About Nesta

Nesta is an innovation foundation. For us, innovation means turning bold ideas into reality and changing lives for the better. We use our expertise, skills and funding in areas where there are big challenges facing society.

Opportunities for innovation in food: the role of protein recycling

We’ve been looking into the future of the food production system for a while. More recently, we’ve focused on a particular challenge we think is important: how to find a space in the human diet for protein that is currently going to waste.

Vast amounts of highly nutritional protein is currently being wasted, even though it could play a role in boosting food security and cutting malnutrition. Instead, it’s being composted, fed to animals or even dumped in landfill.

Next week, we’re convening experts and stakeholders from different parts of the food industry - entrepreneurs, scientists, investors and more - to help us map out the innovation we need in this area. (If you’re interested in joining them, we still have a few spaces - get in touch at [email protected]).

Today, we’re publishing a report in which we identify what we think the key challenges and opportunities in this field are.

The challenges

  • Market failure. Aside from whey protein, a byproduct of the cheese industry that is widely used in processed foods and bodybuilding supplements, there isn’t a properly functioning market for waste protein products. There is a lack of intermediaries or standards that would allow these to be traded efficiently. In most cases, there isn’t even consistent language to describe them.

  • Technological barriers. Some of these barriers exist around how to process protein waste (for instance drying them without destroying nutrients, or maintaining consistency between batches). Some are around how they are tested and how they are sold: ensuring customer acceptance of these products will be difficult without greatly improved testing of the products’ quality, and an auditable and reliable electronic paper trail to trace batches through what may be very long supply chains.

  • Cultural and legal barriers: recycled food is likely to meet with significant opposition, particularly if it conflicts with religious food laws, labelling regulations and if it isn’t perceived as being safe - but also if it is perceived as being a highly processed and unhealthy food.

But our report suggests that these barriers are not intractable - and protein recycling is a promising area for innovation.

The opportunities

  • Develop technology. There is an opportunity for innovators to solve the technical challenges facing protein recycling. Key among these are food processing techniques and developing testing and tracing tools that support public acceptance.

  • Create a market. The lack of a functioning market is also an opportunity for innovative companies to create one. Creative thinking, branding and promotion could help drive acceptance and use of these products - and bring about a consistent language to describe them. Greater standardisation and commoditisation of products would give major food manufacturers the confidence to use recycled proteins as ingredients in their products.

  • Learn from the past. As well as being a new idea, protein recycling is an old one. Black pudding is made from blood - a byproduct of slaughterhouses. Ricotta is made from whey - a byproduct of cheese production. Veal is a byproduct of dairy farming. There are many thrifty but delicious foods that have fallen out of fashion that could be resurrected or adapted for modern palates - and which would likely not face the same social and regulatory barriers to acceptance that highly processed novel foods would.

You can read our report here.

And if you’ve got relevant knowledge, experience or expertise in the field, please join us at our expert roundtable event on the 19th of October - we still have a couple of places free.

Photo credit: Molecular structure of a protein, by CLS Research Office, CC-BY


Olivier Usher

Olivier Usher

Olivier Usher

Head of Research, Challenge Works


Oli leads Challenge Works research team. He helps to identify promising areas for innovation and choose the most impactful focus for new prizes.

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