Certain edible insects are already available to consumers in the UK, and Singapore is the first country to approve the sale of lab-grown meat

"By the 31st December 2023, all food manufacturers that plan to use insects in their products will almost certainly need to apply for novel food approval, which is a huge step in the direction of bringing more of these products to market"

Katrina Anderson, Associate Director at international law firm Osborne Clarke

Many new alternative protein products are on the cusp of being commercialised and sold on the market. The UK has seen growing demand for such products in recent years, with more people choosing to exclude or reduce the amount of meat in their diets for health, environmental or ethical reasons. This Christmas, it is expected that approximately 14% percent of adults in the UK will be swapping turkey for a non-meat alternative.

UK consumers eat around 10 million turkeys each year for Christmas, a number that raises concerns over the ethical and environmental impact of such large scale meat consumption. As consumers become more aware of these issues, the gap in the market for alternative proteins continues to grow.

Alternative proteins encompass some of the most exciting developments in food technology, bringing together cutting-edge science with more sustainable ways of farming and creating non-meat alternatives. The products that are being developed now offer a window into how we could meet food demand in the future. Whilst soya and tofu have become popular alternatives for traditional turkey and pigs-in-blankets, emerging UK regulations mean that more unusual protein products could become available to consumers over the next few years.

In the UK, newly developed foods (often produced using new technology or processes) as well as food which is or has been traditionally eaten outside of the UK/EU before 15 May 1997, are known as "novel foods". To launch a novel food in the UK, it needs to pass through the novel food approval process set out by the Food Standards Agency (FSA). This process ensures that new foods brought onto the market are safe for consumers and properly labelled.

Whilst certain edible insects are currently available on the market in Great Britain and are often consumed as alternative proteins, food businesses hoping to keep these insects on the market post-Brexit must ensure that their insects pass through the novel food approval process. It has been reported that there are seven inspect species currently going through this process, which include:

  • Alphitobius diaperinus larvae (lesser mealworm)
  • Acheta domesticus (house cricket)
  • Tenebrio molitor (yellow mealworm)
  • Gryllodes sigillatus (banded cricket)
  • Schistocerca gregaria (desert locust)
  • Locusta migratoria (migratory locust)
  • Hermetia illucens larvae (black soldier fly)

A recent FSA survey suggests that over a quarter of UK consumers would consider eating insects as a source of protein.

"By the 31st December 2023, all food manufacturers that plan to use insects in their products will almost certainly need to apply for novel food approval, which is a huge step in the direction of bringing more of these products to market and eventually seeing them sold to consumers", says Katrina Anderson, an Associate Director specialising in food law at international law firm Osborne Clarke.

Other alternative proteins and novel foods to look out for include:

  • Edible plankton, made from animals and plants that float passively in the sea. This is already on the market in the form of powders and capsules and is high in Omega 3 fatty acids as well as other vitamins and minerals.
  • Some seaweeds, such as red dulse seaweed, are high in protein and have meat-like attributes in flavour and texture, and can be purchased as dried products in some UK supermarkets.
  • Lab-grown meat, has not received novel food approval from the FSA, but could appear on the UK market in the future. In December 2020, Singapore approved the sale of cultured meat, and according to the same FSA survey, a third of UK consumers would be happy to sample it themselves.
  • Some gene-edited (GE) crops, such as maize and soyabean, are also on the UK market and can be used as ingredients in other manufactured products. GE crops can have their DNA altered to change their traits such as making the crop more resistant to adverse weather conditions and diseases, as well as nutritional benefits such as lower in fats.

However, there is still an issue of consumer acceptance surrounding alternative proteins, and manufacturers face concerns over the long-term safety of such new foods.

"The application for novel food approval includes specific information from manufacturers about the production process, compositional data, scientific research, the history of the novel food and its proposed use. There are stringent approval processes in place to protect consumer safety." Says Anderson.

More information about novel food approval by the FSA can be found here.

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