The future of plant-based alternatives

The plant-based trend is an opportunity, and brands must focus on clean label, improving the nutritional profile, and taste and texture properties of plant-based foods and beverages.

Geri Berdak, CEO

May 13, 2020

5 Min Read
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There is no doubt mainstream interest in plant-based eating is on the rise. The plant-based meat market is projected to grow from US$4.6 billion in 2019 to $85 billion by 2030, driven by more than half (52%) of consumers who claim to be eating more plant-based foods, according to a study commissioned by DuPont Nutrition & Health.

Of course, the biggest story in this space has been the successful initial public offering (IPO) of Beyond Meat in May 2019. Beyond Meat’s shares have rocketed since its IPO , putting the company’s current value at $11.8 billion. It’s no surprise given meat alternatives represent one of the fastest-growing subcategories in the plant-based segment, evidenced by the countless new products launched by both startups and traditional food companies.

Growth isn’t just happening in plant-based meat alternatives. Oat-based drinks and non-dairy yogurt categories are on the rise. Forbes reported the dairy alternative category is predicted to reach $10.9 billion by the end of 2019. Plant-based foods are not new to the healthy eating revolution. Meat substitutes were a trend 20 years ago. Remember Tofurky, Nuteena, textured vegetable protein and Quorn, a fungus protein?

So, what’s changed? The answer: a lot. While meat substitutes are attracting attention and huge investment today, contrary to popular belief, we’re not all turning into vegetarians. Several drivers are fueling demand and growth in the plant-based category.

Product innovation and food technology deliver tastier products

Twenty years ago, products were created to cater to a specific segment of the population, those who ate a vegan or vegetarian diet. This group was willing to compromise taste; that is not the case for today’s plant-seeking flexitarians. New product development, innovation and technology deserve a lot of credit for the growth and reprise of the plant-based trend. They are driving new creative plant-based products to market, making it easier for people to choose plant-based meals and snacks more often. As an example, meat alternatives today have better mouthfeel, closer to “meat” taste and aroma, better color during and after cooking, and a high-quality protein score due to the combination of plant-based proteins used. Of course, at the end of the day, taste will always be the No. 1 purchase driver.

Concern over climate change and the environment

Environmental sustainability is increasingly more relevant as consumers become more concerned about the impact of food production on the planet. These concerns are influencing purchase decisions; however, most consumers aren't giving up meat entirely. The biggest opportunity for growth will come from those who still eat meat—flexitarians, not vegetarians and vegans.

Wellness is now a lifestyle

People bring a desire for health and wellness to the purchases they make every day. According to L.E.K. Consulting’s 2018 consumer food and beverage survey, 93% of consumers said they feel compelled to eat healthy at least some of the time, and 54% of consumers said including more plants in their diet “makes [them] feel healthier.”

But, are plant-based options healthier? Though health concerns may drive consumers to these products, they are not always nutritionally equivalent. Meat alternatives have about the same number of calories as beef but contain more sodium. Plant-based patties contain about 250 calories, versus about 290 calories for ground beef, and contain roughly five times more sodium than their beef counterpart. Plant-based dairy alternatives tend to contain less protein and have lower-quality calcium than their dairy milk/yogurt counterparts.

In addition to the plant-based alternatives not stacking up nutritionally, they are processed and not clean label, gluten free, and in some instances not GMO free. For example, plant-based meat substitutes often have as many as 15 to 20 ingredients. Many people see them as “ultra-processed” and not the natural, simple-ingredient way of eating they desire. Warning flags are being raised. A June 2019 article in Today’s Dietitian recently cautioned plant-based alternatives can be highly processed, which may increase levels of sodium, saturated fat, additives and artificial colors.

So, what’s the takeaway? The plant-based trend is an opportunity, but the quest for the perfect meat alternative will not end with Impossible Burger or Beyond Meat. These products are very much still a work in progress. What’s the best strategy for success moving forward?

  1. Focus on clean label. Overall observations and data say people want plants in convenient forms, and ideally vegetables. If they’re going to cut back on meat, they are adding more “real plants” to their diet. They also want options that are less processed, more natural with ingredients that are easier to understand.

  2. Continually improve nutritional profile. Although the first iterations are remarkably better nutritionally than products 20 years ago, companies need to continue to strive to improve the nutrition profile of plant-based alternatives. Not doing this will limit the growth of the category. Look to technology to solve challenges around high sodium in plant-based meats and protein content and quality in milk and yogurt alternatives.

  3. Taste and texture are key. While interest in the category is strong, taste and texture remain barriers to adoption. Achieving meat-like taste and texture in plant-based meats is an opportunity for manufacturers to attract more consumers. Flexitarian consumers are unwilling to compromise on quality, and brands only get one chance to impress, especially if having to overcome poor experiences in the past.

  4. Ensure product is a market fit. There’s been a lot of discussion around the right consumer plant-based alternative brands should target. In some cases, it doesn’t seem clear. Product market fit starts with a clear and deep understanding of who the customer is and what job they will hire your product to do. Is the purchase to support a cause? Is it to have a healthier version of something they love to buy? If so, how does the consumer define healthier? Is it “free from,” clean label, nutritional value or all the above? In addition, consumer attitudes are always changing. What they value today can quickly become something different tomorrow. So, brands need to continuously stay close to their consumer and adjust their product and value proposition as necessary to ensure long-term success.

Geri Berdak is president of CloverQuest Group, whose focus is to help companies navigate the dynamic, changing food/wellness landscape and become leading brands in the space.

About the Author(s)

Geri Berdak

CEO, The Dairy Alliance

Geri Berdak is CEO for The Dairy Alliance, a nonprofit funded by dairy farm families of the Southeast that brings together dairy farmers, retailers, schools, sports teams, health professionals, state leaders, the media and the public to promote nutrition and wellness.  Berdak has dedicated her career to the broader health and wellness category, leading marketing and product innovation efforts for Fortune 500 companies like PepsiCo, Monsanto, Solae/DuPont, as well as the Innovation Center for US Dairy, Kerry and Isagenix.

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