‘Turning a serious business into serious business’: The accelerating plant-based protein market

By Katy Askew

- Last updated on GMT

Plant based protein transition sees accelerating trends ©iStock/Sarsmis
Plant based protein transition sees accelerating trends ©iStock/Sarsmis

Related tags Plant-based foods alternative protein vegetarian vegan Meat alternatives

The consumption of plant-based protein products is growing rapidly, driven by concerns over sustainability and health, but barriers to further uptake remain, the Proteins of the Future summit in Ede, the Netherlands, heard earlier this month.

According to an update from Foodvalley – the Dutch agri-food ecosystem that organised the event - the annual summit attracted 250 participants this year.

Speaking at the event, ING economist Thijs Geijer discussed recent research from the financial group revealing 25% of Europeans expect to eat less meat five years from now.

ING found this trend prevails in many European countries, although the main drivers vary by country and consumer group. Geijer revealed that younger consumers are more motivated by environmental concerns, while older people are more concerned about health. In the Netherlands, worries over the environmental impact of meat consumption motivate uptake, while in Belgium people are interested in health and German consumers are persuaded by animal welfare.

Food companies should be aware that the ratio between animal and plant-based products will become more evenly balanced, Geijer predicted.

Ojah produces ingredients for food makers and finished products for business-to-business customers ©Ojah

‘Our growth is only limited by capacity’

Ojah founder and CEO Frank Giezen has witnessed first-hand the jump in interest in meat-free options.

Ojah develops and produces meat alternatives with long fibres, so-called third generation meat alternatives. The group was founded ten years ago and employed just three people. Today, it has 45 employees.

It started life as an ingredients supplier, with the ingredient brands Beeter and Plenti. Now, the company also uses its expertise to produce finished products for the business-to-business sector.

Since 2011, Ojah has seen an annual growth rate of between 30% and 50%. “The growth of our production is only limited by the production capacity,” Giezen said. “The demand from the market is much higher than the capacity that we have at the moment.​”

Likewise, Meatless CEO Jos Hugense revealed he has benefited from a similar uptake between now and 2005, when he founded the business.

According to Hugense, the demand for vegetable proteins grew slowly in the early days. In 2006 Meatless had a production capacity of 1,500 ton per year, ten years later it was extended to 5,000 tons. Over this period the company saw an average annual growth of 20%.

“If you look at the demand for vegetable proteins, the market is accelerating,” Hugense told his audience of industry professionals. “We see that young people are moving more towards plant material.”

‘Five hurdles’ for further uptake

Geijer addresses the audience at Proteins of the Future ©Foodvalley

In its report, ING suggested that higher levels of innovation are needed to mainstream plant based foods.

Speaking in Ede, Geijer argued that plant based products need to improve to fulfil market growth potential. He spoke of “five hurdles food companies need to overcome”​.

Taste and texture should be improved; products could be made healthier by using different processing techniques; availability of could be better; and consciousness should be increased. Geijer also stressed the significance of pricing.

“Price is very powerful,"​ Geijer explained.

A small increase in the price of plant-based products could result in a large decline in sales, he suggested. Geijer contrasted this with the pricing of meat and fish, which he said were “elastic​” products.

Appealing to the masses

In order to gain mass appeal, much of the innovation around plant based proteins focuses on creating meat-like products.

The Green Protein Alliance’s Jeroen Willemsen suggested that plant-based products with a familiar appearance are more likely to resonate with mainstream consumers. “The protein transition is now in the phase in which we appeal to the masses. We have to take into account ‘neo fobia’. If new products are too much different from what people know, they tend to drop out.”

Meatless believes that one way to shift the needle on meat consumption levels is to create hybrid products that contain both animal and plant protein sources. Through the group’s ingredient, also called Meatless, the company says meat companies can “enhance​” their products with plant-based ingredients that deliver “a better taste and a leaner product”.

“You can also try to mix meat and vegetarian which might be a good idea, because it is a smaller step for people to go to a partly plant material based product than to a vegetarian product.”

However, Willemsen warned, plant-based manufacturers should perhaps be wary of using meaty names to describe their products because it encourages consumers to compare the two.

Willemsen noted increasing use of the term “plant meat​”, which he sees as a positive development. “There’s animal meat, plant meat and also clean meat,”​ he said referring to cultured meat.

Willemsen argues that the protein transition is in its final stage: the acceleration of ‘plantification’. “You see that all those entrepreneurs are profiting from plant proteins. They are turning a serious business into serious business.”

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