2 than the production of red meat and also requires 95% less water, which on average is half of the water needed to produce plant-based proteins.

Kernel Mycofood burger prototype prepared by our expert team

Culture Meat

Cultured meat is obtained from animal cells after their in vitro growth in the lab. It contains the same nutritional characteristics as its animal counterpart apart although a lower protein quality. It also differs from animal products in the production process as no animals are slaughtered to obtain cultured meat.

First cultured beef burger prepared by Professor Mark Post at Maastricht University. Photo by David Parry/PA Wire 
First cultured beef burger prepared by Professor Mark Post at Maastricht University. Photo by David Parry/PA Wire 

The first cultured meat burger was prepared at the University of Maastricht by Professor Mark Post in 2013 and had a cost of US$200.000. We clearly are in the very early days of producing cultured meat at a big scale because the technology does not allow going faster, but undoubtedly efforts like this are paving the road. The goal of the startups and research centres working on cultured meat projects is that, in a close future, the production of meat will require less land, will emit less greenhouse gases and will avoid animal cruelty. However, today, producing this type of meat has a high energy demand as well as a higher environmental impact than producing other animal-based meat alternatives. 

Spirulina powder

Spirulina is a blue-green powder obtained from cyanobacteria that grow in water. It is a protein-rich food supplement, with high contents in B12 vitamin and folic acid, and also rich in calcium and iron, which helps protect against osteoporosis and blood-related diseases. This powder also contains antioxidant, anti-cancerigen and anti-inflammatory compounds. Spirulina has a high protein content (50 g per 100 g of powder) and includes the 9 essential amino acids. Spirulina tastes like the ocean, which might not be agradable the first time you taste it.

Spirulina powder in the left bowl and spirulina powder mixed with water in the rest of the bowls
Spirulina powder in the left bowl and spirulina powder mixed with water in the rest of the bowls

Cooking Tip: Try making your own spirulina chocolate by melting a chocolate tablet in a small pot, then adding 2 scoops of spirulina powder for finally placing it on a flat recipient and taking it to the freeze for a perfect nutrient-rich chocolate bar.

We wish you a delicious time trying alternative proteins and getting creative in the kitchen! And we hope you can soon try fungi-based products made with the Kernel Mycofood ingredient! If you’re interested in knowing more on our ingredient do not hesitate to reach out on

The nutritional information in this article comes from Scientific papers and has been validated by Kernel Mycofood team of expert Biochemists. Get in touch if you would like to consult with them about any of the above information.