"We know that fats are an important carrier for flavors and really the idea of supporting that full sensory experience of a plant-based product is going to need a fat that will deliver on that," added Stephanie Mattucci, associate director of food science at Mintel during IFT FIRST in Chicago this week.
Some key categories of plant-based foods -- in particular, plant-based meat substitutes -- aren't meeting consumer expectations around taste and nutrition which has hamstrung the category recently, remarked Dasha Shor, a registered dietician and associate director of food and drink at Mintel.
Shor said, "There’s still not enough [fat] innovation within the plant-based technology space to make these products acceptable to consumers.
"Seven in 10 consumers say, 'I want meat substitutes to have the same properties as actual meat'."
However, many products in the space are falling short on this high consumer expectation which has been a contributing factor to the category's recent stagnating sales, claimed Shor: growth of plant-based meat from 2020 through 2021 was flat with $1.4bn in sales last year.
And despite 39% of consumers surveyed by Mintel having tried a plant-based meat product, many are not repurchasing due to unmet taste expectations, said Shor, who noted that emerging new fat technologies can play in role in moving the industry forward.
'Low-fat is still on the minds of many consumers'
Nutritionally, many consumers are aware and monitoring their fat intake despite the rise of high-fat diet trends such as keto.
"When it comes to fat, it’s something that’s really important to consumers still," said Mattucci adding that while taste is a huge factor for the future growth of the plant-based meat industry, so is nutrition and companies can't ignore total fat and saturated fat content.
"Low-fat is still on the minds of many consumers, especially older consumers as a way of eating healthy. In fact, 36% of adults (who are putting some effort into healthy eating) agree that low fat is an important attribute to them when choosing a healthy food. And some of the choices consumers make when trying to eat healthy is to choose more plant-based foods."
But, noted Mattucci, some of the most popular products in this space are not delivering in some important areas of nutrition.
The Impossible Burger, for instance, while the same in protein content to 80/20 ground beef and containing 3g of dietary fiber (vs. 0g in ground beef), has about the same level of saturated fat (8g).
"35% of consumers who are eating plant-based foods say they’re trying to reduce their saturated fat intake, but there’s no difference when it comes to something like an Impossible Burger where the saturated fat content comes in at about the same," she said [although some commentators note that US retail sales of the Beyond Burger, which has 5g saturated fat, have been sluggish lately].
Current landscape for fats in plant-based meat
Coconut oil has become a go-to fat for many plant-based meat formulators. Out of total global meat and dairy substitutes over the past five years (2017-2022), the percentage of new product launches featuring coconut oil has grown 32% vs. vegetable oils at 29% and sunflower seed oil at 24%.
Sunflower oil is still a major player in the space but with the ongoing war in Ukraine, the world's biggest exporter of sunflower oil, formulators are looking for alternatives and coconut oil as well as palm oil are experiencing an uptick in usage within the industry, according to Mintel.
"There is a real significant challenge in the industry to meet that supply chain need," said Mattucci, who added that over half (58%) of Americans agree that they expect to see food and drinks prices increase due to the situation in Ukraine.
Next frontier of fat innovation
Investing in these technologies is crucial to bring about the next generation of better-tasting plant-based meat products, but it will take time before the end product is affordable to the average price-sensitive consumer, noted both Shor and Mattucci.
"The idea of investing in that technology is really important, but it does come at a higher cost and it does take a while for that technology to scale up and become more affordable for the end consumer," added Mattucci.