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Plant-based ingredient innovation

In response to consumer and environmental needs, scientists and food companies are pushing the limits to find and use the most diverse, allergen-free, sustainable and unprocessed plant-based ingredients.

Soy and gluten have been the darlings of the meat analog industry for decades due to their protein content, exceptional texture and affordability as ingredients making them ideal bases for meat alternatives. Soy protein ingredients, including isolates, concentrates and flours were a US$9.07 billion industry globally as of 2017 and are projected to reach $12.8 billion by 2022, according to MarketsandMarkets.

As a result, until recently, consumers would be hard-pressed to avoid ingredient lists containing “soy protein isolate” and “vital wheat gluten” while perusing the vegan meat section. But the tide is turning on these industry favorites. Consumers have started avoiding such ingredients due to their allergenicity and widespread prevalence in food, which seems to give many people the sense of an impending soy overload. A 2017 Mintel report showed 24% of respondents avoid soy (for allergy/intolerance, health or other reasons) and 19% avoid gluten for the same reasons.

Changing ingredient landscape

From a supply perspective, these allergenic ingredients reduce sell-through among consumers and can pose risks in a foodservice environment. The foodservice channel steers away from allergens to the extent possible, contending not only with serious allergies but also with strict dietary preferences. (A representative of a national food brand once mentioned to me that putting soy in a product meant the company could assume at least a 25% sales reduction for that product.) The decision to avoid these higher-risk ingredients is becoming more feasible every day, as more options become available offering the same or similar nutrition, functionality and price.

Amid this changing ingredient landscape, a few notable newcomers stand out: algae, mycelium, unique legumes, vegetables, nuts and grains. These ingredients bring with them a new caliber of “clean” and sustainability, offering functionality without the multi-layered baggage that gluten and soy have come to carry.

Algae potential

Algae is an up-and-comer that holds huge potential. Unique and important are its long-chain omega-3s that historically have been considered exclusively available through consumption of fish (at least if one is hoping for the fatty acids in remotely decent quantities). The sheer potential of algae is incredible because there are thousands of strains, meaning that its possible applications and functionality are essentially limitless. Algae already has helped raise the bar for seafood alternatives by enabling them to stack up more closely to fish from a nutritional perspective. Algae will continue to gain traction as a key ingredient that enables plant-based alternatives to deliver clean, sustainable protein and omega-3s.

Versatility of mycelium

Mycelium (the vegetative part of fungus) is another ingredient that is versatile, nutritionally dense and can be sustainably cultivated. MycoTechnology, which plays in this space, has received a great deal of media attention utilizing a fermentation process with shiitake mushrooms to improve pea and rice protein both functionally and nutritionally. They also produce ClearTaste from mushroom extract, which is, as they put it, “the world’s first organic bitter blocker.” MycoTechnology’s innovations illustrate a key concept: Not only are these new ingredients amazing in and of themselves, but they open a world of possibility through their ability to improve and build upon existing ingredients.

What’s to come?  

One wonders, in the wake of pea protein’s explosive growth, what the next groundbreaking legume will be. Two predicted to gain ground are chickpea flour and mung beans. While chickpeas themselves are not new, their use in flour opens new possibilities as a fiber-rich ingredient that may well start appearing in more meat alternatives. Mung beans, though currently somewhat unfamiliar to the American public, are high in protein, fiber, antioxidants and phytonutrients. I anticipate that we will see mung beans become a popular add-in for meat alternatives.

Whole fruits and vegetables also represent another frontier in plant-based alternatives. Our client and portfolio company Ocean Hugger Foods uses fruits and vegetables as the base for its seafood alternatives, and through its proprietary process can remove the characteristic plant flavor (i.e., removing the acidity from tomato and the bitterness from eggplant). The process also renders the texture of the plants remarkably close to the animal protein they aim to mimic. To accommodate consumers shying away from unconventional or unfamiliar new products, easy-to-understand ingredients such as algae and mycelium are a promising avenue to explore. Ashley Bouldin, the vice president of global marketing at Ocean Hugger, said, “Watching someone try our products for the first time is always a joy. They may be skeptical at first due to the unfamiliarity, but the reassurance often comes in telling them that our products are whole fruits and vegetables with a couple of other simple ingredients.”

Nuts are another category that’s been disrupted lately, largely in relation to plant-based milk, which according to the Plant Based Food Association is a massive $1.9 billion market in the U.S. alone. Almonds were just the tip of the iceberg in plant-based nut milks. As entrepreneurs and big brands scoured the nut kingdom for exotic new options and asked, “can we milk it?” the answer proved to be a resounding “yes” with cashews, peanuts, hazelnuts, walnuts, pistachios, brazil nuts and macadamia nuts now being turned into milk (not to mention black sesame seeds, peas and hemp).

And then there came the humble oat, which has arguably been more revolutionary to the plant-based milk scene than any other “new” ingredient. Just think of the Oatly shortages. What other milk substitute brand, throughout the ages, has managed to reach cult status? What’s especially fascinating about oat milk is that it’s not new. Oat milk has been around for decades. But Oatly created a deeply appealing brand with a great tasting product and brilliant channel strategy at a time when the market was ripe for a dairy-free, gluten-free, nut-free milk. It is worth noting ingredients need not necessarily be “new,” so much as they need be reinvented through exceptional products that arrive at the right time, in the right place, and for the right audience.

Ingredient renaissance

There is no doubt that we are in an ingredient renaissance of sorts. In response to both consumer and environmental needs, scientists and food companies are pushing the limits to find and use the most diverse, allergen-free, sustainable, unprocessed ingredients. Some of these ingredients are the latest and greatest discoveries, while some have merely been reinvented (like the oat) and others have been created to work in concert with and improve old favorites. It is thrilling to see these boundaries being pushed so far and so quickly. It is equally thrilling to consider what the next five or ten years will hold in ingredient innovation.

Daniel Karsevar currently serves as CEO of PlantBased Solutions, an award-winning business services company that helps brands develop, launch and scale plant-based food products. He has served as COO of Chloe’s Fruit prior to founding Solutiontopia, a consulting agency that launched numerous brands at Natural Products Expo East & West and developed clean label plant-based products for Unilever and other Fortune 500 companies.

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