Harnessing the plant-based movement

How the food & beverage industry can drive focused, brand-relevant plant protein innovation with science, technology and insight

The soaring interest in plant-based diets has multiple underlying factors and increasingly looks like a lasting trend, not a passing fad. Consequently, the food and beverage industry needs to extend and accelerate the discovery, development and use of plant protein ingredients.

From improving health to fighting climate change, the potential benefits of a plant-based diet regularly hit the headlines. As this once niche market becomes mainstream, the wider food and beverage industry needs to act. But it raises important questions about meeting consumers’ requirements, in terms of products’ taste, texture and nutrition. This paper outlines current developments and challenges in the cultivation, processing and application of plant protein ingredients.

What’s driving the trend?

Conscious vegetarianism and veganism is on the rise in the Western world. Flexitarianism is also becoming mainstream, as people reduce meat consumption without eradicating it altogether. Many are making a purposeful decision to eat less meat for health or ethical reasons. Concern for animal welfare is one aspect of this, but greater awareness of environmental issues associated with meat production is another factor.

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There’s also the growing world population to consider. UN figures suggest it will reach 9.6billion by 2050, with a corresponding 59-98% increase in demand for food [1]. 

This could result in a serious global protein deficit unless the food and beverage industry delivers innovative new products and production methods. In the coming decades, alternative proteins may be less about the luxury of choice and more about the necessity of feeding the world.

Challenges and opportunities

A shift towards plant protein ingredients is not just desirable or on-trend, it’s essential. But there are significant barriers to their widespread use in large-scale food and beverage manufacture. These include ingredient functionality, stability and supply sustainability as well as the taste, texture and appearance of end products. Nutrition is also a concern. Even plant products considered relatively protein-rich, such as nuts and legumes, typically contain less than equivalent animal-based products gram for gram.

Delivering plant-based proteins requires consideration and collaborative input from experts in plant breeding, food manufacture, regulation and consumer insight. And it impacts the full spectrum of the food industry, from growers, ingredient suppliers and food processors to retailers and restaurants.

Organisations that rise to the challenge have an opportunity to benefit from the ‘vegan halo effect’. In the six months following the launch of its vegan sausage roll, Greggs’ profits surged by more than 50%. In an interview with The Guardian, CEO Roger Whiteside said “…it was selling out within minutes of arriving in the shops. And what was interesting about it was it had a sort of double effect. People arrived looking for that product.

But once they were in Greggs they saw what else we did.”[2] It would be easy to get caught up in the current wave of veganism and plant protein innovation. But it’s important not to act in haste. Activity needs to be properly thought out to ensure it is authentic, transparent and true to brand values.