Inside Hive: A deep-dive into Unilever's plant-based innovation drive

By Katy Askew

- Last updated on GMT

FoodNavigator visits R&D centre Hive to go Unilever's innovation strategy to grow plant-based sales to €1bn / Pic: ©Ossip_van_Duivenbode
FoodNavigator visits R&D centre Hive to go Unilever's innovation strategy to grow plant-based sales to €1bn / Pic: ©Ossip_van_Duivenbode

Related tags Unilever plant-based

“We want to outgrow the competition and we want to do it in ways that are better for people and the planet,” Unilever’s head of Food & Refreshment Hanneke Faber says. How does the company plan to do this? FoodNavigator goes inside Hive, Unilever’s innovation hub, to find out.

Unilever believes it has developed a growth plan that will be good for the triple bottom line: planet, people and profits.

The group is gearing up for a restructure that will see its nutrition brands become a stand-alone unit separated from its ice cream operations. The move sharpens the focus on some of Unilever’s strategic categories: plant-based and positive nutrition products.

The company has set itself some ambitious targets in these areas. Under its Future Foods strategy, launched in 2020​, Unilever wants to hit €1bn in plant-based sales by 2025-7 and double the number of products 'delivering positive nutrition globally’ by 2025. The Knorr-to-Magnum manufacturer also plans to increase its sourcing of ingredients made through regenerative agriculture and hit net zero emissions by 2039.

Speaking at Hive, Unilever’s innovation facility on the campus of Wageningen University, head of Food Hanneke Faber said that while the company is ‘not a charity’ it does intend to contribute to fixing current structural flaws in the food system.

Unilever food chief Hanneke Faber speaking at Hive
Unilever food chief Hanneke Faber speaking at Hive / Pic: Unilever

“The global food system is not in great shape. I would even say it is broken,”​ Faber, who is set to head-up the Nutrition BU, said. She pointed to the myriad issues that beset the current global food system, from hunger and obesity to GHG emissions and food waste.

“We feel real responsibility to play a role in creating a food system that is fair, healthy and sustainable… We want to outgrow the competition and we want to do it in ways that are better for people and the planet.”

At the ‘heart’ of this transformation – and indeed Unilever’s ambitions around regenerative agriculture, positive nutrition and emissions reduction – is plant-based innovation, Faber suggested.

Expanding the appeal of plant-based

While Faber insisted she isn’t asking us all to become vegans, she does want to see more of us eating plant-based options, more often.

How can this be achieved? First and foremost, Faber believes plant-based needs to be a ‘fun’ and convenient option that does not require compromise from the consumer.

“You have to make it easy. Nobody is interested in being educated… it is about making it fun,”​ the food industry executive explained. “Purpose doesn’t have to be virtuous and serious.”

Offering plant-based options that are convenient, accessible and appealing is an important workstream for Unilever’s F&B research and development teams located at Hive. The innovation team works across pure-play plant-based brands like The Vegetarian Butcher and is developing vegan options for its established mainstream brands like Hellmann’s mayonnaise.

New SKUs such as Baconnaise are being added to Hellmann's vegan mayonaise range
New SKUs such as Baconnaise are being added to Hellmann's vegan mayonnaise range / Pic: Unilever

Carla Hilhorst, Unilever’s EVP of R&D, believes that successful innovation begins with an understanding of the consumer and the ingredients that make up the product.

“It always starts with the consumer and customer,”​ she noted, stressing the importance of understanding the ‘aspirations and needs of consumers’ – how they live and shop, what is important to them. “You then need to translate [consumer insight] into technical requirements for products. The moment you have a good understanding of the consumer problem and translate that to the technical requirements of products, you are half-way to making great products.”

And great products are ultimately what is needed to encourage consumers to increase the plant-based content of their diets, Unilever understands.

“Moving to a more plant-based diet… is better for people and planet,”​ Hilhorst said. But health and sustainability alone are not enough. “It is very unlikely that a consumer will sacrifice an excellent taste and food experience simply because it is good for the planet.”

Marrying taste and nutrition in plant-based

Developing these ‘great products’ is not as straight forward as it might sound. “You hardly ever have a silver bullet ingredient” ​that performs across metrics like taste, texture, shelf life, stability, nutrition, and can be used at factory scale, Hilhorst told the audience at the Netherlands innovation facility.

Unilever flavours expert Alessia Ermacora said that taste is ‘one of the key unlocks’ that will make plant-based alternatives the ‘first choice’ for consumers. Plant-based formulators need to develop ‘authentic’, ‘rich’ flavours taking into account sensory attributes like aroma and juiciness while minimising the presence of plant-notes and a dry mouthfeel. 

“Taste is a non-negotiable… At the same time, we have to increase nutritional standards,”​ Ermacora elaborated. This is particularly true as the nutritional profile of plant-based analogues comes under the microscope.

“In plant-based meat we have developed a number of solutions to effectively lower the level of salt… It’s about adding some herbs, some spices… the key is finding that balance,”​ the R&D expert continued.

Finding that balance can be challenging. In answer to this, Unilever is working with advanced digital tools that can speed the recipe ideation process. “We can create taste profiles… feed them into our digital model and say we want recipe suggestions where there is no egg, or lower salt,”​ Hilhorst explained. These recipes are then put through their paces by Unilever’s R&D teams at test kitchens in facilities like Hive. 

Unilever's R&D teams work to optimise plant-based recipes
Unilever's R&D teams work to optimise plant-based recipes / Pic: Unilever

Looking at the examples of vegan mayo and The Vegetarian Butcher plant-based chicken, the innovation chief said it is important to understand the role that an ingredient plays within the product matrix and then ‘identify an alternative that is recognisable for consumers and has the same role in the recipe’. The Vegetarian Butcher plant-based chicken analogues started with an understanding of the target taste, texture, mouthfeel and bite. A recipe was then developed using ingredients like soy, spices, oil and ‘aroma’. “You have a very simple ingredient list that allows consumers to trust the products.”

Trust and the importance of clean labels

The importance of using recognisable ingredients in relatively new product formats should bot be underestimated. “Simplicity of ingredients and linked trust of technology is really important,”​ Hilhorst stressed.

She acknowledged the disconnect often seen by food industry professionals, who frequently stress that there is a difference between ingredients and processing technologies that are safe and those that command consumer trust.

“A consumer wants food for their family that they trust… [but] facts and perception are not the same. A product that is perfectly safe might not be perceived by consumers as safe… It is important to understand there is a perception that’s not always aligned with facts.

“Knowledge doesn’t drive behaviour. The more you understand existing behaviours of consumers you can use it.”

Trust is also not a static concept and to develop the product formats of the future Unilever needs to keep a weather eye on how consumer trust changes over time. ‘Trust evolves’, Hilhorst noted, adding tomorrow’s trusted products are likely to reflect issues like climate change and environmental foot printing information.

Unilever meat-free brands like The Vegetarian Butcher showcase their products at Hive
Unilever meat-free brands like The Vegetarian Butcher showcase their products with 'simple' ingredient lists / Pic

Future proteins: ‘We need to unlock the power of biotechnology’

Unilever recognises that the amount of conventional animal proteins we eat requires a re-set if we are to feed the growing global population within planetary boundaries.

Today, Unilever's R&D teams are looking at protein diversification from soy, pea and wheat to oat, lentil and fava. Tomorrow, VP of science and technology Manfred Aben predicted, ‘we will be going beyond that, we need to unlock the power of biotechnology’.

The ‘next level’ of innovation is to produce food ‘without land and water’ through ‘fermentation and microbes’, Aben observed. The science and technology chief categorised emerging alternative protein sources that will ‘shift the needle’ into four groups: ‘sun-based’ proteins like duckweed and upcycled proteins; microbial single-cell proteins like microalgae, fungi and bacteria; precision fermentation that produces ‘animal identical’ proteins; and cellular agriculture or lab meat.

“We are working on almost all of these,”​ Aben revealed. This work isn't being directly undertaken by researchers at Hive but the innovation centre is strategically located on the campus of Wageningen University to integrate into a broader innovation ecosystem. Indeed, Aben said, collaboration is an important part of Unilever's innovation strategy and the multinational is collaborating with various start-ups in the future nutrition and protein space. “If we think we can do it alone we are really not thinking big enough,”​ he said.

Unilever is, for instance, working alongside biotech start-up Agenuity to tap into the ‘huge potential’ of microalgae​ and it is collaborating with food tech company ENOUGH​, which is opening Europe’s largest mycoprotein production facility. 

“We have investments in pretty much all those spaces. The cultivated meat we think is a little further off, but we think it will happen,”​ Faber added.

But for these new technologies to gain traction, they must first secure consumer confidence and trust. If shoppers today are sceptical of unfamiliar ingredients, are they likely to welcome developments like lab grown meat? Faber is optimistic. “It is up to us as companies to make it not sound like Franken-food… there are ways to speak about it with consumers.”

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