Old-school plant-based ingredients such as soy, nuts, beans, greens, grains and vital wheat gluten are getting makeovers that make them tastier protein sources, according to New Hope Network.
While trendy, high-tech meat analogues such as Beyond Meat products and the Impossible Burger try to attract consumers by emulating the look, sizzle and flavor of meat, longtime meatless brands are relying on flavor to produce better-tasting, premium plant-based products.
“What you call old-school, I call traditional products that stand the test of time,” Kelly Swette, CEO of Sweet Earth Natural Foods, told New Hope Network. “They aren’t as sexy as tech food, but they are every bit as efficacious and fundamentally proven.”
The plant-based revolution is taking the food industry by storm. According to HealthFocus data, 17% of U.S. consumers eat a predominately plant-based diet, and 60% claim to be reducing their consumption of meat-based products. Of those consumers who are cutting down on their intake of animal proteins, 55% say the change is permanent. This evolving consumer mindset is making major financial waves as well — last year, total plant-based meat sales topped $606 million.
But despite a general uptick in interest, the average consumer may not find traditional plant-based ingredients like tempeh — or fermented soybean cake — a healthy and tasty replacement for meat. But when tempeh is marinated, well-spiced and served over rice with vegetables and other savory fixings, the result might impress devoted meat eaters.
These elevated versions of longtime plant-based substitutes are becoming more common, thanks to the consumer's desire for premium products and acquisitions by larger, more mainstream food companies. Large businesses are looking to diversify their portfolios and attract new health-focused customers who are turned off by processed, center-of-the store items. For plant-based products purchased by a big CPG company, they also can benefit from the flavor and innovation insights and experience the new parent company has amassed.
Acquisitions like Nestle's deal with Sweet Earth are likely to become more prevalent, according to Forbes, as the global meat-substitutes market is projected to hit $5.96 billion in 2020. The segment could also make up one-third of the plant-based foods market by 2050. Tyson Foods, best known for its chicken, beef and pork, entered the game last year through its 5% stake in plant-based company Beyond Meat.
In addition, Campbell Soup recently joined the Plant Based Foods Association. Among its brands with a plant-based emphasis are Bolthouse Farms, 1915 Organic and Garden Fresh Gourmet. The company recently launched a line of plant-based refrigerated milks, Bolthouse Farms Plant Protein Milk, made from pea protein.
When partnering with a major food company, small plant-based companies do run the risk of losing some aspects of their health halo and cultural identity. Large brands often centralize operations and streamline product assortments to make a brand more marketable. And while these changes can sometimes undermine the integrity of a brand, they can also help elevate plant-based ingredients to their tastiest, most consumer-friendly form, thanks to major R&D pipelines and intimate knowledge of consumer demands.
As further M&A in this space leads to greater consumer exposure and acceptance, tastier and higher-quality plant-based ingredients and food products are likely to emerge. In the early days of plant-based foods, taste was less important than the fact that the product wasn't made from traditional meat. But as the consumer's appetite for these products has increased and more items hit market shelves, companies are under pressure to beat their competitors — and one big way to do that is through a better-tasting product.