According to Mintel’s global new product database, just 2% of new food and drink launches made a plant-based claim in 2016. Since then, however, this has risen almost five-fold to just under 10%, based on new product launches in the first half of 2021.
In fact, the plant-based movement is so big that some brands are even going beyond the product formulation by drawing attention to the percentage of plant-based materials used in their packaging, said Tony Gay, head of technical sales and new product development at Prinova.
Dairy alternative manufacturer Alpro, for instance, communicates about the proportion of plant-based materials on its one-litre drinks cartons: 89% for the ambient drink cartons and 96% for chilled drink cartons.
One of the biggest areas of plant-based innovation has undoubtedly been milk alternatives, with grocery store shelves today full of products ranging from budget to premium and made from an ever-increasing number of plant sources.
While before consumers only had soy milk to choose from, today the category includes rice, almond, coconut, oat, and even pea. Manufacturers have even developed high-functionality versions, such as barista plant milks, that offer superior foaming effects.
Fortification with minerals from seaweed
Given the increasing prevalence of plant-based dairy alternatives in people’s diets, fortifying products with nutrients that are present in dairy milk but lacking in plant based options, such as calcium, vitamin D and vitamin B12, are important to avoid nutrient deficiencies.
Nutrient fortification of plant-based products is generally perceived in a positive way by consumers, Gay said, as vitamins and minerals are seen as natural – even when they may in fact be produced synthetically.
“However, companies are now going one step further,” he said. “If they can provide some of the vitamins or minerals from a plant-based origin they will do that. For instance, AquaminTM is a product that provides a natural marine-based calcium from seaweed.
“You see this called out on packaging, either through the brand name or the variety of seaweed, Lithothamnion. Because calcium carbonate is mined from the ground, there is awareness of the carbon footprint related to that, or because it is not considered plant-based. This seaweed variety is one of the plant-based options to provide calcium in vegan milks.”
Plant proteins - the perfect amino acid score
Another strategy to improve the nutritional profile of plant proteins is by blending various sources.
“From a nutritional point of view, one individual plant protein on its own would usually have a somewhat inferior amino acid profile compared to whey protein, but when you combine a few plant proteins together – say, pea and rice – you will get close to the amino acid profile of whey,” Gay said.
“If you go a step further and add a few more, such as fava bean and pumpkin seed, the amino acid profile is vastly improved. What you lack in one individually, you can gain by combining several proteins together.
“There is a bit of an art in the formulation – combining ingredients to create the best-tasting product without sacrificing the nutrition people are looking for,” Gay added.
Such plant protein blends can also appeal to consumer interest in increasing their dietary diversity with a range of healthy, clean label ingredients in one product, according to Prinova.
Natural sources of energy
As an ingredient supplier, Prinova has noticed demand for plant-based ingredients expand to new food and drink categories in recent years, such as energy drinks.
Traditionally made with artificial ingredients, unnaturally bright colours and targeted towards young consumers, energy drink brands are now launching products with a more natural positioning.
“This is a very interesting space that was niche before but is now becoming more mainstream, cleaning up somewhat the energy drink market,” said Gay. “There is a perception that energy drinks have a lot of synthetic, unnatural ingredients and therefore some brands are looking to […] provide options for consumers who want an energy lift but don’t want a coffee or traditional Red Bull. We’ve seen a lot of natural extracts such as green tea, green coffee, ginseng, and ginger that all have benefits related to energy.”
The source of the caffeine is also becoming more important, according to Gay.
“Caffeine anhydrous is typically the caffeine used in energy drinks, and it can be manufactured synthetically or […] from green coffee to provide a high percentage of natural caffeine. This is definitely on the rise as well.”