‘Avoid solving one problem by creating another’: Plant-based boom faces sustainability and nutrition challenges

By Katy Askew

- Last updated on GMT

©iStock / NataliaBulatova
©iStock / NataliaBulatova

Related tags plant-based vegetarian vegan sustainable Healthy food

Sales in plant-based foods show no sign of slowing in Europe. But booming demand raises complex issues, from the nutritional profile of formulations through to the sustainability of ingredient sourcing. “The industry needs to avoid solving one problem by creating another,” experts warn.

The plant-based sector is in the spotlight, with booming sales representing an important growth opportunity for food makers.

The meat substitute market is expected to reach a global value of €6.6bn by 2025, with a compound annual growth rate forecast at 7.7%, according to Allied Market Research. European markets dominated demand for meat substitutes in 2017, accounting for nearly 40% of global revenue.

Rising interest in plant-based options has been driven by the mainstream emergence of ‘flexitarian consumers’ who want to consume reduced levels of meat and dairy, as well as increased numbers of vegetarians and vegans. A recent survey from Leatherhead Food Research revealed 74% of UK respondents said their household had consciously reduced red meat consumption over the past year.

Consumer adoption of plant-based products comes in response to a combination of ethical, environmental and health concerns. Plant-based products are commonly viewed as more sustainable and healthier options.

Innovation is opening doors for plant-based products and the emergence of meat and dairy analogues that deliver a familiar experience – mimicking the taste, texture and mouthfeel of animal products – has begun to erode what was an important barrier to uptake.

But a palatable taste and texture is just one part of the picture. What happens if the sector fails to live up to its reputation on health and the environment?

‘Deliver the nutritional profile consumers demand’

Experts at Oakland Innovation, who recently put out a white paper ‘Harnessing the Plant-Based Movement’​, stress that while the plant-based movement shows no sign of abating, product formulators must step up their game on nutrition.

“It’s about developing good food that people want to eat, while ensuring products deliver the nutritional profile that consumers demand. Plant protein has much potential. However, there are multiple scientific and technical issues associated with the functionality, digestibility, taste and texture of plant protein ingredients and the products they’re used in,”​ said Phil Mackie, MD Foods & Beverages.

In pursuit of the desired taste, texture or mouthfeel – or to help mask some of the undesirable traits associated with plant proteins – some meat analogue products add salts, fats or sugars to compensate.

While they may be meat-free, some meat analogue items are nevertheless ultra-processed foods – and there is a growing backlash against products that cannot demonstrate their clean label credentials.

“The industry needs to take a balanced and cohesive approach to product development. It’s about understanding the potential for nutritional imbalance and addressing this in a responsible way,”​ Jenny Brown, VP Foods and Beverages, told FoodNavigator.

Collaboration needed for sustainable supply

Amazon rainforest
Issues like deforestation in the Amazon must be tackled by plant-based brands ©iStock

Plant-based proteins benefit from something of a halo effect when it comes to sustainability. Animal agriculture has faced a tidal wave of criticism related to carbon emissions. According to the FAO, global animal agriculture accounts for 14.5% of all anthropogenic GHG emissions. With climate change taking a front seat in the public discourse, it is easy for plant-based advocates to point to the lower impact of plant production.

Or is it? What about deforestation in the Amazon driven by our growing demand for commodities, including soy? Or the rising tide of monoculture, reliant on chemical pesticides and fertilisers, which threatens biodiversity and degrades soils?

The plant-based sector will have to grapple with these challenging topics as it continues to grow scale.

“These are complex issues, but fundamentally, the industry needs to avoid solving one problem and creating another. A collaborative approach with different organisations and business functions working purposefully to manage any unintentional repercussions will help,”​ Mackie told us.

Innovation and diversification

Seaweed could prove a sustainable new source of protein to fuel plant-based innovation ©iStock

The development of a sustainable food chain relies on the diversification of protein sources. This means more than a move from animal protein towards plant protein. It also requires the adoption of a broader spectrum of plant-based options.

Mackie elaborated: “Drawing on a diverse range of plant protein sources is essential from a sustainability perspective.
“It’s partly about the security of supply. As demand for plant-based products increases, the industry needs to be confident that it can readily obtain protein-rich ingredients. The local versus global debate comes into play here – some crops only grow in certain climates, so manufacturers need a degree of flexibility.

“Naturally, environmental sustainability is high on the agenda too and the plant-based trend is very much aligned with this. Using a wide variety of plant protein sources at an industry level will help avoid intensified pressure on agricultural land.”

So, looking to the future, what new but as yet underutilised plant-protein sources have most disruptive potential? According to Oakland’s Brown, ‘anything that grows fast and can be replenished quickly is worthy of attention’, especially if it can be harnessed in a way that gives rise to flavours and textures that consumers enjoy.

She believes seaweed has ‘much to offer’. Meanwhile, “there are some interesting developments related to duckweed, or water lentils. Parabel, a company based in Florida, has developed new ways to harness this aquatic plant which is rich in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and micronutrients as well as protein".

New processing and extraction technologies will be crucial for innovation in this area, Brown continued.
“There are three key areas at play here. The production or cultivation of plants is just the starting point. Processes used to extract protein from plants effectively and sustainably are also important. Progress is being made here, for instance new fractionation techniques reduce water wastage. Then there’s the post-processing phase, which offers ways to improve nutritive value and digestibility. Traditional practices like fermentation are gaining a lot of attention and could play an important role in unlocking the full potential of plant protein.”

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