6 sustainable food trends businesses must watch

By Oliver Morrison

- Last updated on GMT

6 sustainable food trends businesses must watch

Related tags Sustainability Plant plant-based vegan Meat Innovation health & wellbeing Health Ancient grains

As the food industry continues to explore plant-based innovations, they must deliberate the health and sustainability credentials of these products, according to experts.

1)      The plant-based trend will encounter increased scrutiny

The plant-based trend’s health and sustainability credentials will come under increased scrutiny as it attempts to evolve from a movement that is trending to a trend firmly established in the mainstream. While meat producers still have 98% of the market​, plant-based foods have been enjoying a frenzy of attention as more flexitarians attempt to cut back on their meat consumption for heath and sustainability reasons.

“The palate for our dietary choices is getting bigger and more diverse and more personalised,​ Mandy Saven, head of food and beverage at Stylus, a trends intelligence service, told an audience at November’s Food Matters event in London. But, she continued: “what happens when the hype around veganism subsides? What's next? Is the movement really here to stay and if it is here to stay, is even healthy for us?”

The plant-based momentum is clearly relevant, she said, and food brands are extolling a vegan lifestyle as the pathway to good health as well as the answer to future food security. “This is creating a very positive and very welcoming halo around the movement.

But questions are beginning to be asked about the supposed health and environmental benefits of a plant-based diet. Paraphrasing the author and conservationist Charlie Burrell, she noted: “Unless you're sourcing vegan products specifically from organic no-dig soil you are significantly contributing to soil change and actively participating in the destruction of soil and life… if you're concerned about the environment animal welfare and your health then it is no longer possible to pretend that these are all met simply by giving up meat and dairy.”

Then there are the food miles of meat-free products to consider. “Eating lamb chops from a farm down the road could be better for the environment than eating an avocado flown from Latin America.”

Expect more questions from consumers about the nutritional profile of these products, she added. “Just because a product has a vegan label doesn’t mean it's good for you and unfortunately we are seeing a number of nutrient deficient products loaded with fat and sugar and ingredients like industrialised may and soy and these are all over our super market shelves.

Health seeking individuals will quickly lose interest in products that feign well-being benefits. Companies that take nutrient shortcuts or rely on inferior ingredients are going to be replaced with authentic and healthy alternatives. Make sure your product is 100% dedicated to wellness whilst upholding unimpeachable eco-credentials.”

Mark Driscoll, founder and director of the consultancy Tasting the Future, agreed. “As business continue to invest in and innovate around plant-based products to meet growing consumer demand, even more careful consideration needs to be given to the health and sustainability credentials of these products,” ​he said.

“Not all plants are equal. Some plant-based foods which are high in sugars, fats, salts may not be the best from a health perspective compared to whole grains, nuts and legumes. I personally question the health claims of some of those plant-based meat burgers. Likewise, while it is generally true that plant-based foods are on the whole better from a sustainability perspective, careful life cycle assessments need to be built into the product development process to ensure no unintended consequences.

For example, the move to more plant-based milks has seen a doubling of the demand of almond milk over the last 12 months. Almonds, however, use huge quantities of water, contributing to a ‘devastating drought with a significant drop in the water table within California where almonds are mainly grown’.

“If you're a business investing in plant-based foods, expect more attention on sustainability and health credentials of the ingredients you are sourcing in coming years. Don't think that just by switching from one to another that you shouldn't pay attention to the sustainability impacts.​ 

2)      Cell-based meat's credentials will also come under increased scrutiny  

Also expect cell-based meat to come under more scrutiny as its development intensifies. Israeli firm Aleph Farms, for example, has created the world's first lab-grown minute steak​ cultured from animal cells into a full-sized product in just three weeks. “Could our kitchens of the future be loaded up with this type of technology so we could actually produce our own protein at home?”​ asked Saven.

Cell-based meat proponents contend that it ticks a host of sustainable and health boxes. It hopes to be safer by lowering the risk of disease and be more nutritious by removing the saturated fats. It also hopes to be one day cheaper. However, it is still considered energy-intensive and relies on the availability of lots of renewable energy to avoid being carbon-intensive.

3)    Less, but better, meat… soil and water will increasingly matter  

As the sustainability clams of cell-based meat and plant-based products come under scrutiny, could the livestock industry enjoy more praise among consumers?

Many commentators, for example, are championing the positive role that sustainable regenerative systems can play in restoring soil health and in maintaining the floristic biodiversity in some parts of the UK. “Absolutely we need to reduce meat consumption in the UK customer by about 50% but it’s about less but better. We'll probably need to pay more, but we really need to reward farmers for producing regenerative livestock products,​ said Driscoll.

“Healthy soil cultivated through regenerative agriculture is critical to biodiversity and the survival of our planet,”​ added Saven. "We need animals in the equation as this is the easiest way to spread biodiversity. We will see more and more global, challenger brands using soil as their key priority in their product development, packaging and branding.”

The same is true for water. “Responsible brands are trying to alleviate pressure on water supplies​,” she noted. "Consumers will also want to know exactly how much water is used to produce their food, especially considering the food industry is so water intensive.”

4)      ‘Forgotten' crops will be re-discovered​ 

Businesses are recognising there is increasing vulnerability and risk in sourcing of their key ingredients within their supply chains and that there are opportunities to build resilience by looking at new ingredients. One is spirulina, an algae which is claimed is 100% natural and can be used to replace the artificial blue or green colouring in food stuffs. 

“Algae are found in an increasing number of ingredients including green smoothies, speciality chips and protein bars. Algae in India are now been given as a supplement to undernourished children. Whilst there is only a dozen or so companies focussing on algae production today, large amounts of investment is going into this arena and expect much more innovation in years to come,​ noted Driscoll.

More examples of thus far underused ingredients catching the eyes of product development include seaweed, hemp, spelt, heff and water lentils. Another, duckweed, is commonly found in garden ponds and is now being grown on massive aquafarms. “They taste like sweeter lentils and are highly nutritious and packed with Omega acids, fibres and micronutrients. They can double their biomass every 24 hours,” ​noted Driscoll.

There are 20,000 species of edible plants in the world yet 75% of the global food supply comes from only 12 plant and five animal species, dominated by rice, maize and wheat. Food businesses are starting to explore the use of orphan, forgotten or underused crops, largely ignored by major research organisations.

These include a wide variety of ancient cereals, grains and legumes. One example, Saven noted, is the Lil’ Pops company in the US which is making popcorn using the ancient ingredient sorghum, an ancient grain that requires very little water to grow. Also in the US, Patagonia Provisions is making organic root beer that is made from a perennial grain called Kernza. Other potential yet utilised 'super crops' include moringa, amaranth and swamp taro.

Companies are also devising recipes using evasive species. Farm Burger, for example, introduced an ‘invasive species sandwich’ made with cat fish. This may strike a chord with customers concerned about depleting fish stocks. “90% of the world's fish products are depleted and by 2048 the ocean could face total collapse,​ ​claimed Saven. She praised the innovation from UK supermarket Iceland which became the first to sell fish considered surplus to requirements by other chains such as gurnard, megrim, whiting and pouting.

She urged food businesses to court ‘promiscuous’ consumers. “Gen Z and millennials are known to have an adventurous palate. They are providing an excellent catchment cohort for tomorrow’s truly sustainable diet. Tap into them to explore less well known or forgotten ingredients​.​ Of course, package it beautifully so it looks good on social media.  

5)    Plant-based products to appear alongside real meat in store aisles

Sainsbury's was the first UK supermarket to place its vegan products, many of which have been designed to taste like meat, within the meat section. “The change in in-store positioning is a smart move and other retailers are starting to explore that​,​ said Driscoll.

Meanwhile, more big food companies will keep innovating their plant-based ranges, once the sole preserve of small, start-up disruptive brands like Impossible Foods. Nestle, Tyson Foods, Maple Leaf Foods, Perdue Foods and Smithfield Foods are all rolling out meat alternatives.

The small start-ups are finding fresher areas of innovation to address other challenges such as food waste. Take Rubies in the Rubble, which takes waste collected from farms, often fresh fruits and vegetables rejected by supermarkets because of aesthetic imperfections. It takes this produce and turns it into condiments such as mayo, ketchup and relish. 

6)    More innovation in plant-based and meat-free marketing 

A lot of current marketing of plant-based products is counterproductive, added Driscoll, particularly when it ignores the target market for most of these products, which is not vegans or vegetarians (who still make up a small percentage of UK consumers) but meat eaters seeking to cut down their consumption for reasons of health and sustainability. 

Sainsbury's, for example, was offering its customers 'meat free sausage and mash’ in a bid to provide more variety. From August to October 2017 the company tested alternative names to see if sales would change. The new name 'Cumberland-spiced veggie sausage' performed the best - increasing sales by 76%. “It's counterproductive to communicate that a food is free of meat if the goal is to appeal to more meat eaters​,​ said Driscoll.

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