Future Food

7 minute read

pieces of cheese, fruit and vegetables cut into squares and arranged in a checkerboard pattern

Environmental concerns and consumer demands are driving the need for alternative food production. To be successful, new food solutions require input from the sciences, business and beyond.

About

The Future Food Hallmark Research Initiative is focused on the production of alternative proteins and the development of sustainable, healthy and affordable protein products. By building knowledge through partnership and collaboration, the initiative is:

  • Enabling evidence-based production of healthy and sustainable food products for consumers
  • Adding value to the food industry
  • Contributing to global food security.

To achieve this, the initiative created an R&D (research and development) strategy for the future of foods, leveraging the expertise of its researchers. This strategy will evolve as the Hallmark continues.

The initiative brings together scientists with diverse expertise, including food policy and regulation, consumer insight, human health and nutrition, agricultural production, food processing, chemistry and engineering. Researchers within the initiative will also consult and collaborate extensively with external research partners, governments and industry.

The initiative provides annual seed funding for innovative interdisciplinary research projects with industry collaboration. It welcomes contact and project ideas from within and outside the University.

The initiative also provides an engagement platform for researchers, communities, policymakers, government and industry through:

  • Technical workshops and seminars, featuring leading scholars from within and outside the University
  • Industry workshops to provide the latest research and innovation, and promote collaboration between industry and academia
  • Resources such as research highlights, project reports, scientific publications and relevant industry-related articles
  • Public lectures for community organisations and consumers.

Research themes

The Future Food Hallmark Research Initiative is focused on alternative protein production systems and products.

Engagement and collaboration with external research partners, industry, communities and governments are embedded across its five research themes.

Drivers of demand for alternative proteins

This theme is analysing the main drivers of demand for alternative protein sources, including:

  • environmental
  • animal welfare
  • food security
  • dietary health
  • cultural and corporate.

Understanding these factors is necessary to identify foods, products and technologies that are likely to achieve broad social, political and ethical acceptance and support. We are also examining the policy and regulatory frameworks that may enable or constrain these food innovations.

Theme leader: Associate Professor Gyorgy Scrinis

Read our report on the Australian Alternative Protein Industry

Pre-packaged meat alternatives in a supermarket refrigerated display case

A man looking at cold drink choices at a supermarket

Attitudes and mindsets of consumers

Consumer and market insight research is being conducted on the major forms of alternative protein to identify the new R&D opportunities.

Co-theme leaders: Associate Professor Anish Nagpal and Associate Professor Jill Lei

We acknowledge the significant contributions from Ms Hollis Ashman, MBA as a former co-theme leader.

Fresh vegetables, a spade and seedlings

Health and wellbeing

Adequate protein intake is crucial for health at all life stages. Dietary protein provides the amino acids for growth and essential cellular reactions. Protein-rich foods often carry other nutrients, such as minerals, antioxidants and essential fatty acids, and antinutrients with consequences for consumer health.

Developing foods with an optimal nutritional profile to enhance digestion and nutrient absorption is important to maintain overall wellbeing at different stages of life.

Co-theme leaders: Professor Gordon Lynch, Associate Professor Rene Koopman and Dr Anita Lawrence

Alternative sources of protein production

To meet future demand for sustainable protein production, Australian agricultural sectors must identify ways to optimise production while reducing the environmental impact. While recognising the importance of traditional sources of protein, research in this theme focuses on opportunities and challenges in novel alternative protein production systems:

  • Plants
  • Cell-based meat
  • Insects and algae
  • By-products derived from food processing (for example animal offal, seed meals and plant processing).

Co-theme leaders: Professor Robyn Warner and Associate Professor Greg Martin

Image: Tony Rees/CSIRO (CC BY 3.0)

A close up of green micro algae in a petri dish

A plant-based burger in a cast iron pan with cheese and red onion

Proof-of-concept products

Foods are complex and varied in structure, function and nutritional profile. So, nutritious and tasty food products can’t be developed from alternative protein sources by simple substitution. Instead, the relationships between protein structure and function need to be considered.

This theme is exploring the structure, function and nutritional benefits of proteins from different sources when formulated and combined in a food product. The aim is to create products with acceptable texture, flavour and shelf life, as well as enhanced nutritional properties.

Through engagement with food processors, the initiative is exploring the use of alternative proteins with environmental, economic and nutritional advantages.

Co-theme leaders: Associate Professor Greg Martin and Professor Robyn Warner

New projects

An exploratory, multi-disciplinary study to investigate the impact of plant-based meat on dietary habits and perceptions in Australia

Whereas traditional meat ‘alternatives’ such as tofu, lentils and beans have a long history of consumption, plant-based meat products (products designed to mimic the appearance, texture, smell and taste of meat) are a relatively recent addition to Australian diets. Marketed as way to reduce meat intake but still experience the sensations of meat, plant-based meat products are rapidly becoming ‘mainstream’ with over 250 different plant-based meat products available in Australian supermarkets in July 2021. Although animal meat and plant-based meat may look similar, there are important nutritional differences between them. As Australia has one of the highest levels of meat consumption in the world, it is particularly important to explore the impact on overall dietary intake of the introduction of plant-based meat to the diet. In this research, our main focus is to understand how the adoption of plant-based meat affects consumers’ overall dietary intake, and how this impact is contingent on a set of factors such as consumers’ motivation to incorporate plant-based meat into their diet in the first place and their everyday dietary habits. For example, if a person’s motivation for consuming plant-based meat is to manage and improve their health, and ultra-processed plant-based meats are being consumed instead of minimally processed vegetables and legumes, this may defeat the purpose of the dietary change. As part of our investigation into how the adoption of plant-based meat affects overall dietary intake we would like to know: which foods are being replaced? (Is it meat, processed meat products or vegetables, fruits, etc.?) How much of these foods are being replaced? How often does the replacement occur? How often was meat consumed before and after the introduction of plant-based meat? Does the introduction of plant-based meat impact on the dietary intake of other family/household members?

People: Dr Anita Lawrence, Assoc Prof Jill Lei, Assoc Prof Anish Nagpal, Assoc Prof Gyorgy Scrinis

Contact: Dr Anita Lawrence (anita.lawrence@unimelb.edu.au)

Characterisation of fibre type and calpain expression of lab-grown ovine (sheep) muscle cells during proliferation and differentiationating field

While there is an increasing amount of research on cultivation of muscle cells for lab-grown meat, little is known about the post-harvest metabolism of lab-grown muscle cells. It is well-established that post-harvest metabolism largely determines the quality of animal-based meat products. Colour, tenderness, juiciness and flavour of meat from animals are dependent on various intrinsic factors, including muscle types and their post-harvest metabolism, including protein degradation which leads to structural disruptions. Muscles in an animal differ in muscle fibre type which can be categorised into three distinct types, namely types 1; 2a and 2b, based on the isoforms of the major muscle protein myosin. Extensive research in meat science, including our recent research in the Faculty of Veterinary and Agricultural Sciences, has established the influence of muscle fibre type on the eating quality of meat. The three muscle fibre types differ in structural protein composition, protein synthesis and turnover due to proteolytic systems such as that of the calpain protease family. In a living muscle, calpain gene expression are fibre type-specific and proteolytic activity varies during muscle growth and differentiation. These proteases are well established as the main proteases involved in post-harvest metabolism during the muscle-to-meat conversion, resulting in improvements in sensory traits.

Leveraging resources and capabilities from two ongoing studies in FVAS and Faculty of Engineering and Information Technology on development of food grade media and scaffold for cultivated meat, this project will characterise proliferation and differentiation of muscle cells in 2D (tissue culture polystyrene) and 3D (collagen or chitosan scaffolds) environments. The muscle fibre type and calpain gene expression during proliferation and differentiation will be examined. Understanding the muscle fibre composition and calpain level in in-vitro 2D and 3D environment enables further development and commercialisation of muscle cell cultivation.

People: Dr Minh Ha, Dr Brooke Farrugia, Prof Robyn Warner, Ms Alexandra Rao

Contact: Prof Robyn Warner (robyn.warner@unimelb.edu.au)

Controlled modification of gluten using engineered synthetic ecologies

There is a push to produce of functional plant-based proteins for the development of sustainable, healthy and affordable foods. Wheat gluten is a useful ingredient in meat substitutes because of its viscoelastic properties and economically viable co-product. However, the adoption of gluten in plant-based substitutes could be difficult for some people due to off-flavours, textural properties and allergenic effects.

Gluten, an agglomeration formed from the plant proteins gliadin and glutenin, has unequalled network forming properties. These network properties are essential for wheat-based products where the network is formed and stabilised during an intermediate cohesive dough stage during food production. However, gluten is the causative agents of untreatable “wheat-related disorders” such as wheat allergies and celiac disease. Avoiding gluten results in a significant negative impact on the perceived quality of life of consumers. Gluten-free products are increasingly available; but they are usually expensive and have poor sensory and shelf-life properties.

An alternative approach to counter this problem is to degrade gluten with a microorganism-based enzymatic system during food processing. Indeed, traditional methods of cereal food production with fermentative communities of bacteria and yeasts (e.g. sourdoughs) have the consequence of gluten degradation or modification during manufacture. The enzymes produced during extended fermentation are linked to disruption of gliadins (effective on viscous flow and extensibility of dough) and glutenins (responsible for the elasticity of dough), thereby reducing the allergenic load. However, controlling the rate and the extent of metabolic activity of the sourdough microorganisms is challenging but important, as the properties of the sourdough and quality of the final food products are strongly affected by enzymatic hydrolysis.

While ultrasound has been traditionally used to inhibit microorganisms, more recently the potential to enhance microbial fermentations is being recognised. Ultrasound has recently been shown capable of enhancing the growth of single-celled microbes and the activity of specific enzymes due to mass transfer effects generated by liquid shear. However, most of these studies provide only speculative mechanisms of the role of ultrasound, without any providing quantitative information or relationships. In addition, the potential differential effect of ultrasound on different microbes and enzymes in mixed communities is yet to be investigated. This project will allow us to obtain the first proof-of-concept data of the ability of ultrasound to differential influence the growth of mixed microbial communities (food-grade yeast and lactic acid bacteria (LAB)), thereby demonstrating its ability to manipulate complex fermentations.

This project seeks to take advantage of fermentative capacity and enzymatic diversity of food-grade and ‘generally regarded as safe’ lactic acid bacteria and yeast strains during fermentation for reducing the allergenic potential of wheat protein. The application of ultrasound in liquid and semi-solid fermentations of gluten-based protein will also be tested as a novel way to increase targeted metabolic activity. Within this framework, we hope to gain preliminary data to support the use of targeted, synthetic fermentation to alter the functional qualities of the proteins in gluten, with a view to produce functional gluten ingredients for use in plant-based meat options.

People: Dr Sara Sayanjali, Assoc Prof Kate Howell, Assoc Prof Greg Martin, and Prof Ashokkumar

Contact: Assoc Prof Kate Howell (khowell@unimelb.edu.au)

A qualitative investigation into consumer perception of seafood and plant based seafood alternatives

The findings of this study will inform the future development of seafood analogue products by determining which sensory characteristics are important to consumers for a range of commonly consumed seafood products. In addition, it will investigate how likelihood to purchase is modulated by these product attributes. Subsequent analogue seafood product development can therefore be focussed on emulating the key consumer perceived attributes associated with traditional seafood products.

Although previous studies have found various sensory factors to be influential in seafood consumption behaviour, none have utilised a wholistic approach where the consumer has been free to identify the most important product characteristics from their own perspective.  The QMA (Qualitative multivariate analysis) methodology enables the investigator to capture all the drivers affecting consumer choice or behaviour not just those included on a sensory survey. QMA is a type of perceptual mapping similar to the trademarked process Napping®. This is a rapid inexpensive method for characterisation of products that is used extensively in the FMCG (Fast Moving Consumer Goods) industry (Beckley, Paredes, and Lopetcharat 2012). In brief, QMA involves the use of a test group (consumers), a facilitator and a set of stimulus samples. The test group are tasked with mapping/sorting the stimuli on a 2-dimensional graph through group consensus, with the facilitator guiding group discussions in order to reveal how the participants are evaluating the stimulus and what stimuli attributes are driving their mapping decisions. Several studies have demonstrated the method’s effectiveness in generating insights into consumer perceptions of animal-based products (Bittner et al. 2021; Hastie et al. 2020; Drake, Lopetcharat, and Drake 2009). For the proposed study, a set of stimulus images of seafood products have been selected to demonstrate a range of seafood product sensory attributes including colour and texture. These stimuli and a prescribed discussion guide will be utilised in several QMA sessions, with outcomes captured in line with the stated project objectives.

People: Kieren Watkins, Dr Melindee Hastie, Professor Robyn Warner

Contact: Dr Melindee Hastie (mhastie@unimelb.edu.au)

Projects

Drivers of demand for alternative proteins (ongoing)

The project aims are to:

  • Identify key stakeholders, such as industry, government, NGO, civil society, involved in the production, promotion and regulation of alternative proteins
  • Analyse the claims about health benefits and concerns relating to alternative protein products
  • Generate a dataset to inform future research and development
  • Create an analytical framework to analyse stakeholder claims – which can be applied to analyse other drivers in the alternative food sector.

A collaborative project between Faculty of Veterinary and Agricultural Sciences and Melbourne School of Population and Global Health.

Chief Investigator: Dr Jenn Lacy-Nichols at jennifer.lacy@unimelb.edu.au

Co-Investigators: Associate Professor Gyorgy Scrinis, Professor Rob Moodie

Report: The Australian Alternative Protein Industry

Designing effective positioning strategies for alternative proteins among different segments of consumers (ongoing)

The project aims to understand consumer perception of new protein sources. It also examines how to position a new product to help consumer acceptability. These goals aim to increase the acceptance of alternative protein. To do this we will:

  • Create insights on consumer perceptions, attitudes, and preferences about alternative sources of proteins
  • Develop matching strategies to increase acceptance.

This research can be used to inform consumer-centric product design in the development of alternative proteins.

A collaborative project between Faculty of Business and Economics, Faculty of Veterinary and Agricultural Sciences, and Faculty of Economics and Business Administration, Ghent University, Belgium.

Chief Investigator: Associate Professor Jill Lei at leij@unimelb.edu.au

Co-Investigators: Dr Jolien Vandenbroele (Ghent University, Belgium); Dr Peter Manasantivongs; Ms Hollis Ashman; Dr Jeremy Cottrell

Texture, flavour and consumer responses to food products formulated with blended proteins from meat and plant sources (ongoing)

This project develops and compares food products formulated with proteins from meat and alternative protein sources.

We will test the texture, flavour and nutritional values of these products using mechanical, biochemical and sensory analyses. The products with favourable texture and flavour will be further tested for nutritional values including protein, fat, vitamins and mineral composition.

A collaborative project between Faculty of Veterinary and Agricultural Sciences, Melbourne School of Engineering and Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences.

Chief Investigator: Dr Minh Ha at minh.ha@unimelb.edu.au

Co-Investigators: Ms Xinyu Miao (PhD researcher), Professor Robyn Warner, Associate Professor Greg Martin, Dr Robyn Larsen, Dr Hafiz Suleria, Professor Sally Gras, Associate Professor Rene Koopman

Optimising consumer acceptability of novel plant-based yoghurts (ongoing)

The project will develop a rapid, cost-effective framework for the development and optimisation of yoghurts from novel plant-based protein sources. The project will use a combination of:

  • Qualitative analysis of consumer perception
  • Sensory testing of existing products
  • Formulation of new products with novel proteins
  • Testing the health benefits (digestibility and nutrient bioavailability) of these new products.

Data from this project are valuable in understanding key formulation ingredients and product properties to maximise consumer acceptability.

An expansion of existing collaboration between Faculty of Veterinary and Agricultural Sciences and Melbourne School of Engineering.

Chief Investigator: Dr Jeremy Cottrell at jcottrell@unimelb.edu.au

Co-Investigators: Ms Mitali Gupta (PhD researcher), Professor Frank Dunshea, Professor Sally Gras, Dr Damir Torrico, Ms Hollis Ashman

Phytochemical and nutritional characterisation of plant proteins with potential for blending (ongoing)

The main aims of our research will be to:

  • Develop methods and characterise bioactive peptides from different plant-based sources especially from pulses
  • determine the bioavailability and bio-accessibility of different product formulations to demonstrate their potential utilisation as healthy and sustainable protein sources.

A collaboration between Faculty of Veterinary and Agricultural Sciences and Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences.

Publications:

Impact of processing and storage on protein digestibility and bioavailability of legumes, Food Reviews International

Effect of processing on polyphenols in butternut pumpkin (Cucurbita moschata)

Bioaccessibility and bioavailability changes of phenolic compounds in pumpkins (Cucurbita moschata): A review

Bioactive compounds in microalgae and their potential health benefits

Screening of Phenolic Compounds in Rejected Avocado and Determination of Their Antioxidant Potential

Chief Investigator: Dr Hafiz Suleria at hafiz.suleria@unimelb.edu.au

Co-Investigators: Professor Frank Dunshea, Professor Robyn Warner, Dr Minh Ha

Current legal and regulatory system for novel proteins (ongoing)

An impossible task? Australian food law and the challenge of novel meat analogues

This Project provided the first socio-legal analysis of the regulation of meat and dairy alternatives in Australia and one of the first in the world. It investigated and evaluated the regulatory assessment process in Australia for novel meat and dairy analogues using as a case study Australia’s regulatory approval of Impossible burgers and other products produced by Impossible Food Inc (‘Impossible’). Impossible required pre-market regulatory approval to sell its burger and other products because its novel meat analogues contain soy leghemoglobin, which is a novel protein developed by Impossible using precision fermentation methods.

This Project drew on a legal analysis of the regulatory process generally for novel meat and dairy analogues and as it applied to Impossible products combined with a qualitative analysis of the 60 public submissions received as part of the pre-market approval process for Impossible’s products. It found that the current pre-market approval process in Australia is not designed to ensure public interest outcomes beyond preventing acute food safety risks and enabling markets. Yet, the submissions indicated that stakeholders expect regulators to respond to long-term health and sustainability matters when it comes to regulating food. Future developments in the regulation of food in Australia should engage with the broader food systems objectives that are intertwined with meat and dairy alternatives to ensure public trust in novel foods.

Read the Federal Law Review paper.

A sociological analysis of Australia’s senate inquiry into definitions of meat and other animal products

This Project will use qualitative methods to systematically analyse the submissions and regulator responses emerging from a Federal Government Senate inquiry entitled ‘Definitions of meat and other animal products’ announced in June 2021. According to the terms of reference, the Inquiry is focused on investigating whether current labelling rules for meat and dairy alternatives undermines conventional meat and dairy products or otherwise has health and economic impacts.

The Inquiry is the first large-scale regulatory debate about meat and dairy alternatives in Australia and will be comprised of over 200 submissions, transcripts from 6 public hearings and the ultimate report from the Inquiry. This project will draw on this rich dataset to evaluate how the future of protein is contested and regulated in Australia. The Project’s methodological approach to data analysis is designed to uncover the positions, assumptions and knowledges of stakeholders in contested areas of public policy. Through our analysis, we seek to identify the full range of expectations key stakeholders have regarding the regulation of meat and dairy alternatives, uncover areas requiring further deliberation and analyse the scope of regulatory responses to meat and dairy alternatives being developed. Drawing on previous studies conducted by the authors, comparisons to the US debates on meat and dairy alternatives and other regulatory debates regarding meat and dairy alternatives in Australia will be used to provide additional depth to the Project’s analysis and findings.

Review on the impact of processing on nutritional value and health benefits of food proteins (ongoing)

This desktop review will cover nutritional and health aspects of dietary proteins both as raw ingredients and in final food products.

It will explore how sourcing, processing, formulation and the final food matrix affect functional and nutritional values of proteins. The focus proteins will be those significant to the Australian agricultural and food industries.

A collaborative project between Faculty of Veterinary and Agricultural Sciences and Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences.

We are currently refining the scope of this project.

Chief Investigator: Dr Minh Ha at minh.ha@unimelb.edu.au

Co-Investigators: Professor Robyn Warner, Dr Rene Koopman, Dr Robyn Larsen, Dr Anita Lawrence

Consumer and chefs’ attitudes toward cell-based meat (ongoing)

The project explores consumers’ insights on cell-based meat and the underlying reasoning in their purchasing decision.

A collaboration between Faculty of Veterinary and Agricultural Sciences and the Faculty of Business and Economics.

Chief Investigator: Ms Hollis Ashman. Contact: Dr Minh Ha minh.ha@unimelb.edu.au

Co-Investigators: Ms Natalie Ryan (MSc student), Dr Minh Ha, Professor Robyn Warner

Consumer insights on blended meat and plant protein products (completed)

This project was conducted by researchers from the Faculty of Veterinary and Agricultural Sciences.

We will submit the results as a peer-reviewed journal article. Outcomes are being used to inform the alternative protein industry in Australia and overseas.

Chief Investigator: Ms Hollis Ashman. Contact: Dr Minh Ha minh.ha@unimelb.edu.au

Co-Investigators: Ms Xinyu Miao (PhD researcher), Professor Robyn Warner

Life-cycle-analysis of cell-based meat (ongoing)

The project will assess and quantify sustainability aspects of various cell-based meat production systems. Outcomes from this project will inform the cell-based meat industry best practice to drive sustainability.

A collaboration between Faculty of Veterinary and Agricultural Sciences and the CSIRO.

Chief Investigator: Dr Natalie Doran-Browne at n.doran-browne@unimelb.edu.au

Co-Investigators: Ms Yimin Wang (MSc student), Professor Richard Eckard, Dr Brad Ridoutt (CSIRO)

Micro algal protein (ongoing)

This project investigates cultivation and harvesting of various microalgal strains for food protein production purpose. The project will also assess protein content, composition and nutritional aspects of promising microalgal proteins.

This is a PhD project currently conducted by Ms Bhagya Yatipanthalawa under the supervision of Associate Professor Greg Martin in the School of Chemical Engineering.

Chief Investigator: Associate Professor Greg Martin (School of Chemical Engineering) gjmartin@unimelb.edu.au

Co-Investigators: Ms Bhagya Yatipanthalawa (PhD researcher)

People

Initiative Chair

Professor Robyn Warner, School of Agriculture and Food

  • Theme leader: Alternative sources of protein production

Academic Convenor

Dr Melindee Hastie, Faculty of Veterinary and Agricultural Science

Steering Committee

Professor Adrian Hearn, School of Languages and Linguistics

Dr Anita Lawrence, School of Agriculture and Food

  • Co-theme leader: Health and wellbeing

Associate Professor Jill Lei, Department of Management and Marketing

  • Co-theme leader: Attitudes and mindsets of consumers

Professor Gordon Lynch, School of Physiology

  • Co-theme leader: Health and wellbeing

Associate Professor Greg Martin, Department of Chemical Engineering

  • Theme leader: Proof-of-concept products

Associate Professor Anish Nagpal, Business and Economics

  • Co-theme leader: Attitudes and mindsets of consumers

Dr Martin Palmer, Department of Chemical Engineering

Dr Brad Ridoutt, CSIRO

Dr Nicholas Robinson, School of BioSciences

Associate Professor Gyorgy Scrinis, School of Agriculture and Food

  • Theme leader: Community, social, ecological and food security drivers

Past members

Ms Hollis Ashman, School of Agriculture and Food

Dr Minh Ha, School of Agriculture and Food

Associate Professor Rene Koopman, School of Physiology

Watch: Cell Based Meat and the Future of Food: Policy and Politics

Join Professor Robyn Warner, Future Food Hallmark and Dr Hope Johnson, Queensland University of Technology, as they share their research on sustainable, healthy and affordable alternative proteins, and cell-based meats, regulation and the law.

Future Food Hallmark Webinar, 2 July 2021

News and events

Funding

Since 2019 the initiative funded several research projects that are currently underway or were recently completed.

The objective of the seed funding scheme is to promote and nurture interdisciplinary research collaboration in the area of sustainable and healthy food protein production.

The scheme also aims to support career development of early and mid-career researchers by providing opportunities to participate and take leading roles in interdisciplinary research projects.

Applicants should discuss proposed projects with a relevant research theme leader prior to submission.

If you’re outside the University and would like to get involved with the initiative, contact Academic Convenor Dr Melindee Hastie (details below).

Get involved

Whether you’re a researcher, external organisation or member of the public, you can engage with us by:

  • participating in research projects
  • attending workshops, public events and lectures featuring leading scholars from outside the University.

For more information about the initiative, contact Academic Convenor Dr Melindee Hastie
Phone: +61 474 214 123
Email: mhastie@unimelb.edu.au

If you have questions or comments in relation to the Hallmark Research Initiatives program, email hallmark-initiatives@unimelb.edu.au

Images: Unsplash, UGA CAUS (CC BY NC 2.0), University of Melbourne