Following the recent acquisition of Meatless, BENEO says it is now taking the ‘next step’ in its protein strategy. “The focus for this year and next year is meat and fish alternatives,” revealed Pierre Donck, Commercial Director of Functional Proteins.
According to the ingredient expert, the Meatless acquisition, which was announced earlier this year, was a ‘logical extension’ of the company’s efforts in the plant-based space and it now expects to drive growth across both Meatless and existing solutions, such as texturized wheat. Speaking at trade show Fi Europe in Paris this week, Donck revealed BENEO is also preparing to launch its first ever semi-finished product – plant-based chicken chunks – in the second quarter of 2023.
“We have looked for juiciness, for fibourousness and for few ingredients because in plant-based meat alternatives there has very often been criticism of the length of the ingredient list,” Donck told FoodNavigator, linking this to consumer perceptions about nutritional quality. “The nutritional aspect is very important… looking at the chicken chunks there is a protein content of 14%.”
The aim is to deliver plant-based options that are ‘less processed and have fewer ingredients’. Nevertheless, taste and texture remain critical – and products that don’t meet these expectations risk the reputation of the plant-based sector as a whole. “There are a lot of bad products out there,” Donck observed, adding that the pace of innovation remains considerable because ‘the market is moving very quickly’.
A slowing plant-based category?
In many markets, plant-based alternatives are yet to reach price parity with their animal-based counterparts where economies of scale can be leveraged to drive down consumer prices. This has been cited as one of the main challenges faced by proponents of the category who hope to win over a growing cohort of consumers who identify as flexitarian in their preferences. In the current inflationary environment, can we expect plant-based innovators to make progress on pricing?
“We are all facing the same challenges. Logistics, energy, raw materials and labour costs,” Donck conceded. Nevertheless, while some commentators suggest this will contribute to category slowdown, Donck remained bullish on the outlook for analogue products. “We believe in the growth opportunity of meat and fish alternatives,” he insisted.
BENEO plans to leverage its integrated supply chain and scale its plant-based solutions in order to support category development. “If you can’t scale it makes no sense. Meatless’s opportunity is to scale and expand capacity. On raw materials, our advantage is we have a vertically integrated approach… You need to have a major part of the value chain under your own control,” we were told.
This control delivers a range of benefits – from security of supply to sustainability – and complements investments BENEO is making in sustainable technologies to decrease water and energy use.
Betting on fava with 2024 production coming online
The company is also bringing new protein sources into its portfolio based on locally sourced ingredients. This includes a new fava processing facility in Germany that is expected to come online in 2024.
The site will employ a zero waste process to deliver three outputs: First, the fava hulls will be removed and used for animal feed. Then dry fractionization will produce a starch-rich flour that has 20% protein and a powdered protein concentrate ingredient that, at 60% protein, will be used in various food applications from bakery to dairy alternatives. “It’s flavour is naturally pleasant, not beany or bitter,” Donck revealed.
The factory will offer ‘substantial’ capacity that will ramp up gradually as the to-date under-developed market for fava protein develops.
Donck is confident that fava – which he described as ‘the new kid on the block’ - will come to be an important player in the plant-based protein space, alongside established ingredients based on soy, wheat or pea. “Fava will be the next protein source to have a significant impact on the market,” he predicted.
How did BENEO identify fava as a raw material input with such meaningful potential? First of all, we were told, the company considered the qualities required up- and downstream and through a process of elimination identified the opportunity presented by fava processing. “You have to look up and downstream. Functionality, taste, texture and solubility were all assessed. We saw the raw materials that could bring these features, then we looked at the agronomic side. That is where our vertical integration comes in.”
Fava is a nitrogen fixer that builds soil health and supports biodiversity. This benefits growers and “there is a strong interest” from BENEO’s customers and consumers. Betting on fava is an important part of BENEO’s protein strategy, which takes into account sourcing issues as well as the innovation opportunity.
“Looking at a protein strategy, you need to make sure you cover the whole chain from the raw material, which we grow as close to our production as possible, to processing where you need to make sure you use sustainable production technologies.”