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Good Food Institute Insights, Part I: The Past and Future of Plant-Based Alternatives

In part one of this three-part series with Zak Weston of the Good Food Institute, we explore a big-picture view of plant-based alternatives.

Posted on April 22, 2021

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Poring over recent headlines, it’s clear that those pushing against the animal product-consuming status quo are making strides that feel downright sci-fi in their scope.

In 2020, Time proclaimed Perfect Day Milk Protein, which uses fungi instead of cows to create dairy proteins, one of its “Best Inventions of 2020.” Last February, the Bill Gates-backed Nature’s Fynd launched its first products in a quest to shake up the food system, tapping a “one-of-a-kind nutritional fungi protein, Fy, derived from a naturally occurring microbe” found in Yellowstone National Park, using a fermentation technology that enables far more sustainable protein production.

Meanwhile, to satisfy even hardcore omnivores, other advancements are designed to make alternative meats emulate their animal counterparts more closely than ever. Slovenia-based Juicy Marbles recently unveiled a plant-based filet mignon that boasts an “intramuscular fat structure” to replicate the marbling of high-grade meat cuts. In March, Forbes reported that a startup called Nourish Ingredients attracted millions in investor money, thanks to its focus on “a proprietary fermentation process to develop vegan fats for plant-based foods.” And the list goes on.

Welcome to the future. When it comes to enacting revolutionary new approaches to the way we eat, serious strides are being made under the umbrella of plant-based. What does all of it mean, though—and where may it end up in the years or decades to come?

To obtain a better understanding of the many innovations, progress and possibilities in this space, we reached out to the incredible minds at the Good Food Institute (GFI), headquartered in Washington, D.C. This organization’s goal is to “modernize meat production”—including replacing traditional animal-based meats and dairy with alternatives like plant-based proteins. Zak Weston, foodservice and supply chain manager for the GFI, answered some of our most pressing questions in this informative Q&A session.

Meet the Good Food Institute

Please tell us about GFI and its mission.

The organization was started in early 2016, so we recently celebrated our five-year birthday, and we have just over 100 team members globally and across different global geographies. Our focus is international in scope, but we’re really targeted at supporting alternative proteins within the food industry.

We aggregate and conduct a lot of consumer research, but consumers are not our primary audience. We’re working with investors, policy makers, scientists, researchers, manufacturers, restaurants and retailers—all with the goal of increasing research funding in this category; increasing investment in alternative proteins; finding ways to support startups and companies that are operating in this space; working with all of the different suppliers, solutions and product input ingredient suppliers who are active in this space; supporting a fair and level regulatory playing field; and supporting governmental funding and research in this category. We try to embrace the entire value chain, with the goal of accelerating the growth of plant-based, fermentation-derived and cultivated meat and dairy products.

You must have already witnessed a lot of change in this space, in just the last five years.

Indeed, it has been quite a shift. My particular role was very focused on foodservice and restaurant chains. We were—and still do, to a large extent—consulting with a lot of global brands and some large national brands on their plant-based strategy: how to menu plant-based items, and making the business case (based on consumer and market research) as to why it makes sense to have plant-based on the menu.

And, starting about two years ago, that conversation really started to shift from being primarily about “Is this going to happen?” to more about “How do we get in on this opportunity?” There was really no longer any question of whether this was going to be a big, significant, long-term trend. It was actually a paradigm shift, and not just a passing fad.

So I personally started focusing a lot more on the upstream supply chain, and as an organization I think our focus is still shifting somewhat. We’re still supporting and providing resources to groups like restaurants and retailers/grocery stores, but we’re really focusing more upstream, in areas where there are still significant bottlenecks—areas where we think we can create better ingredients or better types of equipment, or scale the supply chain to get prices lower, or improve things like taste, texture, variety and versatility—all of the different attributes that consumers tend to look for in food products.

We do that in a variety of ways: We fund research that’s open-access, done by universities or different companies and shared with the ecosystem to help advance the underlying science. We do a lot of individual targeted engagement with startups and companies in this space, whether they’re a supplier of a key ingredient or a manufacturer producing some kind of alternative protein end product for consumers. And then we also do a lot of policy work, to try to help create a regulatory framework for novel proteins and encourage global governments to support the alternative protein industry.

The Plant-Based Trajectory

How has the plant-based movement unfolded and led to consumers and foodservice now embracing alternative proteins?

I think a lot of the shift has been driven by seeing the success of different types of meat alternatives. We can think about the market unfolding in several different waves. The first wave started about 15 to 20 years ago, with the rise of plant-based dairy—things like almond and soy milk. They had always been a niche product, but once it was put into tabletop cartons and marketed and merchandised right next to animal-based dairy—in the dairy case of retailers—sales really exploded, and that category now makes up about 14% of the fluid milk market share in the United States, according to the latest data we pulled.

That’s a really healthy growth rate over the past couple of decades, for something that is a direct alternative to animal-based—and through something as simple as just changing how it was merchandised. That’s extended into many other types of dairy products, like butter, yogurt and cheese. That was the first breakout category, and it gives us a template, in many ways, for how we think about other alternative products.

Starting about five or six years ago, plant-based meat started to take off, and I think a lot of that had to do with pioneering new firms that entered the market. Companies like Beyond or Impossible Foods really were formulating products, for the first time, for the omnivore and flexitarian consumer, going after the mainstream meat eaters, as opposed to just targeting products to niche audiences like vegans or vegetarians.

The flexitarian and omnivore market is just a much, much larger market, and it’s driven by different values and motivators. Primarily, it’s about taste and texture, it’s about providing a decadent and delicious experience, it’s about affordability, and it’s about products that are useful and versatile and can be used across a variety of applications so that they can be cost-effective for restaurants and foodservice operators.

So that shift in focus—starting to merchandise meats in the same spots in the grocery store, as well as putting it on the menu alongside animal-based meat, allowing consumers to try it, and, if they were delighted by it, to keep buying it—really helped the category explode. We’ve seen sales grow quite significantly.

It’s still, obviously, a very small category—plant-based meat has just over $1 billion annual sales in the United States, but it’s growing really quickly. And, based on the history of plant-based milk, there seems to be ample precedent for this being a fairly significant category and something that can garner a pretty significant share of the total meat market over the next couple of decades.

What about other proteins, like seafood alternatives?

We have a team that focuses on seafood, and an initiative called the Sustainable Seafood Initiative within GFI, which is unique in that it’s the only group we have that focuses exclusively on one particular product category. Seafood is definitely a fairly tiny part of the overall plant-based meat category at the moment. It’s growing fast, like the other categories are, but it doesn’t get as much of the attention.

And there are some reasons for that: On the demand side, it’s a bit trickier—for a lot of the most successful plant-based meats, people think about health advantages. A lot of consumers have been switching away from red meats for decades in favor of “white meats” like chicken or seafood, which have a much stronger health perception, fairly or unfairly. That trend was already happening, so finding a more sustainable, healthier alternative to beef or pork in the form of plant-based really seemed to correspond nicely with consumer interest. That’s part of it—there isn’t as much consumer demand for plant-based seafood from a sustainability or health perspective. There’s some, but it’s not as salient as with plant-based meat.

Then, on the supply side, it’s a different type of challenge when you’re given the equipment we’re currently able to use, which we’re mostly repurposing from other industries to produce plant-based meat. It’s much easier to replicate ground products or minced products, to structure things like burgers or sausage, which are more of a homogeneous texture and structure, versus a more complex cut of meat or type of meat, such as fish filet or a thick steak.

Over time, we expect the technology will advance to make that possible, but for the moment, producing a flaky-fish texture is something that’s challenging, and I think that’s also contributed to limiting the amount of plant-based seafood sales we see out there.

Stay tuned! In the second part of this three-part Q&A series, Weston will tackle trends and technology in the plant-based animal-alternatives space.

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