The plant-based protein market has exploded in recent years and forecasts for the coming years are optimistic.
Yet challenges stand in the category’s way. While initially crowned with a ‘health halo’, plant-based is increasingly associated with over-processing and long ingredients lists. At the same time, recent research suggests the ‘reducetarian’ trend may be slowing, which could have implications for makers of meat and dairy analogues.
Despite these potential hurdles, the ingredients sector is backing the category. Innovation, suppliers Ingredion and Roquette argue, will encourage even greater uptake in the future.
Has the meat-reduction trend run its course?
According to Meticulous Research, the Europe plant-based food market is expected to grow at a CAGR of 10.1% from 2022 to 2029 to reach $16.7m (€15.88m).
In parallel, fresh research suggests the meat reduction trend may be slowing down. In its 2023 five-country survey, New Nutrition Business observed the trend to consume less meat – which grew very strongly from 2014 onwards – is levelling off.
According to the consultancy’s recent findings, 24% of consumers said they were reducing their meat consumption, unchanged from 2020. Brazil and Spain had the most meat reducers (31% and 30% respectively). At the other end of the spectrum, the US scored lowest on meat reduction (18%).
The same survey – made up of 2,605 consumers across the US, UK, Australia, Spain, and Brazil – revealed that contrary to popular opinion, meat reduction appears to be more common among consumers aged 55 and above, rather than younger consumers.
“It seems counter-intuitive, but it’s what we have been finding for several years…” noted New Nutrition Business director Julian Mellentin.
‘The plant-based outlook is positive’
Will a reduction in ‘reducetarianism’ have a negative impact on the seemingly growing plant-based sector? Conventional wisdom suggests it could, but industry is not convinced.
Indeed, members of the food ingredient businesses are backing innovation in plant-based to propel the sector forward. When asked about the future of plant-based, Charlotte Commarmond, vice president, global marketing at US-headquartered Ingredion, told us the company sees the ‘outlook as very positive’.
“Everything we do as an organisation is plant-based and we think it is here to stay. It is natural, nutritious and sustainable,” she recently told FoodNavigator at trade show Fi Europe.
However, the category of plant-based meat analogues does face some challenges, she conceded. “Plant-based meat has had a very strong growth spurt but there are some things that need to be addressed,” she told us, pointing to sometimes long ingredients lists or sub-par nutritional quality. “Plant-based meat [also] has to be more affordable to drive adoption.”
Further, consumer concern over the health implications of ultra-processed foods is on the rise, and could well impact category dynamics. “There is an emerging movement amongst the most health-conscious consumers and influencers who are pushing back against food they perceive as ultra-processed…”
One way industry can respond is with ‘clean label’ innovation, the marketing lead suggested. “Natural ingredients, no artificial additives, even organic…there are ways to influence this trend.”
‘We’ve seen a fraction of what is possible’
The plant-based sector does not encompass meat analogues alone, however. Plant-based dairy is another major driver of the category. Meticulous Research estimates the plant-based milk market (milk alternatives made from almond, soy, coconut, oat, and rice) to grow at a CAGR of 11.9% from 2022 to 2029 to reach $42.86bn (€39.55bn).
In contrast to a potentially more challenging outlook for plant-based meat alternatives, Ingredion’s Commarmond suggested demand for plant-based dairy alternatives – including milks and cheeses – is ‘really exploding’, while the whole plant-based beverage area is ‘exploding with growth’. “There are parts of the market that are very dynamic,” she told this publication.
France-headquartered ingredients supplier Roquette agrees. While a lot of ‘creativity’ has been demonstrated with the plant-based segment to date, the company believes there is much more to come, senior vice president of core ingredients, Pascal Leroy, told FoodNavigator at Fi Europe. “Plant-based has been on the front seat for years. But we believe we haven’t yet seen 20% [of what is possible] in non-dairy categories.”
There remains ‘a lot’ to do, for example in the plant-based cheese market, we were told. “The market seems to be creative, but there is a lot more to come, we expect… We are comfortable there is going to be more plant-based in the world.”