In 2022, the plant-based category is at a crossroads. The term “plant-based” has evolved to something that is meant to replace animal meat and dairy (e.g. looks like a hamburger but is made with plants).
Some argue that the term has been co-opted to give a health halo to highly processed foods that may not boast a nutritional advantage outside of being made with non-animal ingredients. Now products that have always been made without animal ingredients are pushing back by claiming “plant-based.”
What got brands here, won’t get them there
Animal proteins are still dietary staples. Consumers are cutting back on meat, but few avoid it completely and some would like to get back into animal proteins in the future. Additionally, there’s a significant portion of consumers who are not sold on plant-based meat and dairy substitutes and are not willing to even consider eating these products in the future, presenting a challenge for marketers.
As a consequence, sales are slowing in the markets such as the US. Initial trial of plant-based products has not translated to sustained category engagement, with a sizable portion (16%) already cutting back on the meat alternatives they do eat.
Plant-based eating often carries the association with being higher in nutritional quality and better for health. But the surge in recent years of plant-based analogue products that many classify as ultra-processed has placed this reputation under pressure, with consumers in many markets globally questioning the level of processing of some plant-based products. While meat-like plant-based alternatives have captured attention, many adults who limit or avoid meat prefer less processed plant-based protein options. Brands will need to continue to refine their offerings to address these preferences.
Technological advancements will be key to meeting consumers’ expectations
Plant-based protein products like tofu and seitan have been an option for vegetarians and vegans for a long time, but these products have failed to appeal to a broader segment of consumers who are less likely to compromise on taste. Now, emerging technologies are bringing forth the next generation of plant-based products that will help bring the category to the mainstream. With the new tools in the box and the blurring lines between precision fermented, plant-based and even cellular agriculture products, consumers can expect even more realistic products and new formats.
Biomass fermentation uses microorganisms to produce protein. For example, Motif Foodworks (US) offers plant-based meat manufacturers their version of fermentation-derived heme called Hemami to impart the taste and aroma of meat to the products. As the development of cultivated proteins gains momentum, precision-fermented proteins will also have to deliver benefits that rival cultivated proteins – whether through lower price, improved taste, superior functionality or other advantages.
Beyond chicken nuggets and tenders, meat alternative innovators are now exploring other formats. 3D printing can be used to recreate some of the layers innate to different chicken parts such as cartilage, dark and white meat combinations. This technology also enables the creation of “structured” meat products like steaks and chicken breasts vs the more ubiquitous burgers and nuggets that were easier to create without the needed tech.
As an example, NovaMeat from Spain is using 3D printing to create whole cuts of plant-based meat. Scaling up 3D printing is likely to expedite plant-based product adoption as more formats will become available for consumers to enjoy.
Artificial Intelligence (AI)
AI is helping companies to uncover next-generation ingredients, ensuring the food is produced fast, sustainably and with consumer preferences in mind. Chilean start-up NotCo uses an AI algorithm, Giuseppe, to match animal proteins to their ideal alternates among thousands of plant-based ingredients, making new blends with appealing textures, colors and aromas; using this approach, the company has released NotMayo, NotMilk and NotBurger.
In the future, AI can help identify ingredients for more sustainable “fish” products. Plant-based seafood represents the next major plant-based alternative trend. Brands can position fish alternatives as a way to protect the seas and marine life and underline environmental benefits. AI can be used to scout potential ingredients that will be helpful in mimicking fish’s texture while delivering on superior sustainability credentials such as being free of mercury, microplastics and toxins.
What we think
Plant-based products currently on the market have struggled to deliver on consumer expectations and are already seeing stagnating or declining sales in some markets. Yet, plant-based is here to stay and there are more tools available to create products that succeed in the increasingly competitive environment. Technological and ingredient advancements will enable innovation that speaks to the needs of plant-based consumers.
The challenge now is to differentiate brands in an increasingly competitive environment and convince mainstream consumers that plant-based meat substitutes can be a part of everyday eating. The next evolution of the plant-based trend will heavily cater to the consumer motivations behind plant-based eating and rely on technology for differentiation.