With the food sector accounting for a staggering 30% of the world’s total energy consumption according to some estimations, sustainable food production has never been more important or higher on consumers’ agendas.
Market research company Innova predicts that sustainability will be one of the defining consumer trends of 2022, and while it might not be the top purchase driver for all consumers, for many it clinches the deal when it comes to choosing between products.
“’Better-for-us’ is part of today's new ‘better-for-you’ positioning,” said Natalia McDonagh, EMEA Head of Marketing and Technical Sales at Univar Solutions Food Ingredients. “How we produce, transport and consume food plays a significant role in addressing the climate crisis. Worries over health, climate change and the ability of food production systems to keep pace with a population projected to reach 8.5 billion by 2030, bring the need for alternative proteins into focus.”
“Plant-based ‘chicken’, ‘beef’ or dairy can see greenhouse gas reductions by over 86% compared to the conventual equivalates. And we can see the upward trajectory, which is unlikely to slow down any time soon,” McDonagh added.
Non-profit organisation, the Good Food Institute (GFI), which advocates an animal-free supply chain, reports that the global plant-based meat retail market has seen year-on-year double digit growth, with North America and Western Europe enjoying 40% an 17% growth respectably.
Overcoming R&D challenges
Despite this momentum, huge challenges remain. Many consumers continue to shun plant-based meat and dairy alternatives because the taste and texture are not up to par or because the products are seen as being ‘ultra-processed’ and not as nutritious. Products may also be too expensive compared to meat and dairy products or simply not as available.
These are aspects that, with the right technical know-how, can be overcome. According to Alan O’Donnell, EMEA Food Technical Sales Manager at Univar Solutions Food Ingredients who has almost 25 years of experience as a technologist in the food industry, plant-based R&D has two strong aspects of focus.
“The first is taste, texture, flavour and mouthfeel. The majority of briefs we receive centre around mimicking meat, fish and dairy,” said O’Donnell. “The second is to optimize and diversify options, personal choices, which is where our ‘Flex Forward’ concept is so important and exciting to me personally. There is a great scope for innovation to enable the choice on store shelves; choice which is very attuned to minimising food waste by bringing the very best quality, taste, texture of products to market.”
Plenty of plant proteins to pick
When it comes to choosing which plant protein base to use for their products, manufacturers have plenty of options.
Twenty years ago, soy was the go-to ingredient for vegan product development. Since then, however, the percentage of global food and drink launches that contain soybean protein has declined as new sources from nuts, pulses, spirulina, mycoprotein and potato are developed, offering brands new benefits and functionality. Some consumers may also be actively avoiding products containing soy due to its allergenicity and associations with deforestation.
“My personal protein hero has to be pulse proteins,” said O’Donnell. “Whether it's pea, lentil or fava bean, pulse proteins offer a great source of protein, are free from allergens, good for your heart and gut, and they are highly affordable and versatile, meaning they are a great base material to produce textured vegetable proteins.”
“That same versatility also lends them to be used in the dairy free sector, for protein fortification, mouthfeel, as well as also exhibiting emulsification properties.”
Once manufacturers have chosen their preferred plant protein base, they are confronted with the second major obstacle: achieving the same texture as a meat product, be it a juicy beef burger or pulled pork, or a dairy product, such as a creamy yoghurt.
“Methyl cellulose continues to be the industry norm for texture contribution and our products allow for the desired texture of structured products through processing, frying, cooking, freezing and final preparation for serving. The unique functionality will give you a solution for your challenges whether it be in meat analogues or dairy free.”
“There is also a pull from the market for a clean label solution to the challenges of texture, and while the search goes on for a complete methyl cellulose replacer, clean label starches offer solutions for some applications,” O’Donnell said.
What’s in store for dairy alternatives?
Across markets, consumers are increasingly demanding affordable, nutritious dairy-free products that support healthier lifestyles without compromising on taste and texture. They also prefer simple labels. This is leading to a growth in demand for reduced-sugar, low-allergenic, high-protein, low-fat and plant-based products.
“Plant-based milk is currently the largest plant-based food category. In terms of total share among dairy categories, including conventional offerings, plant-based milk now makes up 15% of the milk segment, plant-based butter 7% of the butter segment, and plant-based creamer 6% of the creamer segment. As many as 47% of global consumers say that they consume dairy alternatives at least once a week, as evolving eating habits have positioned non-dairy drinks as everyday options for flavour and health – not just alternatives for dairy avoiders. The growing alternative dairy beverage segment is a world full of opportunity for manufacturers. As we increasingly look to add plant ingredients to our diets, traditional products from yogurts to cheeses are getting a vegan update. Texture and taste are key aspects promoted to consumers as they look for premium offerings.”
“Formulation of dairy alternatives often presents technical challenges, in terms of achieving desired taste, texture, functionality and digestibility. But innovation solutions are emerging to create new plant-based dairy foods, and there are great ingredients now available to deliver the right taste and texture for your next plant-based product launch. Take enzymes, for instance: these can offer an ideal ingredient mix to create the right mouthfeel, body and sweetness profile in your oat milk while reducing your time to launch. Whether a start-up looking to launch a new oat milk or a dairy producer looking to use their current equipment to add an oat milk to existing line of products- we can help deliver the right profile”.
And if O’Donnell had to choose a future ingredient that ticks all the sustainability boxes?
“One ingredient I find particularly exciting is seaweed. [It’s] inherently sustainably, requiring no land, freshwater or fertiliser to grow, which are some of the key issues around the sustainability of terrestrial farming,” he said.
In addition to being environmentally-friendly, seaweed is highly nutritious and contains micronutrients such as iodine, which can often be lacking in vegan diets. This makes it a natural, clean label way to fortify vegan products while also adding depth of flavour thanks to its umami notes.
Seaweed is also a versatile food, with Univar’s development team adding ingredients from its PureSea range to a range of products, including vegetarian fish cakes, vegan paella and vegan fish pie.
“[It’s] very interesting from a technologist’s point of view,” he added.