“Coronavirus: return to work divides US meat industry”
– The Financial Times
“In America, the virus threatens a meat industry that is too concentrated”
– The Economist
“In one month, the meat industry’s supply chain broke. Here’s what you need to know.”
– The Washington Post
These headlines were three of the top five results that appeared when searching “meat industry” on Google the first week of May. For anyone who has watched the news lately, these results should come as no surprise. COVID-19 has propelled not only health, but also our food supply chain, into the forefront of the media and the minds of consumers.
Consumers are starting to take notice of their current diets, many weighing the pros and cons of a plant-based vs. meat-based diet. Many consumers were already making this comparison before COVID-19, either of their own volition or influenced by star-studded documentaries like The Game Changers. In a survey conducted before COVID-19, the Plant-Based Food Association found ‘flexitarians’ – those who limit their meat consumption – represent more than 30% of U.S. adults. COVID-19 has only accelerated this discussion.
This gives brands, and not just natural brands, an opportunity to gain new sales. Possibilities seem endless when it comes to botanicals, from the seeds to the roots to the fruits; brands can create a completely new product line, incorporate them for line extensions, or highlight one already in use.
The latter is the ideal situation for both formulators and marketers; they can market plant-based ingredients as something new and interesting without actually having to formulate a new product. For instance, cinnamon and ginger are already incorporated into a wide variety of products; simply highlighting them not only meets consumer demand, but also differentiates the product within such a competitive landscape. Many kitchen staples, including cinnamon and ginger, are now being recognized for their health attributes as well. Such ingredients would be the simplest introduction for consumers to plant-based options.
Another good introductory ingredient is protein from plant sources. Claims surrounding protein are incredibly impactful as consumers look to add more of this macronutrient to their diet. Botanicals can provide protein from a consumer-friendly source, meeting not only the plant-based trend, but also clean label and sustainable.
Protein concentrates from pea, rice and soy can now be found up and down grocery aisles. Before formulation, brands should be aware that it is not an apples-to-apples comparison between plant-derived and animal-derived proteins, except when it comes to soy.
There are two features that typically define protein quality: amino acid profile and digestibility. A big point of confusion with protein fortification is what constitutes a complete protein. Some believe it is a protein containing all nine essential amino acids, period. Others believe it is a protein containing all nine essential amino acids, but at “sufficient amounts.” FDA has yet to establish these “sufficient amounts,” causing a wide array of numbers across the industry.
The Institute of Medicine’s Food and Nutrition Board has established its own sufficient values, as has the World Health Organization (WHO); a common belief is a complete protein has a similar amino acid profile as animal-derived proteins. Currently, the most popular method to measure protein quality is Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score (PDCAAS). This method measures the volume of essential amino acids in a protein and our ability to digest it. Animal-based proteins fare better than plant-based proteins when it comes to PDCAAS scores. However, most plant proteins still contain a good amount of all nine essential amino acids but are lower in one or more essential amino acids, such as lysine.
If a brand’s consumer base values an amino acid profile similar to that of an animal-derived protein, it can blend different plant proteins together to achieve that. Another option would be to blend plant-based with animal-based proteins. Many people pit the two sources against each other when, in actuality, they can be great together. Plant-based proteins offer nutrients that dairy proteins do not. For instance, faba bean protein and pumpkin seed protein contain all nine essential amino acids as well as other beneficial nutrients like iron and fiber. From a formulator’s point of view, it may provide the right balance of flavor and nutrition that is needed to produce a successful product. From a marketer’s point of view, it may offer the right balance of cost and messaging to sell.
For manufacturers looking beyond kitchen staples and plant proteins toward more unique and exotic botanicals, it is ideal to pair them with a familiar option, such as turmeric with ginger, to avoid something too “out of the box” and intimidating for consumers. In addition, it is important to clearly state botanical benefits. For instance, call out adaptogens—ashwagandha, holy basil, maca—either on the packaging or online.
All manufacturers can leverage the spotlight on plant-based diets vs. meat-based diets to their benefit, whether they currently manufacture plant-based products or not. Brands currently manufacturing plant-based products can highlight the plant-based features. Brands not currently in this space can reformulate with plant-based ingredients to differentiate their product. The plant-based space offers plenty of opportunities for everyone.
Rikka Cornelia is the product manager for Martin Bauer. Cornelia has a bachelor’s in economics from the University of California, Irvine.