In May last year BENEO acquired Meatless, a specialised company for plant-based texturising solutions. It then went on to take a 14% stake in the German-based plant-based company Grillido earlier this year to take advantage of an e-commerce platform to give it faster and direct access to consumer feedback about their plant-based preferences.
Reports, meanwhile, are rife about flagging demand in a category that is struggling to live up to the hype. But according to BENEO, demographic indicators still clearly point to a strong and steady growth of plant-based products.
“Inflation has seen demand in the plant-based market level off recently,” said Niels E. Hower, a new Member of the Executive Board of Directors at BENEO and responsible for Meatless. This is being viewed as a temporary hiccup by analysts such as Forbes and Bloomberg, he insisted. Citing UN 2022 data, he added: “Those under the age of 35 shown to be 5 times more likely to eat a plant-based or mainly plant-based diet, compared to older consumers. Demand for protein, in all its forms, is also expected to grow significantly as the global population reaches more than 9 billion by 2050. It will be virtually impossible to achieve this growth in production using animals like cattle and pigs. So, longer term, the future trend towards plant-based looks very promising.”
Growing need for more affordable options and specialist equipment
But there is a growing need for more affordable vegetarian options on the market, he revealed. "A lot of companies are struggling with scalability to achieve mass consumption and price competitiveness in the plant-based category. In my opinion, this is a significant potential roadblock to the momentum that has been achieved by plant-based food producers. How fast a company can increase volume will be the make-or-break question moving forwards.”
Plant-based production can also be limited by the use of specialist equipment, Hower told us. A key sticking point for many providers is the need for sophisticated extruders to produce products, that can take “anywhere from one to two years to build”.
What’s more, the output per hour of many wet extrusion products is very low and requires a huge amount of fossil fuels. To overcome these challenges, Meatless, Hower explained, uses standard machinery and, for non-standard production equipment needs, the company is collaborating with local partners. Meatless claims it is using a technology with a low carbon footprint that aims to contributes to the overall reduction of CO2 emissions. This, he told us, can be scaled up quickly, to be more cost efficient and allow the development of more affordable plant-based solutions.
Speed of NPD
Another area that has the potential to be a stumbling block for the plant-based category is speed of new concept development. For example, according to BENEO’s Global Plant-Based Survey from 2021, the top drivers for flexitarians purchasing meat and fish alternatives include ‘being healthy and helping them take care of their body’, as well as ‘supporting a well-balanced diet’. Critics of the category, however, regularly complain that while health concerns were once considered a top selling point for the plant-based sector, today, health is becoming a hurdle due to associations with high levels of processing.
That’s owing to a lack of time to respond to the health demands of shoppers, according to Hower. “To deliver full concept developments for producers that respond to these consumer desires takes time,” he said. “As the market develops quickly, speed is of the essence and producers will need to respond at pace to not be left behind.”
To shorten timelines for delivering new products to customers, Meatless has prioritised streamlining the production process, including sourcing contractors to produce and pack the products for customers if desired.
Beneo claims this type of end-to-end service is getting more important in the market. “Plant-based alternatives can require highly specialised production knowledge, and only companies with the right expertise are able to offer this to support the development of high-quality plant-based products.
“A great example of how we have been helping customers with their meat-alternative recipe development are the vegan Meatless Chicken Chunks. Moving from producing plant-based ingredients, Meatless has stepped further along the supply chain with this product, creating ready-to-use texturates that only need spices. The semi-finished plant-based product is made with main ingredients such as myco- and pea protein, combined with flavouring, resulting in a short and simple ingredient list. There is a lot of interest in this type of product, from small and large food manufacturers alike, as they help producers who are unfamiliar with vegetarian production to enter the market quickly and easily.”
For those producers who can overcome scale, cost and timing issues, Hower concluded: “the long-lasting future of plant-based has the potential to be a profitable one.”