Consumers of plant-based meat or dairy alternatives tend to fall into two categories: vegetarians and vegans; or mainstream consumers – otherwise known as flexitarians – and this second group is a key driver of innovative product development. From 2018 to 2020, European plant-based sales grew 49%, according to a report published by the EU-funded Smart Protein Project in partnership with ProVeg International. It found categories like alternatives to cheese and fish had grown at triple-digit rates, while in Germany, sales of plant-based alternatives to fish grew 623% over the period. But manufacturers need to be increasingly innovative as the market has become more crowded.
“You definitely see there is a rush to market,” said Daniel Protz, CEO and Founder of FlavorWiki, speaking at the Fi Global Connect - Plant-based ingredients in the Spotlight panel discussion. “There will be some tolerance to products that aren’t perfect. Consumers are committed to evolving with the category, but I don’t think this will last.”
The market research found plant-based consumers were not entirely happy with the experience of eating meat and dairy alternatives, but 94% said they expected continued improvements.
“What is very interesting is that 70% of these users have repurchased products after trying it for the first time,” he said. “…They are shopping around, they are trying different brands, they are seeing what they like best and they are following those over time.”
Health and sustainability
Buyers of plant-based products buy them first and foremost as healthier alternatives to meat and dairy, closely followed by sustainability concerns, Protz said. Animal welfare and the desire to try something new are less important.
Environmental concerns are crucial, so it is important to ensure packaging is sustainable, as well as that the products themselves are free of ingredients like unsustainably sourced palm oil.
“I do think consumers are going to become more critical of the ingredient list over time,” Protz said. “…This is a warning sign for brands that they should focus on that as well as the taste.”
Taste, texture – and clean label
Speaking about meat alternatives specifically, fellow panellist Carole Bingley, Senior Associate Principal Scientist at RSSL, said, “Texture and taste are really challenging still, especially as they are trying to move away from processed meat products.”
It is more challenging to mimic a chicken fillet than sausage or burger meat, for example. However, new ingredients and processing technologies are making it easier. Bingley noted that new proteins coming to the market can provide more bite, as can high moisture extrusion, and new yeast extracts bring a more meat-like flavour.
However, finding clean label binding ingredients also presents a major challenge.
“Ingredients like methylcellulose can be very useful in a meat alternative, but a lot of our clients are looking to replace those with something they consider to be more acceptable,” she said.
Seeking a level playing field
Siska Pottie, Secretary General, European Alliance for Plant-based Foods, highlighted the regulatory hurdles that plant-based food producers face. Traditional meat and dairy companies may benefit from the Common Agricultural Policy and national taxation rules, for instance.
“A lot of regulations do not give equal opportunities to plant-based foods,” she said, adding that there should be more eligibility for processed products made from plants like legumes and nuts to qualify for EU promotional support – especially as many schools and other institutions aim to increase consumption of plant-based foods.
Aurore de Monclin, Managing Partner at the Healthy Marketing Team, underlined the need to get marketing messages right when communicating with flexitarian consumers in particular.
“You have to bring a clear benefit,” she said, citing choice, uncomplicated and familiar ingredients, good taste and price as potential leverage points.”
“For flexitarians, you could talk about creating a new experience,” she said. “…The second option could be that you want to position yourself as a good compromise compared to what they are currently buying – saying it is ‘an easy swap’.”
“Storytelling is very important. If you are an animal-based company, you need to do your homework when it comes to animal welfare. With meat alternatives, for flexitarians, it’s important to bring out the familiarity with known ingredients.”
Opportunities in alt dairy
As for dairy alternatives, the range of products has expanded dramatically over the past few years.
“The market is becoming quite crowded, so you have to focus on what is new for the consumer,” said de Monclin. “… I would say that moving forward, taste and nutrition will be very important but also the type of crops. Regenerative crops that look beyond sustainability to restoring and regenerating, I think that will come next, especially if you are talking to vegan consumers.”
Protz added that the product application could become more of a priority in company messaging, as different plant milk alternatives behave differently in cereal or in coffee, for instance.
“You do have to communicate what the product is for to the consumer,” he said.
In the dairy sector, panellists agreed that cheese alternatives may still hold the greatest promise for those looking to enter the market.
According to Protz, “There’s so many different ways that cheese is used and consumed around the world, that I think there’s probably still a lot of opportunities to carve out niches there.”
“If you can make a breakthrough, cheese would be the place to do it,” she said.