Consumer demand for plant-based products is propelling the category. In the UK, for instance, Mintel reveals 50% of consumers are cutting their meat intake.
George Perujo, ADM’s director of business management specialty ingredients, attributes this trend to ‘the rise of flexitarians’. This group, he told FoodNavigator, is defined as people who remove meat from their diet at least three times a week. “With a minimum of 30% of the UK population projected to be flexitarian in the next few years, there is a clear opportunity for new product development,” he suggested.
Competing for share in this rapidly expanding sector, food manufacturers are launching new and reformulated products to drive interest and meet consumer expectations. “Europe is leading the way in the innovation of this category and we are seeing an expansion of vegetarian and vegan alternatives in both retail and food service, particularly across the UK, Netherlands and Germany,” Perujo observed.
Fast-paced innovation in a fledgeling category
Competition for shelf space and the pressure to shorten innovation time presents something of a challenge for food developers.
“There is certainly an expectation for food manufacturers to come up with innovative alternative protein products that cater to the current needs of the growing flexitarian market. The result is a sector that boasts an accelerated pace of innovation as retailers and traditional meat producers join vegan/vegetarian-focused companies in producing plant-based solutions,” Perujo observed.
This category dynamic is unique to the plant-based sector, which does not have the same level of precedent to draw upon as more established categories. The specialty ingredients expert explained: “The strain on food manufacturers is different to more established categories, as producers need to learn how to work with new types of ingredients and raw materials, which can pose challenges in building up the taste, texture and colour of plant-based solutions.”
For example, when developing products that mimic the look, taste and texture of meat, producers need to consider how to replicate the ‘bite’ usually provided by animal proteins. Another source that provides the desired texture must be identified.
The ‘consumer type’ the product is targeting also plays a role in ingredient selection. “These parameters dictate which raw material can be chosen but also can bring constraints; while egg white is a good protein source for mimicking texture in plant-based alternatives, it is not suitable for vegan diets and so an alternative solution must be found.”
ADM’s seven trends to watch
In a bid to help its food sector customers navigate the shifting sands of the plant-protein landscape, ADM recently released a list of the top trends it expects to shape meat-free innovation in 2020.
1. Protein is not enough
According to ADM, ‘protein plus’ is the name of the game as consumers look for nutritional benefits and function-forward health features. Think added fibre, antioxidants, probiotics, whole grains and vitamins, the ingredient supplier suggested.
2. Taste rules
While nutrition is important, purchase is ultimately driven by taste and consumers are unlikely to come back to plant-based products that don’t deliver the desired taste or texture.
3. Variety is the spice of life
To date, plant-based launches have been led by burgers. ADM expects this to change in 2020 as new products start to take centre stage. Already the market is witnessing more launches in alternatives to chicken, sausage and seafood.
4. Keep it Clean
Meat analogues are attracting criticism for long ingredient lists that contain artificial ingredients. In 2020 ADM predicted successful plant-based formulations will have shorter, more familiar and natural ingredient lists.
5. Don’t forget dairy
ADM predicted continued plant-based innovation in the dairy case, building on the momentum of the past few years. “There is significant opportunity for formulators to leverage improved flavour and texture of products to drive even wider consumer interest in the year ahead.”
6. Private label delivering growth
Private label brands have achieved significant growth with organic and natural products. This is a space that’s primed for plant-based products to drive even more growth, with own-label plant-based ranges seen as a way for retailers to differentiate and promote consumer loyalty.
7. Comfort eating
ADM believes comfort food represents a ‘growing opportunity’ in the plant-based space. Consumers, the company suggested, are looking for plant-based versions of ‘family-friendly foods’ such as chicken nuggets and pizza.
Perujo also believes innovation efforts in Europe will reflect growing demand for local products.
“Over the coming year, we expect to see an increase in alternative protein products that cater to the varying local tastes and cultures of Europe. A small selection of these products is already available,” he told us.
Top picks for plant-based ingredients
So, what plant-based ingredients should food development teams look to leverage in response to these trends?
“Soy, pea and wheat remain the top choices of plant-based protein sources due to their functional characteristics, versatility and availability. Soy delivers high quality protein, however, as the sector and consumer demand continue to grow, diversification is certainly set to increase,” Perujo predicted.
However, he also expects increased diversification. “As the marketplace continues to diversify, we expect to see ingredients like lentils, ancient grains and edible beans being used alongside more functional bases to create plant-based alternatives that meet the wide range of customer requirements.
“The challenge is to find a protein that combines high functionality and consistency with low flavour and uses economically viable ingredients, all at a manageable price point. Proteins can be combined to create complementary nutritional and taste profiles to provide benefits.”