NEW ORLEANS — While plant-based meat is one of the fastest growing areas in food today, the concept is anything but a new-found revelation for humans.
"This idea of extracting protein from plants and structuring it as something that resembles animal meat is not new," Dariush Ajami, chief innovation officer at Beyond Meat, said on a panel at the Institute of Food Technologists conference last week. "It dates back to 2,500 years ago. The early attempts were made by religious leaders out of pure compassion for animals, which is very noble. And later, health concerns. ... But now we are living in an era where we all need to — must — live in a sustainable way."
The topic of plant-based foods was one of the most widely discussed by companies at this year's conference. There were nine breakout sessions focused solely on plant-based proteins, while many ingredients companies on the floor showed off plant-based meat substitutes made from their ingredients. And the hottest IPO of the year is Ajami's company Beyond Meat, which saw its stock grow more than 520%, with a market cap of nearly $8 billion since it debuted on the market last month.
And it's not the domain of just vegetarians anymore. Mindy Hermann, a senior market analyst at Innova Market Insights, said at the forum that about half of all consumers buy plant-based meat at least some of the time.
"One of the trends we're seeing with consumers is that they're looking for adventure. They're looking for discovery. They're looking for variety," Hermann said. "So they dabble in plant-based meat alternatives, even though they are not necessarily the original group that ate those kinds of food."
The market will continue to expand, analysts and food scientists said, as the technology, ingredients and consumer concern for sustainability and health become a more prominent part of their food-consumption habits.
Why plant-based meat?
The meat alternative market is expanding exponentially. According to a Euromonitor projection cited by the AP, worldwide sales of meat substitutes will grow 22% by 2023, reaching the $22.9 billion mark.
It's not because more consumers are vegetarian or vegan, nor are either of these lifestyle choices expected to grow that dramatically. Hermann said just 7% of consumers said they were vegetarians at some point during the last five years, and only 5% could say the same about a vegan diet.
Consumers are influenced by buzzwords, and plant-based meat products make label claims that are full of them, Hermann said. Many consumers associate the term "plant" with fruits and vegetables, and four out of 10 shoppers in the United States say they eat more fruits and vegetables to be healthy, she said.
Almost a fifth of consumers seek a high-fiber diet, which they can easily get from plant-based items. Nearly a third want to eat a high-protein diet — again, easily found in plant-based meat. And about a fourth seek out low-fat foods, a common claim on plant-based foods because they naturally contain far less fat than meat.
"One of the trends we're seeing with consumers is that they're looking for adventure, they're looking for discovery, they're looking for variety. So they dabble in plant-based meat alternatives, even though they are not necessarily the original group that ate those kinds of food."
Senior market analyst, Innova Market Insights
"The marketplace is reacting very, very strongly to consumer interests," Hermann said. "The growth of those products really far outstrips how many vegetarians and how many vegans there are in the United States. But it shows the tremendous interest in plant-based as something that people dabbled in."
Consumers also care deeply about sustainability and transparency. More than half of consumers want to know the stories behind the products they buy, Hermann said, and eight in 10 will favor a product that is honest and transparent.
"The problem is meat is one of the least sustainable foods that we have," Ajani said.
Conventional meat drives a lot of pollution, as well as uses many resources, Ajani said. In fact, he said the meat industry is responsible for half of all greenhouse gasses. One conventional beef burger produces carbon gases equivalent to driving 11 km. And meat production takes up four-fifths of agricultural land, he said.
Beyond Burger, the most well-known product from the publicly traded company, is much less impactful on the environment. Ajani quoted an analysis from the University of Michigan that looked at the meat-free burger's sustainability statistics. Compared to conventional meat, Beyond Burgers use 99% less water, 92% less land and 46% less energy. They also produce 90% less greenhouse gas emissions.
Peas, pulses, wheat and soy: The ingredients that make plant-based meat
While plant-based meat can claim more health and wellness benefits than its conventional alternatives, as well as huge improvements in sustainability, there is one place that conventional meat wins: Simplicity.
The simplest hamburger contains one ingredient: ground beef. In contrast, the Beyond Burger has 22 ingredients. It's mainly made with pea protein, Ajani said, but that protein has to be isolated, extruded and have oils, water and other ingredients added in order to have the right structure. Plant proteins all have different functions and structures, and they can be changed through chemical denaturing, heat treatment and other processes.
People have been turning plants into more solid food items for millennia. Chemistry has been used to aggregate soy protein into tofu since the Han Dynasty in China more than 2,000 years ago, Ajani said. Later, and in other parts of the world, similar processes fermented tofu into tempeh and transformed wheat into seitan.
The more sophisticated technology to extrude plant protein has been available for many years. Ajani said Henry Ford wanted to make a car out of soy isolate, and construction started through extrusion technology. Ford died before the vehicle was completed, Ajani said, and the technology was sold to General Mills.
Extrusion can do quite a lot. Depending on the size and function of the extruder, many changes can be made, Jenni Harrington, director of sales and technology for extrusion at Buhler, said on the panel.
"Ingredients is one thing and then the process conditions is another thing," she said. "As you change the ingredients and you start playing with your composition and sources, you can achieve more and more."
Ryan Kowalski, an associate for global applications at Ingredion, went through many of the ingredients used to make plant-based foods and discussed their limitations. Ingredients with more protein content are better for plant-based burgers or other solids, while ones with less are better suited for beverages.
But more than just extruding plant proteins is needed to make a meat-like hamburger. There's color and the chemical reactions that take place to give meat its unique flavor. Kowalski talked about some of the additions that can make believable plant-based meat: color that changes from pink to brown and added fats that create the sizzle of cooking.
"Developing a functional system of all those components that works for your final product quality is key," he said during the session. "There's a wide array of these ingredient options. Many possibilities as we continue to move forward into meat alternatives."
Ajani said making Beyond Meat products as realistic as their animal-based counterparts — through color, texture, smell, taste and cooking function — is a priority.
"We at Beyond Meat try to create a fingerprint of all of those, and collaborate very tightly with our friends in flavor houses, to better understand flavor of meat," Ajani said. "They had to be put all together, the flavor, color, texture and create our product. And you want to be as clean as possible. I know that the ingredient list is very long. While, you know, sometimes we have to add those functional materials, the whole goal is to make it shorter."