- Taste, nutritional profile, clean-label ingredients, protein content and a limited variety of items are five barriers that continue to present a challenge for purveyors of plant-based meat seeking wider adoption of their products, according to a new white paper by Kerry. The ingredients company polled 538 American consumers who are plant-based meat consumers that frequently eat out.
- Taste remains the number one barrier for plant-based substitutes, with 73% of respondents saying alternatives should mimic the taste of meat. At the same time, consumers are concerned with products’ nutritional profile, with 41% saying high protein is an important attribute. Almost a third said natural ingredients is a priority, and an equal amount said organic and no artificial preservatives are vital. Eighty-seven percent of consumers surveyed asked for these considerations to be taken into account in a larger variety of meat alternative products rather than burger patties, which account for 61% of all plant-based menu offerings.
- The study noted sustainability, environmental concerns and the ethical benefits of plant-based meat diets help grow the category, which is seeing an increase in interest from mainstream consumers with no dietary restrictions.
The growth of plant-based meat alternatives has created a new type of consumer: one who doesn’t identify with any specialty diet but is nevertheless opting to integrate plant-based meat alternatives into meals. Although promising for growth of this segment, these new consumers are placing higher expectations on manufacturers when it comes to the taste and nutritional profile of available meat alternatives.
Plant-based meat alternatives have improved dramatically since the days of hockey-puck-like veggie patties. However, taste still seems to be a stumbling block for manufacturers. Considering taste is the top consideration for consumers purchasing plant-based meat, finding a solution to the continually pesky question of flavor is critical for producers if they hope to capture conventional meat eaters.
That’s not to say that manufacturers have not been working toward replicating the juicy, umami experience that is present in real meat. Impossible Foods and Beyond Burger are two exemplary companies that have been leading the charge in this arena. Impossible Foods took a chemistry-based approach to the problem and discovered the heme molecule that is responsible for the bloody juiciness in animal protein also exists in plants. Through extraction, the company can replicate the umami of real beef in its plant-based patties. Beyond Burger took a different approach using beet juice in its formulation to create a red hue and caramelize the burger patties on the grill. But neither burger is yet perfectly meaty.
Despite the undeniable advances in plant-based protein in the last 20 years, flavor remains a stickler for many manufacturers. Efforts to mitigate the off tastes of plant-based protein run the gamut. Pea protein supplier Roquette provides flavor masking solutions for its ingredients tailored for individual customers' products. Flavor manufacturer Edlong adds dairy or mock dairy to mask any notes that are off.
Other companies turn to processing techniques such as infrared heating, roasting, fermentation or thermal treatment before beans and peas are milled to help reduce undesirable flavors. And yet some companies such as Cargill, Ingredion and World Food Processing aim to cut back on inherent off flavors by developing blander tasting bean and pea cultivars.
In addition to improving flavors, industry leaders have also been forced to update their ingredient choices by consumers looking for cleaner labels and more functional nutritional profiles. Just this year, Impossible Foods updated its formulation to substitute soy protein concentrate for textured wheat protein to improve the burger's texture, as well as make it gluten free. Other changes included lowering the salt content and removing ingredients to clean up its label.
According to the Good Food Institute, consumer concerns about flavor and ingredient lists may fade. Senior Communications Specialist Matt Ball emailed Food Dive a draft report from the non-profit that showed “healthiness of a product isn’t determined by the number or ingredients.” In fact, the group notes, listing all the ingredients associated with plant-based meat enhances transparency, whereas many of the foods and chemicals an animal consumes will never be found on an ingredients list.
Plant-based manufacturers could take advantage of this and highlight the benefits of certain ingredients or launch campaigns that share the values of the various protein sources in a product, and why they were chosen.
While the Kerry study indicated that clean labels can be a factor for consumers to select a plant-based protein — consumers have proven to be wary of unpronounceable ingredients as well as GMOs — they also care deeply about protein content. In the Kerry report, 84% of plant-based meat consumers considered meat to be a critical component of their diet, and 40% said high protein was the most important attribute when selecting a plant-based alternative.
In the realm of plant protein, there are numerous options including legumes, nuts, mushrooms, lentils, mung bean, seaweed, potatoes and peas. However, not each protein is the same. Some, like vital wheat gluten, can present issues for gluten-free customers. Pea protein outperforms many other sources in nutritional terms, but there are continued issues with its pea-like scent and taste, as well as questions about its sustainability as a protein source. In light of the different advantages of plant protein, most plant-based meat manufacturers have opted to blend a few of the proteins together in their products.
As more consumers opt to add plant protein to their diets, it is unlikely their concerns about protein will subside. But there may also be more options to choose from.
“Right now, plant-based meat is using only a tiny fraction of available plant-proteins as ingredients. There is significant opportunity to optimize crops for use in plant-based meat,” Good Food Institute Associate Director of Corporate Engagement Caroline Bushnell told Food Dive in an email.
There is currently a shift toward the widespread adoption of plant-based protein. From June 2017 to June 2018, retail sales of plant-based foods jumped 20% to $3.3 billion, according to Nielsen data reported by Food Navigator. And it hasn’t stopped there. Barclays recently forecast rising demand and an increase in population will boost the global market share for meat alternatives from 1% now to about 10% in 2029. In dollar terms, that represents a jump from $14 billion this year to $140 billion in 2029.
One of the reasons is that consumers view plant-based protein as a healthier alternative. Also, plant-based protein is sustainable. Compared to a burger made from cows, making an Impossible Burger takes about a twentieth of the land, a quarter of the water, and produces an eighth of the greenhouse gas emissions, according to the company. For the health-conscious, meat made from plants has less fat and no cholesterol.
If companies can lean on these advantages while they work through the kinks concerning taste, nutrition and protein content, it would not be surprising to see more consumers favoring plant alternatives in their diet.