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The evolution of plant-based: Navigating the ultra-processed debate

Article-The evolution of plant-based: Navigating the ultra-processed debate

© iStock/nito100 RS, plant-based, vegetarian salami, meat, nito100, Stock photo ID1208338477 .jpg
By making smart ingredient swaps – using olive oil and natural additives instead of palm oil and artificial ones, for example – plant-based brands can ensure their products are seen as healthy and natural and avoid an ultra-processed moniker, suggests one market expert.

A topic that is becoming increasingly hard to ignore in the food industry is the concept of ultra-processed food and drink products, The term was coined by Professor Carlos Monteiro, who developed the Nova food system, classifying products according to the degree of processing used during their manufacturing. Ultra-processed products are seen as the least healthy – and many plant-based products fall under the ultra-processed category partly due to the additives and processing techniques that manufacturers use to replicate the taste, texture, and appearance of meat and dairy.

Speaking during a Fi Webinar entitled The Evolution of Plant-based last month, Emma Schofield, associate director of global food science at market research company Mintel, noted that while the debate presents challenges to manufacturers – notably the fact that consumers may find the classification confusing and that some ultra-processed products have very favourable nutrition profiles – the outlook is not all negative.

“Many characteristics of an ultra-processed food, as defined by Nova, are broadly opposite to that of a clean label food, focusing on the absence of artificial additives and ingredients and some of the more industrial processing techniques,” she said.

“So, when you actually look into the details, it is really an extension of the current clean label trend and producers can continue to prioritise delivering clean and natural attributes in food and drink products.

“Another thing to focus on is nutrition: really educating consumers and bringing nutrition to the fore rather than potentially misleading consumers by focusing too much on food processing where it won't actually impact the healthiness of the product to the consumer.”

Elsa Guadarrama, consumer and market research manager at non-profit ProVeg International, said the ultra-processed debate is “quite a hype topic” and that ProVeg is trying to educate consumers on what processed and ultra-processed foods are with the aim of helping them to make the most informed purchasing decisions as possible.

It's definitely a challenge that needs to be addressed,” she added.

Smart ingredient swaps can improve plant-based perceptions

Asked to give some examples of steps that plant-based brands can take to make their products healthier and more natural, Schofield suggested focusing on the type of fat used.
“The Spanish brand, Heura, does this because they use olive oil in many of their products which, in addition to likely resonating with consumers in that market more than some of the important tropical oils, will also deliver a healthier and possibly more natural oil because olive oil is very positively seen on many grounds.

“Beyond Meat has recently announced the launch of their latest version of their burger and this one uses avocado oil. This is likely to deliver a healthier nutrition profile than the standard saturated fats used in plant-based meats and may also deliver a natural cleaner image too.”

In general, avoiding the use of artificial ingredients and additives can support a more natural image, Schofield said, adding that this was true for all food and drink categories, not just plant-based ones.

What’s more, she said that in many cases, plant-based brands are already outperforming their processed meat equivalents in terms of clean label ingredient lists.

“If you compare like for like – so say processed plant-based meats like burger formats with processed conventional meat burger formats – again we find here that actually many plant-based foods already have a cleaner label because of reasons such as conventional products containing nitrates and nitrites, which are quite controversial from a red flag perspective.”

Regional differences in preferred retail channels

With most European plant-based manufacturers looking to commercialise their products in more than one country, Guadarrama drew attention to the regional differences underpinning consumer motivations to eat more plant-based products. These differences should be considered in branding and marketing campaigns.

“We see that, in general terms, a majority wants to change their behaviour towards more healthier and sustainable practices. But […] when we talk about, let's say, environment and animal welfare, we see that this is much more resonant among consumers in regions like the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany, and even the UK,” she said.

“In other regions like Italy, Poland, and Romania, health is by far the most important – and pretty much the only – motivator for […] shifting from animal-based products to plant based products. This is definitely something that needs to be leveraged when talking to different regions.”

Another regional difference lies in consumers’ preferred retail channel, Guadarrama noted. While supermarkets remain the most important channel to reach consumers, UK consumers are increasingly relying on e-commerce outlets while in countries such as Poland, Romania, and, Spain, hard discounters remain more important.  

“Trying to reach your consumers where they are most likely to reach out or to look for you, according to the country, [is] also something that needs to be taken into consideration,” said Guadarrama.

Shifting attitudes across generations

Leaning on insights from consumer research conducted by ProVeg and the Smart Protein Project, Guadarrama said that plant-based shoppers tend to be younger and female. However, this is starting to change with older generations becoming more curious and open towards plant-based products, as well as growing numbers of men.

Schofield noted that, while “taste is the priority in general”, younger consumers may be more accepting of plant-based food and drinks that do not have the exact same sensory attributes as conventional meat or dairy, compared to older people.

“…younger consumers are much more likely to buy into the plant-based meats, maybe because these are normal to them: they've grown up with the concept of plant-based meats and plant-based dairy being not something that's so new. So, over time we might see changing expectations over what taste means in these categories.

“The senior demographics […] possibly will be less flexible where the taste is concerned because they are the ones that have grown up with conventional animal meat and dairy products. We could see a shift over the generations and also with some consumers [who] will prioritise health more often than others.”