The plant-based protein market is in a critical stage where the overall quality of products needs to improve if repeat buying is flourish, according to DuPont Nutrition & Biosciences.
Flemming Østergaard, Strategic Marketing Manager for plant-based meat alternatives in EMEA, told FoodNAvigator that speed to market is not as important as it has been recently in this sector. Instead, as the sector becomes ever more established, quality and scalability grow in importance.
Rapid growth in this category in the last three years has been dominated by disruption, led by nimble small and medium-sized enterprises who have a “profound understanding of their target groups”, he explained. That’s changed with the entrance of big global brands through acquisitions such as Danone’s purchase of WhiteWave Foods and Unilever’s acquisition of The Vegetarian Butcher.
“Disruption and speed to market isn’t such a big theme as it was a year ago. Now it’s very much about scaleability,” he observed. “In order to compete in this sector, you need to provide a better product than in the past. We’ve seen a lot of product launches lagging behind with taste and texture and total quality aspect. That’s a key concern for the whole category because it will not take off if people have a first or initial bad experience. Repetitive buying is very much relying on a good quality in terms of sensory experiences such as taste and texture.”
For now, DuPont Nutrition & Biosciences believes its innovations in sensory testing is key for the development of the quickly moving but still nascent plant-based meat alternatives industry, and also key for it being able to help with needs of manufacturers.
Clean labels vs taste and structure
He adds that, in such a quickly evolving space, consumers are still working out what they want from it. “Consumers don’t know what to expect from this category,” he noted.
As a consequence, manufactures face the challenge of presenting plant-based alternatives to consumers that are both healthy and sustainable, which don’t compromise on taste and texture and which don’t feature offputtingly long ingredients lists.
That can be a difficult circle to square, warns Østergaard – especially if premium plant-based alternatives are to emerge. For example, upcoming alternative proteins such as alae, hemp, fava and mong -- seen as fashionable alternatives to soy -- “don’t have a long track record of being dealt with from a scientific perspective meaning we don't know if they have the required functionality to deliver a solid sensory quality for a steak alternative, for example.”
He says the ingredient inclusion with these ingredients is much higher as you build the whole texture and structure. "You really have to understand the different functionality of the ingredients in order to develop the product you want to develop,” he noted.
Pea protein is another example of an upcoming protein where DuPont wants to utilise our deep sensory insight to further improve functionality in new product development. "While there is a lot of knowledge about how soy reacts when treated in a certain way, you can’t say the same about pea. “You have a lot of fat in peas which you don't have in soy, so these two plant-based proteins react completely differently in applications,” he explained.
That said, he believes that plant-based protein products will boast shorter ingredients lists in future. "I think in the beginning it was about delivering; now it’s about improving, and part of that improvement process would be a cleaner label journey.”
He also believes more sub-categories away from the ubiquitous meatless patty will emerge as the meat alternative industry develops away from its current focus on products that seek to mimic real meat.
Plant-based vs organic
Ultimately, he compares the meat alternatives market to the organic market. "If you look to when we had organic entering the market, organic was the key thing: now it’s just a pre-requisite because now the taste and texture is paramount. It’s the same game being played here [in meat alternatives]. I think in the beginning it was about delivering, now it’s about improving taste and texture.”