The emergence of plants as an alternative protein source will go down as one of 2018’s defining food trends. From the Impossible Burger to Tesco’s Wicked Kitchen range of ready meals, plant-based foods are muscling in on meat’s traditional role at the centre of the plate.
Driven by a mixture of lifestyle and environmental factors, the global plant protein market is growing fast. Already worth $6bn (£4.6bn), according to Mordor Intelligence, it is forecast to deliver compound annual growth of over 7% in the period 2018 to 2023.
Foods containing proteins derived from sources such as soya, wheat and other vegetables are not only popular among vegans and vegetarians; they are winning over carnivorous consumers too.
In the UK, almost 80,000 people who signed up to this year’s Veganuary identified as omnivores, or ‘flexitarians’, while fewer than 30,000 said they were committed vegans.
The reasons behind the shift away from animal protein are well-documented, but plant-based protein also offers appeal in its own right.
“In our European Plant Attitude consumer study, we found the main motivations for choosing meat substitutes included health (41%), animal welfare (36%) and environmental concerns (32%),” explains Thomas Ullram, category manager for savoury and plant attitude at Givaudan.
“But more surprising is almost a fifth of the market is eating those products just because they like the taste or to be on-trend – a good indication that plant protein food has arrived in the mainstream.”
Food companies are responding to the trend with a raft of innovation. Tesco recently expanded its vegan Wicked Kitchen range to 44 with the introduction of new cakes, pies and desserts. Meat alternatives market leader Quorn has launched nine new products this autumn as part of one of its biggest-ever new product development drives.
Challenger brand Oumph!, meanwhile, has secured Tesco listings for its range of soya protein-based products.
A point of difference
Plant protein is also becoming a point of difference for marketers. Plant-based product claims increased by 62% globally in the four years to 2017, according to research by Innova Market Insights.
Health is undoubtedly a key driver of consumers switching to plant protein sources. “The use of plant protein addresses concerns about saturated fats and cholesterol, and, in relation to meat, issues around the use of antibiotics and hormones,” says Ullram.
The nutritional benefits of proteins include helping with body weight management, building and maintaining lean body mass and supporting muscle health, appetite and hunger control, says Rebecca Fitzgerald, marketing manager for Kerry.
“Non-meat proteins can offer these nutritional benefits while giving consumers more options and still delivering on taste,” she says.
Manufacturers face the challenge of finding innovative ways to incorporate plant protein into foods consumers want to eat, while delivering the nutrition they need.
Fitzgerald says Kerry’s newest plant protein ingredient, ProDiem, offers dairy-free, soy-free and vegan proteins that enhance the nutritional profile of products such as powdered nutritional beverages, ready-to-drink beverages and nutritional bars without impacting flavour or texture.
Chris Whiting, category executive, beverage and savoury at Synergy Flavours, agrees that the blurring of lines between everyday foods and dietary supplementation is opening up opportunities for manufacturers.
“They are innovating with new proteins such as soya, hemp, pea, pumpkin seed and brown rice, all of which have their own flavour profile that can impact final products,” says Whiting.
Ensuring these products deliver on nutrition and taste can be a technical challenge, he adds, which is why manufacturers are partnering with flavour experts such as Synergy on new innovations.
Givaudan is also seeking to crack the flavour code. Although consumers are actively looking to reduce their consumption of meat, Ullram says they still want the same meat flavours and textures they are accustomed to. This, he adds, presents textural and flavour challenges.
The company has recently developed a range of patent-pending ingredients to improve both the taste and mouthfeel of meat alternatives. Givaudan’s aim is to bring plant proteins closer to their meat-based counterparts with genuinely tasty, recognisable meaty flavours.
“We add culinary notes based on common cooking techniques, such as smoking or grilling, to enhance the authenticity and appeal of our ingredients,” says Ullram.
Soya and wheat
Traditionally, soya and wheat have been the most popular sources of plant protein, and for good reason.
“In the meat alternatives space, wheat protein has been used in meat analogues for many years and has a number of appealing attributes, such as high fibre and protein content,” says Fitzgerald at Kerry.
“Similarly, soya has the same attributes but is also gluten-free, which is a popular trend across most western European countries. Ultimately, both proteins need to deliver a delicious taste experience, so it’s important to understand which market you are looking to expand into and what local consumers prefer.”
Pea is another common source of plant protein, says Fitzgerald. Kerry is developing a pea-based product suitable for meat alternative categories “with the same great features of soya and wheat protein, but with the added benefit of being allergen-free”, she adds.
In the meat alternatives market, products rarely contain a single protein source, notes Synergy’s Whiting. Most are made up of protein blends usually containing pea, wheat and soya, with the different protein sources contributing different nutrition, textural and taste profiles.
“However, many non-meat protein eaters are looking for allergen-free options, which can limit the appeal of some of these bases,” he adds.
For consumers looking to incorporate more natural sources of non-meat protein into their diets, ingredients such as beans, lentils and nuts contain high levels of protein, as do dairy products such as eggs and yoghurt.
Wessanen’s Whole Earth peanut butter brand contains over 25g of protein per 100g, giving people the opportunity to add protein into their diet through a natural source, says Colin Campbell, product development controller at Wessanen UK.
“Those looking to increase their protein consumption also tend to look for foods that are rich in other nutrients,” he adds. In addition to protein, Campbell points out that peanuts are high in fibre, vitamins and minerals and contain high levels of unsaturated fats.
As for the next big source of non-meat protein, protein-rich edible seaweeds such as nori – often used to wrap rolls of sushi or onigiri – and dulse, a red seaweed that can be used as a snack or an ingredient in fish dishes, soups, desserts, bread, and salads, are being billed as ingredients to watch.
For Synergy’s part, Whiting says expect to see future innovation with seaweed, fish and insect protein, as well as meat substitute proteins such as seitan and tempeh.
With so many potential protein sources to choose from, consumers looking to reduce their reliance on meat look set to be increasingly well served as the plant-based trend gathers pace.