How alternative proteins are making nutrition sustainable – and are challenging machine manufacturers
3/4/2024 Sustainability & carbon-neutrality Article

How alternative proteins are making nutrition sustainable – and are challenging machine manufacturers

The challenges are gigantic: the world population will grow to over nine billion people by 2050. And these people must be supplied with high-quality proteins. Because livestock farming on this scale would overtax the world's resources, the need for alternative protein sources - and for technology to produce them – is growing.

Close-up of a container full of soldier fly larvae

The big crawl has an address: An inconspicuous industrial area in the harbour area of Bergen op Zoom in the Dutch province of Noord-Brabant. Billions and billions of larvae of the soldier fly squirm there, which are bred and processed here by the protein pioneer Protix – at last count over 15,000 tonnes per year. So far, the yellowish powder is mainly used for the production of animal feed, but in the future, it could possibly also be used directly for the production of food.

With its slightly creepy effect for the average consumer, the big crawler is perhaps the most prominent indication of a revolution that is taking place in the food industry: The development of alternative proteins that will eventually end up on the plate either directly or via a diversion as animal feed. Nutrition experts recommend that adults should consume 0.8 g of protein per kilogramme of body weight per day – by 2050, this will create a demand of more than 500 million tonnes per day.

New processes and machines for alternative proteins

Besides meat and dairy products, plant sources and mushrooms play an important role. Obtaining protein powder from pulses, nuts, seeds, grains and soy is currently one of the most important growth drivers for machinery and plant engineering for the food industry, and will also be a topic in many places at POWTECH TECHNOPHARM (23.-25. September 2025). Another approach is "cellular agriculture", which is still in its infancy and involves cultivating meat in laboratory processes and growing it from muscle stem cells. And proteins based on insects such as the soldier fly.

With the EU's decision in June 2021 and most recently in January 2023 to allow four insects as food, the topic has gained further importance: Fried in one piece or coated with chocolate, or as protein powder and bars, beetles, crickets, worms and grasshoppers can now also be used in Europe. The production processes for this are quite complex – from breeding to harvesting to processing, numerous process steps are necessary: sifting, drying, grinding, centrifuging, conveying, packaging and storing.

The Dutch pioneer Protix has been developing the process together with machine manufacturers such as Bühler and Alfa Laval since 2009. In 2017, Protix founded the joint venture Bühler Insect Technology Solutions together with the Swiss plant engineering company in order to transfer the process to an industrial scale.

The example shows that in order to make the new processes usable on a large scale, cooperation between the start-up companies or idea providers and the machine and plant construction industry is needed. Existing machines such as mixers, extruders or centrifuges have to be adapted to completely new product properties or completely redeveloped. And this is not only true for insect proteins, but above all for extraction from plants such as soy, wheat and peas, but also grasses and leaves.

Plant-based food becomes a growth driver for mechanical and plant engineering

The commitment of machine manufacturers is worthwhile – because the market for alternative proteins is growing disproportionately strongly. Worldwide demand for plant proteins is currently increasing by 9.7 % per year and could reach a volume of 23.4 billion US dollars in 2028, according to the market research company Meticulous Research. The drivers are changes in eating habits in North America and Europe (e.g. veganism), but also the volume demand associated with population growth and increasing prosperity, for example in Asia.

For example, separation technology specialists such as Alfa Laval, Andritz, GEA, Ferrum or Flottweg are engaged in the development of machines and processes with which proteins can be extracted and isolated from plants. Drying and grinding the proteins into a fine powder also requires specific know-how and adapted machines that, on the one hand, achieve the required degree of grinding and, on the other hand, are gentle on the temperature-sensitive material to be ground and also meet high hygiene standards. POWTECH TECHNOPHARM exhibitors such as Hosokawa Alpine, Netzsch and others have already developed solutions for this.

But the processing of protein powders into foods that are accepted by consumers also requires specific know-how. One example is the texturisation of meat substitutes, which are sold either as dry granulates (TVP) or as meat analogues with a high water content (HMMA). Machine manufacturers, including Andritz, Bühler and Coperion, are developing their own solutions for this.

As is so often the case in mechanical process engineering, process and machine developers encounter material properties that represent a real challenge. For this reason, too, there is no way around tests under conditions that are as close to reality as possible. For this reason, many mechanical and plant engineering companies invest in their own test centres, where customers test the processing of raw materials and products and determine the process parameters for the (large-scale) processes. Or – and here, too, the big crawl in Bergen op Zoom may be considered trend-setting – they develop processes together with the machine manufacturers in order to eventually produce them together. The engineers and technicians are not lacking in imagination – and there is no shortage of opportunities either!


Armin Scheuermann

Armin Scheuermann

Chemical engineer and freelance specialised journalist