ProVeg International has a clear mission: reduce animal-product consumption by 50% by 2040. Monitoring the state of plant-based innovation, the organisation works with the food industry to develop new products, functioning as a middleperson between various players in the area, while also providing information for consumers looking to lead a more vegetable-forward lifestyle.
This week, ProVeg will be participating in several sessions at the seventh annual Free From Functional Food Expo, which is taking place today and tomorrow in Barcelona. The food awareness group has helped curate the vegan section of the event, providing talks that will encompass everything from profitability to labelling.
In conjunction with the expo, Holly Doran, senior market research specialist at ProVeg, talks to Food Spark about the opportunities and challenges in the burgeoning plant-based market.
What are the most prominent trends in the plant-based sector?
More and more, we are seeing companies focus on the sensory experience, dialling up crunch, spice, zestiness or provenance, rather than drawing attention to products being vegan. This approach is sure to generate more widespread appeal, and thus sales, as is the involvement of big brands such as Nestlé and the emergence of more affordable plant-based foods, from Greggs’ sausage roll to frozen pizzas at Lidl.
Moreover, we are seeing more clean-label products enter the space and we know from our work with the food industry that this is a key priority for businesses launching plant-based products. Given the importance today’s consumers attach to this, as well as the scrutiny plant-based products often come under, making this a priority is wise.
Lastly, novel raw materials are being explored. For example, Just Wholefoods recently launched plant-based mince made from sunflower protein, which will have the effect of continuing to add to the diversity of products on offer in terms of taste, texture, nutritional value and price.
The plant-based market is clearly booming, but what are some of its principal challenges? And how can these be overcome?
Plant-based products are often more expensive than their animal-based counterparts. In some cases, this is caused by plant-based raw materials being more expensive and, in others, by R&D costs (which are often significant given the comparative infancy of the plant-based market) being passed on to end consumers. Furthermore, some companies simply charge a premium because they can, i.e. because they have a monopoly and know consumers following certain diets or suffering from certain allergies have little choice but to purchase their products. Nonetheless, as the market matures, we expect prices to begin to drop.
Unfortunately, there is often still a trade-off between taste, texture and price. While some raw materials make for better texture, they fall short of expectations on taste and vice versa. Highly successful companies are often victims of their own success and struggle to keep up with demand, meaning consumers can have difficulty getting their hands on their favourite items or simply spotting them and other plant-based products in retail locations, where they are not always easily visible or dedicated sufficient shelf space.
Overall, more and better options are still needed across the board, but particularly in the plant-based cheese (underperforms in terms of taste, texture, price and nutritional value), plant-based fish and seafood (only products mimicking processed fish products perform well and are hard to find), and plant-based yoghurt (mainly soya-based, often artificial, sugary and too expensive) categories, where compelling value propositions are few and far between, meaning consumers are unlikely to repurchase.
Are there any other categories that you think are currently underserved when it comes to plant-based options or alternatives?
Plant-based baked goods, specifically ready-to-eat cakes and pastries, are lacking. Alternatives to alternatives – i.e. plant-based products which do not look to imitate animal-based products but constitute entirely new categories – are also hard to come by in a number of markets but would no doubt serve the needs of many.
Additionally, outside of big cities, despite there being several products in existence, it is by no means guaranteed consumers will be able to find them, as touched upon above. At present, many plant-based products are only available in certain retail locations, meaning consumers are either exposed to a limited selection, or, for those with a clear idea of the products they want, forced to travel to a number of different supermarkets to get everything on their lists. Even then, items are often out of stock.
What do you think are some of the most exciting ingredients emerging as plant-based stars?
Pea is in its heyday right now and is considered to be the food industry’s new favourite protein source. Beyond Meat uses pea protein in its beyond burgers, but peas are increasingly finding their way into more plant-based foods than meat alternatives alone, with Ripple Foods using them in their dairy alternatives and Good Catch Foods using them in their fish and seafood alternatives. This growth trajectory is set to continue: according to Henk Hoogenkamp, an adviser and board member for several food companies, global pea protein sales will quadruple by 2025.
The humble oat is beginning to receive the attention it deserves as a versatile, healthy and sustainable plant protein source. Thanks mainly to Oatly with its delicious products and approachable and accessible humour, oat milk has become a mainstream product in many regions. Oat-based meat is beginning to take off in Nordic countries and beyond with the help of companies such as Gold & Green, who produce pulled oats from a reassuringly short list of ingredients. Oat-based products benefit from consumers’ familiarity with and trust in the crop.
In addition, blends of a variety of different plant protein sources are increasingly being explored, with companies like Miyoko’s Kitchen planning to develop a new line of nut-free cheeses using a mix of legumes, seeds and potatoes. Using allergen-free locally-sourced legumes and seeds not only holds the potential to improve the taste and texture experience of plant-based products, but can also improve their nutritional profile and lead to cost savings, which combine to increase the likelihood of products appealing to a wider selection of consumers.
What do you think the role of meat-based alternatives is in the overall plant-based picture? Do people want them? Should companies and restaurants be focusing more on purely vegetable dishes rather than trying to emulate meat?
The success of Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods and the introduction of meat alternatives in fast-food giants McDonald’s and Burger King demonstrate the widespread appeal of plant-based meat. According to Barclays analysts, the market for meat alternatives could reach a value of $140bn over the next decade, which is not an insignificant sum. A lot of people want to eat meat but are increasingly open to that meat being made out of plants, provided it delivers them the sensory experience they crave.
Having said that, not all consumers are looking for direct replacements, and plant-based products which allow the natural flavours and textures of individual ingredients and spices to shine through may well appeal more. This is the strategy pursued by chef and director of plant-based innovation at Tesco, Derek Sarno, with his highly successful Wicked Kitchen range. The key benefit of this approach is, of course, the fact that consumers are not primed to expect a specific experience which may or may not materialise, which increases the chances of a fair assessment of the product, uninfluenced by past experience or preconceived ideas.
David Welch at the Good Food Institute suggested that the next generation of plant-based ‘meat’ products would focus on farming techniques to improve crops designed especially for plant-based foods, as well as technological innovation around getting the structure of, say, a steak just right. Do you agree?
I do agree, yes. In order to create the kinds of products today’s consumer wants without sacrificing margins across the value chain, efforts need to focus on optimising farming techniques and developing technology that makes for appealing taste, texture and appearance. At the farm level, raw materials need to be bred in such a way as to ensure greater yields and adaptability to different climates, and improved machinery for the harvesting and processing of these raw materials is required.
At the manufacturing/processing level, companies need to explore different technological processes with the aim of unlocking the secret to clean label, affordable and delicious meat alternatives with a satisfying bite. The aforementioned has been addressed as part of the EU-funded project, Protein2Food, within which quinoa has been bred to suit European climates and will be used in a variety of plant-based applications.
You work with several start-ups through your incubator. What are the most promising ones ProVeg has helped to develop and do you see a trend in the kinds of businesses that are emerging?
Of the two cohorts that we have hosted at our incubator, the most promising startups so far have been Mushlabs, who create plant-based meat from mushrooms, Yeap, who also create meat alternatives but from yeast, Vly, who produce plant-based dairy products using pea protein, and Better Nature, who are looking to make tempeh a mainstream product.
It’s not just plant-based startups we accept in our incubator, however; we also support clean meat startups, of which Clear Meat, Cellular Agriculture and LegenDairy, who are the first company in Europe to work on cell-based dairy, seem most likely to be headed for success.
In terms of trends among businesses entering the space, overarching ones include striving for clean-label products, protein-rich innovations and the use of novel ingredients. We are seeing a flurry of plant-based cheese startups, looking to edge closer than their predecessors to cracking the elusive animal-free cheese code, as well as baked goods startups who are met with the unlimited possibilities of a near-enough blank canvas.
How does ProVeg work with the food industry?
We conduct market research to uncover which products consumers would like to see more of, connect companies along the food value chain, provide ingredient, product development and marketing consultancy services, and set up tasting sessions with the aim of providing companies with tailored feedback on the performance of their product prototypes ahead of launch.
We have been working closely with one of Germany’s biggest and best-known meat processing companies, Rügenwalder Mühle, for a number of years, connecting them with the functional ingredient suppliers they require to produce their plant-based items and advising them on their advertising campaigns.
ProVeg is also working with a large European bakery in order to help it devote a new production line to plant-based products. The company produces over 40,000 baked items an hour at the factory visited by ProVeg, but has another 15 similar facilities globally. With ProVeg helping the company to source plant-based ingredients (in lieu of eggs, milk and butter) for its traditional recipes, the site developed test batches of plant-based baked goods in the company’s on-site NPD kitchen. A new production line is scheduled to be installed over the coming months and is likely to become an exclusively plant-based line, which will be the first such production line in the company.
In addition, we recently supported Beyond Meat in their launch in the Netherlands, promoting them on our social media channels.
What do you think the future holds for plant-based food?
The plant-based market is an incredibly exciting space for investors, start-ups, big business, retail and society at large. The opportunities are plentiful and business is booming for those who acknowledge that consumers of plant-based products do not form a homogeneous group but, instead, understand that there exists a multitude of subsets within this group with their own distinct drivers, habits, lifestyles, etc., each of whom require a different strategy.
In tandem with the growing number of reducetarians, flexitarians and omnivores seeing the appeal of plant-based foods, the quality of the latter will continue to rise, which in turn will further increase the number of non-vegans and non-vegetarians consuming such products. As such, this dynamic market shows no signs of slowing down any time soon.