To say plant-based products are having a moment is an understatement. Once a fringe diet closely linked to radicalism and hippie culture, the values of plant-based eating—which include health, animal welfare and sustainability—are now mainstream, and are entrenched in myriad societal echelons, such as school lunch, family dinner, employee cafeterias and fast food chains (even McDonald’s tested a Beyond Meat-based “PLT” in Canada, a “plant-lettuce-tomato”).
While just 2% of Americans classify themselves as vegan—people who never consume animal products—30% of shoppers say they are actively trying to eat more plant-based foods, according to the Plant Based Foods Association (PBFA). The majority of people who consume plant-based foods do not have a rigorously defined diet. Rather, they are people who may eat fresh mozzarella-topped pizza and also drink almond milk; they may bring veggie burgers to a barbecue, while also trying their friend’s famous chicken salad.
Such consumer idiosyncrasies are key in understanding the US$5 billion plant-based market1 because most plant-based shoppers also eat animal products. This presents a challenge for formulators because these highly selective consumers won’t sacrifice on flavor, texture nor healthfulness of their meat and dairy alternatives.
But there’s also opportunity. If manufacturers craft convincing, delicious plant-based products while maintaining a relatively clean label, there’s a high chance they will gain impressive traction across multiple sales channels.
Cultural forces have contributed to the category’s exponential rise and there is expansive opportunity for plant-based foods and beverages. Furthermore, flavor and ingredient manufacturers are finding creative technological solutions to make plant-based products more craveable and identical to their animal-based counterparts to ensure the continued growth of the plant-based space.
Sales sprout up
It is well documented that eating fewer animal products—particularly animal products produced in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs)—is one way individuals can reduce their carbon footprint. Project Drawdown, an organization spearheaded by environmentalist Paul Hawken, reported 24% of heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions in the world come from food, agricultural and land use, making changing the way people eat an integral part of the climate change solution. Eating less meat and dairy and more plants is a key way to reduce demand for “land clearing, fertilizer use, burping cattle, and greenhouse gas emissions,” explained Project Drawdown’s 2020 Review.2
This isn’t exactly a recent revelation. At least since Frances Moore Lappé’s publication of Diet for a Small Planet (Ballantine, 1971), the connection between plant-based eating and environmentalism has been strong. With unrelenting—and dire—climate change reports dominating headlines and an executive administration that refuses to believe global warming is an issue worth addressing, the search for sustainable eating solutions is one way Americans can take the first step on their plant-based journey.
However, environmentalism isn’t the top reason consumers buy plant-based foods, and it’s not the second, either. According to data from PBFA, taste is the No. 1 driver of plant-based food purchases, followed by health concerns. Just 13% of shoppers buy plant-based foods for environmental reasons and 11% due to animal welfare concerns.3
While vegans and vegetarians of yore may have suffered through meat replacements that shared little in common with meat (John Harvey Kellogg’s 19th century alt-meat product “protose” was a gooey mixture of wheat gluten and peanuts), modern consumers are ultra-discerning when it comes to mock meats, eggs and dairy products.
“Plant-based alternatives have come a long way from early iterations,” said Jacquelyn Schuh, product marketing director of alternative proteins for ADM Nutrition, “but brands can do more to improve the sensory experience of their formulations, in addition to expanding the variety of plant-based meat alternatives on the market.”
That market is quick to decide which plant-based products have longevity, and the onus is on product formulators, ingredient suppliers and manufacturers to develop meat and dairy replacements of superior health, taste and texture, and a relatively clean ingredient list.
It’s a tall, challenging order, but as plant-based food sales grow five times faster than total food sales, there is a clear and lucrative opportunity—for those who do it right.
Focus on formulation
You can’t talk about plant-based alternatives without considering plant-based protein—a bedrock macronutrient for foods such as meat, poultry, seafood, cheese, milk, yogurt and other animal products. Leveraging proteins derived from soy, peas, rice, mung beans, chickpeas and many more is a chief way food scientists render plants as animal products.
Using a combination of heat, pressure and water is typically how meat alternatives closely resembling burgers, chicken strips and more are made, explained Connor Link, research chef at Natural Development, a product development company based in Boulder, Colorado.
“The technology is called a twin-screw extruder, composed of two screw pipelines. Proteins are forced through these pipelines with heat and water, and the spinning action and the heat changes the protein’s textural formats to seem like meat,” Link said.
Extrusion morphs plant proteins into a fibrous texture that is shockingly similar to the bite and chew of animal muscle tissue. Many products, ranging from Sweet Earth’s Awesome Burger to Lightlife’s Plant-Based Burger to Beyond Meat’s products use this technique to great success. Case in point, Beyond Meat’s 2020 Q1 revenue spiked US$97.1 million—141% year-over-year growth even with the COVID-19 pandemic.
The problem many formulators run into, noted Link, is products must perform like animal meat. Burgers must not fall apart while cooking in the pan and require a decent shelf life. Food additives are typically required. Binding agents such as methylcellulose, gums and lecithins often appear on plant-based nutrition labels—ingredients that many consumers don’t understand or want in their food.
The balance of creating a product that functions optimally and has a clean label is one of the plant-based movement’s most formidable challenges.
“All of our clients want to see a clean label, which typically means they don’t want an ingredient list that contains a bunch of science-y words,” Link said. “Everyone wants a label that’s primarily composed of plants.”
There is a groundswell of promising ingredients not yet widely used that may help mitigate the clean label problem. Link pointed to Fiberstar’s Citri-Fi, a citrus fiber that can be used in meat and dairy replacements for moisture retention, emulsification and thickening. Integrally, Citri-Fi can be listed on a nutrition label as the consumer-friendly “citrus fiber.”
As the market for plant-based protein matures, ingredient suppliers are discovering clean-label additive solutions. For instance, Puris, a second-generation non-GMO and organic pea protein supplier, recently brought to market pea starch and whole pea hull fiber—two ingredients sourced from its existing supply chain of pea farmers across North America.
“We’ve been able to get further downstream technologies such as our pea starches and fibers and use them in applications to minimize the use of emulsifying gums,” said Puris CEO Tyler Lorenzen. “This helps build a cost advantage and also a cleaner product label.”
Lorenzen said quick-gelling pea starch has been particularly successful in vegan gummy applications, which typically use animal-derived gelatin or fruit pectin and are challenging to find in USDA Organic form.
“Superior texture is required for plant-based products to achieve success. The current route to market to develop these products often contains ingredients that may cause consumers to raise an eyebrow,” Lorenzen said. “Brands should position themselves in a different way … everything has to be balanced on the three pillars of nutrition, clean label, and taste.”
If taste is the most powerful driver of plant-based food purchases, it is also the category’s biggest threat. According to a 2020 report conducted by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and Earth Day Network, 44% of U.S. adults say they don’t buy plant-based foods because they don’t like the taste.4 This sentiment resonates with anyone haunted by the rubbery vegan products of decades past—of which, unfortunately, there were many. However, the same Yale study reported 2 in 3 consumers would be willing to eat more plant-based foods instead of meat if such foods tasted better than they do today.
The future of plant-based relies on shifting the perception of plant-based products from something that’s good enough to eat to something that is covetable to consume. In other words, flavor is paramount.
“What’s driving the plant-based movement now is what we refer to as ‘no compromise,’ said Alina Slotnik, vice president of global marketing at PureCircle. “Plant-based foods are evolving from something you choose with your head to something you crave. With formulations consistently getting better and better, we can make products that aren’t only healthful and plant-based, but also more delicious than a conventional product.”
Plant-based alternatives can be tough to make taste good because, to put it bluntly, some proteins taste bad and can be bitter and/or chalky. Modern flavor manufacturers are stepping up to block these inherent flavors in final products using new sophisticated methods.
While stevia is often regarded as a sugar substitute for sweet snacks and desserts of all ilk, Slotnik said next-gen stevia applications can improve the flavor of many other foods, too.
PureCircle’s line of stevia-based flavor modifiers are particularly well-suited for adjusting off-notes in plant-based substitutes such as creamy sports beverages, yogurts and protein powders. “In something like a protein-fortified beverage, some manufacturers want to completely mask the grassiness of pea protein with some dessert-like flavor such as vanilla or mango,” Slotnik said, adding that other manufacturers, like one client who crafts a supergreen protein powder, want to play up the earthy, vegetal flavors of plant proteins while also removing their bitterness and avoiding cloying sweetness.
Smart use of stevia-based flavors helps contribute to positive consumer experiences with plant foods. But it’s not the only way manufacturers ensure plant-based products will produce a Guy Fieri-worthy expression of glee (cue: “Welcome to Flavortown!”).
According to Schuh, fat is vital to meat replacement satiety. “Depending on the application, the amount, type and release of fat are important factors for achieving the right sizzle in the pan or juiciness when eating. Selection of a fat or combination of fats is critical to replicating a meat-like texture,” Schuh said.
Caroline Bushnell, associate director of corporate engagement for the Good Food Institute (GFI), an organization that advances the growth of plant-based foods, agreed that innovations in how fat is used is the next frontier in plant-based formulations.
“In plant-based meat we’re seeing new fat encapsulation techniques to really drive that juicy, fatty, burst-in-your-mouth flavor,” Bushnell said. “That is going to increasingly appear across plant-based products and will really help deliver on that meaty experience.”
Unlike meat, plant-based analogs are completely free from cholesterol and typically low in fat, making it imperative for food manufacturers to strategically introduce fat into plant-based formulations. For many alt-burgers, that fat is a combination of saturated fats such as coconut oil and unsaturated fats such as canola or olive oil to help resemble the fatty makeup of beef.
But fat introduced in a plant-based burger can either leak from the patty onto the pan or plate, or slide into your mouth versus bursting during mastication, preventing consumers from experiencing the same mouthfeel as conventional meat. Beyond Meat’s updated patty launched mid-2019 attempts to replicate this texture with the inclusion of white cocoa butter flecks—and reviews have been sterling (Food and Wine testers described the product as “remarkably spot-on,” although they admit it wasn’t a dead-ringer for beef.)5
Bushnell said increasing the fat content of extruded products is challenging because “fats disrupt the mechanical shear exerted during extrusion.” However, encapsulating fats may shield them during extrusion; alternatively, fats can be added after extrusion or via a topical application to achieve a similar desired effect.
“Plant-based foods won’t be able to displace meat and dairy until they can match conventional animal counterparts,” Bushnell noted. “Flavor is critical.”
Better than meat
The conversation around alternative meat and dairy will shift as COVID-19 disrupts, well, everything, everywhere.
The global pandemic has exposed what those in the natural and organic industry have known for a long time: Conventional meat and dairy supply chains are broken.
Due to the close working conditions endemic to processing plants, where workers often must stand shoulder-to-shoulder, over 5,000 employees at just 115 processing facilities in the U.S. have contracted COVID-19, forcing companies like the pork producer Smithfield Foods to either close facilities or operate at reduced capacity. This ripple effect is already causing serious supply issues. In a May 4 investor call, Tyson Foods said its hog processing capacity was down 50%.”
With meat supply chains vulnerable, leaders of plant-based brands are jumping at the chance to educate Americans about the merits of meat and dairy alternatives, such as improved taste and having more resilient sourcing. No brands interviewed for this article reported supply chain issues.
“Our biggest focus is to provide solutions for consumers as they have meat disruptions,” Beyond Meat CEO Ethan Brown said during the company’s Q1 earnings call. “There are more opportunities to be relevant to customers.” The company’s stock spiked almost 9% after the call.
There are still important and concerning limitations to the growth of plant-based foods. Affordability is an issue. In both foodservice and retail locations, a plant-based burger is often more expensive than one made from an animal—a mishap born from decades of policy, infrastructure and subsidies that favor meat and dairy industries, and sheer supply chain scale. Plant-based will never reach its full potential if products are viewed as special occasion or splurge purchases.
“It’s the responsibility of ingredient makers to make things not just available, but also cost-effective,” Slotnik said. “Especially with COVID-19, cost democratization is the biggest thing that is going to take the plant-based category forward.”
A sea of change is coming. As brands, food scientists, suppliers, flavor formulators, farmers, advocates and policy makers continue to chip away at category barriers, the future of plant-based foods looks bright—and green.
Jenna Blumenfeld lives in Boulder, Colorado, where she reports on the natural products industry, sustainable agriculture, and all things plant based.
1. Plant Based Foods Association. https://plantbasedfoods.org/plant-based-foods-retail-sales-data-2020/
2. The Drawdown Review. https://drawdown.org/sites/default/files/pdfs/Drawdown_Review_2020_march10.pdf
3. Plant Based Foods Association. https://plantbasedfoods.org/marketplace/consumer-insights/
4. Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and Earth Day Network. https://climatecommunication.yale.edu/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/climate-change-american-diet.pdf