The plant-based sector is booming, with an increasing number of dairy and meat analogues vying for market share.
However, plant-based ‘mimics’ are not favoured by all: the sector is facing increased scrutiny surrounding products’ nutritional credentials and ‘ultra-processed’ nature.
Is there opportunity for plant-based manufacturers to steer innovation in another direction? What if the sector were to focus its energy on ‘embracing the plant’, rather than mimicking meat?
A health opportunity?
Within plant-based, different categories are developing at varying speeds. While the non-dairy milk, plant-based sausage, and burger alternative sectors have exploded in recent years, cheese, egg and fish alternatives are lagging.
“It’s really important that we increase the variety of products available,” according to Carlotte Lucas, Corporate Engagement Manager at the Good Food Institute (GFI) Europe.
Things are, however, moving in the right direction, she told the FoodNavigator 2021 Digital Summit: Positive Nutrition. “Ten years ago, a vegan had very few options in the store, but now there are a lot more.”
Looking to the future, Lucas believes industry will achieve its aim of mimicking animal products across the board. “Food manufacturers…want to create all the different types of categories that can exist for conventional meat and animal products.”
At the same time, the plant-based ‘health halo’ has lost some of its shine in the face of criticism that analogue nutritional profiles are not up to scratch.
Perhaps the most public criticism of late was that penned by president of plant-based company Lightlife Foods, Dan Curtin. In a recent letter addressed to Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods published in The New York Times, amongst other high-profile publications, Curtin wrote: “Enough with hyper-processed ingredients, GMOs, unnecessary additives and fillers, and fake blood…We’re making a clean break from both of you ‘food tech’ companies that attempt to mimic meat at any cost.”
While the letter was discredited by some – Dr Rachel Cheatham from food and nutrition consultancy FoodScape Group, for example, said the letter felt like ‘nothing more than a PR stunt’ – it does beg the question: is there opportunity for increased focus on health in the plant-based sector?
Moving away from mimicking animal-based products…
For Annika Boström-Kumlin, Chief Marketing Officer at Finnish plant-based manufacturer Beanit, the answer is a resounding ‘yes’. “There is definitely room for better nutrition,” she told delegates at the FoodNavigator event.
While the marketing lead believes analogues have their place – “to attract more consumers [to the plant-based sector]” – in the future she predicts we will see new types of plant-based foods entering the market.
These products ‘won’t necessarily mimic meat’, she explained. They will ‘stand on their own feet’ and ‘bring vegetarian options to the table’, without trying to get as close to animal-based products as possible.
The health opportunities here are obvious, Boström-Kumlin suggested, as in this instance, manufacturers needn’t rely on ‘saturated fats’ or ‘lots of additives’ to achieve a meat-like product.
Leonardo Rubio Anselmi, Strategic Marketing Manager of Beverages and Nutritional Bars at IFF, agreed that NPD will change direction – with brand differentiation helping to drive the transition.
“The market has started to get crowded. There are many more brands and many more products coming into it, so an element of differentiation will be needed in order to stand out,” he told delegates. “Because the more brands that start to come in, the more price pressure there will be from the market.”
Stefan Uhlmann, Head of Cereals, Business Unit Cereals, Nuts and Pulses at Döhler similarly forecasts a change in strategy. “Over the last couple of years…mimicking has been the main strategy. Mimicking milk, mimicking minced beef, and so on. But now that the audience and target [market] is so big, it is time for plant-based to [move on] from mimicking to create its own category.”
…towards embracing the plant
Such a transition would presumably also call for a change of language.
Currently, categories within plant-based dairy alternatives are often referred to as ‘alt milk’ or ‘non-dairy’ – although this is expected to change as Article 171 outlaws such terminology for dairy-free products. Döhler’s Uhlmann predicts that across the board, we will stop referring to a product by what it is not.
“I would even take a bet that in five years, we will not be talking about dairy alternatives, but we will be talking about [these products] in their own category.”
Beanit’s Boström-Kumlin agrees that names will evolve alongside the category. “Sometimes we laugh, and say that ‘chicken isn’t known as non-pork’,” she said in jest. “In time, plant-based will definitely stand on its own feet as well.”
These new categories, which IFF’s Anselmi described as the ‘second generation’ of plant-based, offer potential clean label benefits, we were told.
By ‘embracing the plant’, these next-generation products will not mimic animal-based products, said Anselmi. It will mean ‘more recipes based on the plant’, with opportunities for brands to ‘explain what the plant is’, and explain ‘what the process is about’.
“If I don’t have the need to build an absolute mimic, do I need E numbers to make the product as stable as the benchmark?” asked Döhler’s Uhlmann.
The ingredients expert sees potential for plant-based ingredients that work on both levels: nutrition and formulation. “I think it’s absolutely going in the right direction. Obviously the scientific work will improve, which will then build new products from my point of view, definitely.”
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