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Dr Rosario Romero
Dr Rosario Romero

There are still several 'uncertainties' when it comes to the impact of alternative protein products on human and environmental health. Rosario Romero, senior scientist in the food authenticity and profiling team at Fera Science, discusses the importance of non-targeted methodology in the safety testing of alternative proteins.


Whilst interest in alternative proteins is on the rise, driven by perceived benefits for animal welfare, health and sustainability, the reality is that there are still several lingering uncertainties about the environmental and human health impacts of these novel products.


For context, some alternative proteins are classed as ‘novel foods’, defined by the EU as those with “negligible or no human consumption in the European Union prior to 15 May 1997." These novel foods can originate from diverse sources including plants, animals, microorganisms, cell cultures, minerals and other natural and synthetic sources. They also encompass ingredients and products resulting from modified or new production processes, technologies and industry practices leading to new or modified molecular structures.


Food safety, as many will be aware, is a critical consideration for any food type, and encompasses issues like allergies and intolerances, chemical/ biological contaminants, natural toxins or nutritional value of the food. Whereas safety hazards are well-understood in conventional foods, novel foods may introduce new, unknown hazards due to the novelty of food sources or the technologies used to create them.



Authorisation by national food safety authorities is, of course, mandatory before novel foods can enter the market. So, how exactly are manufacturers of these products demonstrating their safety?


Investigating potential hazards in these products relies on modern analytical technologies, particularly non-targeted analytical methodologies covering genomics, transcriptomics, proteomics and metabolomics. This is because, unlike targeted methodologies, these methods can identify unknown molecules in food samples without prior knowledge of their presence.


Fundamentally, these approaches address various questions related to the composition and safety of food products:


  • What biological species are contained in the food?

  • Which genes are expressed?

  • What proteins and metabolites are present?

All of these alert researchers to potential hazards such as allergens, toxic compounds, pathogens and more. What’s more, non-targeted methodologies also allow for the comparison of different foods, for example, conventional meat versus cultivated meat.


Fera Science
Fera Science's National Agri-food Innovation campus near York, UK

At Fera Science, we’re currently working on several projects with the UK's Food Standards Agency in this space, specifically exploring the use of currently non-permitted substrates for insect waste valorisation and allergen testing of precision-fermented and insect protein products. From our work in this area, using non-targeted methodologies, we’ve found that databases play a crucial role in identifying unknowns, necessitating advanced informatics and computational tools.



Technological advances in databases, analytical methods and data analysis tools are paramount for the development of research in this area and we strongly recommend that efforts be made to develop these capabilities further. In short, food safety testing must keep up with innovations in the food industry to safeguard the long-term interests of consumers and to support sustainability in food production.


#FeraScience #foodsafety #opinion #UK

Opinion: Alternative proteins – can advanced analytics answer the unanswered?

Phoebe Fraser

11 July 2024

Opinion: Alternative proteins – can advanced analytics answer the unanswered?

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