Europe’s plant-based meat sector appears in rude health. Retail sales in western Europe rose 19% to a record €2.4 billion in 2021, according to food sustainability NGO the Good Food Institute’s annual state of the industry reports. That beats North America, where sales last year stayed flat in value terms at $1.4 billion (€1.3 billion).
But when the US sneezes, Europe catches a cold. The GFI further admits that capturing even a fraction of the global meat market – estimated in 2020 at 328 million tonnes and worth more than $1 trillion – is a “colossal opportunity”.
Those companies looking to sell products based on plant proteins need to choose their strategy very carefully, and of all the strategy choices “it’s the meat substitute category which has the biggest problem”, warned Julian Mellentin, director of New Nutrition Business. He told his food consultancy’s podcast the meat substitute category will only begin to achieve its ambition of truly disrupting the meat industry when ingredient suppliers and product developers can deliver products that “actually deliver human expectations of good taste, good texture and a reasonably short ingredient list”.
Technology – specifically high moisture extrusion (HME) – is one area that's key to producing more realistic meat replicas.
While the traditionally used low moisture extrusion delivers a fibrous, spongy texture and shelf-stable product that will need rehydrating, HME delivers a more fibrous, striated, meaty product that must be chilled or frozen.
HME tech remains in its infancy. It’s a more expensive investment for companies and a pricier product for end consumers. But it’s hoped the method may well improve the nutritional qualities as well as the taste and texture of plant-based meat alternatives.
‘Largest ever’ $30 million funding
Case in point, French start-up Umiami has just raised what it claims is the largest ever Series A financing round in Europe. This feat was mainly thanks to its proprietary HME process which it claims surpasses other commercially available extrusion technologies by producing thicker, whole cuts of substitute meat.
It claims the current crop of HME tech on the market is only able to create horizontal or V-shaped fibres. Its patent-pending process, however, creates horizontal, diagonal or vertical fibres, allowing it to better appropriate the texture of real meat. In a category where size matters, it boasts it can get up to eight centimetres of thickness, five times that of the current crop of HME.
The company makes meat and seafood alternatives mainly using soy, but the process works with any protein, it says. Its plant-based chicken nuggets are pea-based, for instance.
“Our technology is one of the very few that can replicate the elongated fibres of meat using plant proteins,” explained Umiami co-founder Martin Habfast. “Current commercially available technologies, mainly extrusion, can't produce whole-muscle products such as chicken breast, a tenderloin, or a whole cut of salmon.”
Unique texturizing process
Umiami calls its protein texturizing process, which was developed after two years of R&D, ‘umisation’, which gives a fibrous consistency from plant matrixes and allows control of fibres size, direction and thickness.
“Our process basically consists of creating aligned fibres out of plant proteins. By controlling the direction of the fibres, the thickness of the product, the water and fat content, and the flavouring, we can create a very wide range of whole cuts,” elaborated the co-founder.
“Extrusion can't reproduce those larger cuts: dry extrusion can only create minced products, and wet extrusion is best for thin / chopped pieces. Our process is unique in that it bridges this gap: through the functionalities of plant proteins, it allows us to create large cuts containing the long fibres of meat. We master the direction of these fibres as well as a bunch of other parameters, such as juiciness, which we can get to higher levels than extrusion), bite, flakiness, and of course, colour, fat, and texture, which allows recreating an extensive range of meats and fish.”
The best part, he added, is that it's clean label. “We use no binding or thickening agent, which means no methylcellulose, no gums, nothing whatsoever. Our products are made of five to seven easy-to-understand ingredients, such as proteins, water, oil, salt, and natural flavours.”
The process was however a huge technological challenge. “We've created this process from scratch. We didn't perform just a small tweak on an extruder. We completely removed the extruder from the process and reinvented how plant proteins are texturized. Luckily enough, to a large extent, we can perform our process by using existing equipment designed for other purposes and tweaking it, making our process very scalable. This was one of the key aspects of our successful raise: given that this category is very dynamic, investors don't just want a differentiated technology. They want a reasonable time-to-market.”
‘We're here to help companies expand their offer’
Umiami’s technology last year attracted the support of meat alternative brand Quorn, which gave an innovation challenge award to the young company – which formed in 2020 and began life as an idea among three friends at a Paris engineering and science university. The Umiami staff has grown to 20, mostly dedicated to R&D.
It will now use the $30 million (€28 million) it has raised from investors including the French government to open a 15,000 square metre factory in the country by the end of 2023. This will create 200 jobs and produce 15,000 tonnes of alternative meat per year to serve B2B customers globally in food manufacturing and foodservice.
“In a couple of months, we'll be the first company worldwide to produce such products at a semi-industrial scale in our pilot plant,” continued Habfast.
Why is has it gone down the fully B2B route? Consumers don't want more brands, the young entrepreneur told us. There are plenty of excellent brands out there, he said, and they want better products. “So instead of creating yet another plant-based brand and competing with everyone else, we're focusing on our core know-how, technology and production, and partnering with existing brands to bring the product to the end consumer.”
Its clients, he elaborated, are established food corporates or large foodservice organizations “looking to differentiate themselves by having a genuinely unique plant-based whole-muscle product. We're a partner, not a competitor, as we're here to help companies expand their offer.”