Yes, plant-based eating is enjoying a particularly big boom at the moment. Just look at all the vegan ranges that were launched by supermarkets last month. But not every company is doing enough, according to a new report by food and farming think tank FAIRR.
Tesco and Nestle were singled out for being the best placed to take advantage of the trend towards plant-based eating, based on a study of 16 major retailers and manufacturers.
It’s a trend worth jumping on too, according to figures in the report. In 2017, Nielsen found that over the course of 12 months, sales of plant-based alternatives rose 8.1%, which is twice the rate of growth compared to processed meat.
The plant-based ‘meat’ segment is expected to reach $5.2bn by 2020, while longer term it could make up a third of the market by 2050. Europe is also the largest consumer of meat substitutes, accounting for 39% of global sales.
Remarkable opportunities exist for food companies to develop and invest in alternative proteins, as more people begin to question whether all that animal protein we’re chomping down is bad for the environment and bad for public health.
Portfolio of proteins
FAIRR's report heaped praise on Nestle, Unilever and Marks & Spencer for setting targets to increase their alternative proteins.
Duncan Pollard, AVP of stakeholders engagement in sustainability at Nestle, said one strategic priority for the company is to build its portfolio of vegetarian and flexitarian choices.
“We are dedicating a significant part of our R&D budget to the topic of plant proteins and have already acted to reformulate existing product ranges to substitute animal-derived ingredients where possible,” he said.
Alternative protein technologies
Protein derived from plant sources: through use of either novel plant sources like mung bean, lupin and algae, or through novel processing methods, such as shear-cell technology, which allows the production of meat substitutes to resemble the mouthfeel and texture of real meat.
Fermentation: creation of animal proteins such as casein (the main protein in milk) and whey through a brewing process whereby yeast organisms are programmed to produce the proteins.
Nestle is developing a tracking method to monitor plant protein sales. It is also, along with Unilever, currently monitoring the origin of their protein sources – and whether it’s derived from plants or animals – something other businesses do not.
“The development of the protein supply chain is an issue with the potential to radically reshape the supermarket shelf of the future,” remarked Pollard.
While product development is usually a closely guarded secret, Unilever revealed a collaboration with Givaudan, Ingredion and the University of Wageningen to develop a plant-based steak. The technology used innovative ‘shear cell’ technology, which transforms vegetable proteins into a layered, fibrous structure matching the appearance and texture of steak. Hopefully they'll come up with a more appetising way to describe it later...
But what opportunities could protein diversification provide? According to FAIRR, it has the potential to transform a food company’s growth, profitability, risk exposure and ability to compete and innovate.
“Sustainable and plant-based proteins are true win-wins for companies and investors. They are often higher growth produce, aligning with emerging consumer demands,” Lisa Beauvilain head of sustainability & ESG of asset management company Impax, said in the report.
“Sustainable proteins also have better risk profiles, with much lower demands on resources such as water, land and feeds. They also have significantly reduced environmental externalities and pollution and in most cases, represent healthier food options for consumers.”
In bad news for beef and pork suppliers, the report suggested a sin tax on meat is increasingly likely to be introduced.
Despite agriculture accounting for the majority of greenhouse gas emissions in the food chain, most companies did not have any meaningful programmes to track, report and reduce emissions, FAIRR found. Only six companies – M&S, Tesco, Walmart, General Mills, Nestlé and Unilever – have targets.
Tesco aims to reduce its emissions by 35% by 2030, with a specific reduction of 15% for its agricultural emissions – one of the reasons it was singled out for praise.
Other reasons cited in the report was Tesco leading consumer demand through innovative product development and marketing, with the release of its Wicked range, which was designed to appeal to a wide range of consumers and not just vegans.
The supermarket shelf is already changing, but what technology and investment could offer for protein alternatives is an idea worth planting.
US alternative protein players
Beyond Meat: plant-based protein using soy and peas, with extrusion processing. Retails in 11,000 US stores and TGI Fridays and Veggie Grill. Recent funding will enable tripling of current production capacity.
Impossible Foods: plant-based protein using wheat and potato, plus heme created through a fermentation process. Available in over 500 restaurants in the US, the company opened a new facility last year with the capacity to produce at least a million pounds of meat per month.