Good Food Institute Insights, Part II: Trends and Technology in Plant-Based Alternatives

In part two of this three-part series with Zak Weston of the Good Food Institute, we explore the far-out technology advances and trends in the world of meat alternatives.

Posted on April 30, 2021

Nature_s Fynd Foods.jpg

Above: Nature’s Fynd uses fermentation technology and naturally occurring microbes to create more sustainable protein production for a range of potential end products.

In April 2021, the Good Food Institute (GFI) hosted a webinar, in conjunction with the Plant-Based Foods Association and data technology company SPINS, called “The U.S. retail market for plant-based foods: The accelerated, sustainable growth of plant-based foods in 2020.” While the entire presentation was chock-full of insightful info, some key takeaways stood out:

  • Within the plant-based spectrum, the claim of “vegan” has become the dominant product trait called out on food products (+45% growth over one year).
  • Plant-based products are significantly outpacing their traditional animal-based counterparts in terms of year-over-year growth—but, since they still make up a relatively small percentage of total retail sales, plenty of opportunity remains.
  • Vegan cheese experienced 42% growth in 2020—more than double the rate for conventional dairy cheese. As manufacturers continue to experiment with formulations, up-and-coming base ingredients for these products include potatoes, legumes and seeds.
  • Consumers’ key drivers are health, taste and price when choosing plant-based alternatives.

What else is happening—or on the horizon—within the plant-based landscape? While chatting with Zak Weston, foodservice and supply chain manager for GFI, one thing become clear: The sky’s the limit!

Need to catch up? Check out Part I of this Q&A series.

Looking Ahead

What stands out to you in the plant-based arena when it comes to technologies and trends?

There are a few things we’ve seen over the past few years, and one I can also speculate on happening in the future. First, we are, as an industry—and for good reasons—oftentimes relying on established supply chains for key ingredients, just because you don’t have the time to build up an entire supply chain. Breeding crops and growing, farming, raising and processing new types of proteins—that’s a multiyear and sometimes multidecade project to undertake, to diversify protein sources.

So the industry has largely relied on proteins that are cheap, easy to source and widely understood—things like soy and wheat. Those are marvelous proteins, but I’m also excited about all of the other plant species out there—there are tens of thousands of different species, so many different cultivars and breeds we can use, and it’s very likely that there are some really exciting combinations of different plant proteins out there that just haven’t been tried or tested for this particular application before. We’ve seen that in the past couple of years, with the rise of pea protein as a primary protein source for a lot of different plant-based meat products. I expect that diversification will continue.

It certainly takes time, but there’s an immense interest in upcycling protein from things that traditionally go into animal feed. From using sunflower protein, often a leftover waste product from creating sunflower oil, or canola protein from creating canola oil, there are a lot of seed oils to explore for potential protein sources. I think that’s very exciting, not only from a taste and health standpoint, but also to have a bit more biodiverse sourcing of ingredients and inputs to our food system, since it tends to be dominated by a few plants, at the expense of everything else.

Another area we see a lot of innovation in is product variety. There’s still an enormous amount left to go, but we are seeing, looking just in foodservice, things like Mexican chains using products like chorizo and ground sausage. We’re seeing pizza topping launches in chains. A lot of breakfast innovations, like sausage and plant-based eggs, are starting to show up. And we’re seeing launches in Asian concepts.

So while the burger has been the star for a little while, and it gets a lot of the attention, there are plant-based versions of a lot of different products now, and I fully expect we’ll continue to see a lot more diversification: more patty sizes and patty types, more format options for foodservice operators. I certainly expect we’ll see a lot of innovation in chicken, going forward. There have been some exciting products in that category, but it tends to be fairly limited to things like nuggets or tenders. There’s still a lot of growth ahead for those, but there are also a lot of other different types and cuts of chicken. And we’re starting to see more plant-based prepared foods—things like soups or pot pies—in foodservice and in the grocery store.

I fully expect that pricing will keep coming down, variety will keep going up, and product quality will continue to increase as we’re able to optimize everything from protein sourcing to product formulation to the manufacturing equipment we use—optimizing all of it for this end application.

Might we move toward offering a selection of different cuts of plant-based meat, as in a reimagination of the butcher counter or deli section?

The butcher counter or protein section of the future—there’s a way to do this in a small-scale, artisanal way, but also a way to do this in a large-scale industrial way that can compete with industrialized animal production. It’s a big enough opportunity in that it handles both types of producers, so there’s absolutely room for a local or more artisanal approach to butchering, where you’re able to create really interesting formats and cuts, replicating existing animal meat cuts.

I don’t think this is a big area at the moment, but someday there is also the possibility of creating whole new things. Since, fundamentally, producing plant-based meat is an additive process, an assembling process rather than disassembling, we can build products from the ground up to be whatever we want them to be. I think for now, the emphasis at the moment is on analog products that are replicating the taste, sensory experience and price of animal products, because that is familiar to consumers, and familiarity is an incredibly important motivator of consumer food purchase behavior.

I expect the analog trend will continue, and that’s where we see the strongest growth, but when you step back, we’re able to do whatever we want with these foods. So if we can develop better ways to encapsulate the fat and oils used in these products, maybe we can move away from saturated fat and potentially encapsulate heart-healthy fats. Maybe we can do something like a heart-healthy bacon or heart-healthy burger, because you’re able to use a polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fat source, and you don’t have to rely on saturated fats to provide that flavor. That’s maybe more of an intermediary possibility.

But in the long run, who knows? We’re essentially painting here with a whole new palette of colors, and we’re limited right now by how small the industry is. It’s early days for all of the research and development that’s going on. If the growth continues and consumers continue to embrace this category, there’s a lot of possibility for us to create whole new types of meat experiences that have never been possible before, because we’ve always been limited by the biology of animals.

The Fermentation Factor

What about advancements in areas like microbes and fermentation—for example, some of the innovations happening at companies like Perfect Day or Nature’s Fynd?

That’s part of what’s exciting, too—we aren’t limited to just the plant community. We can work within the fungal community as well, and with a bunch of different microorganisms. What’s powerful about that is, they’re not protein collectors, they’re protein producers. So it’s extraordinarily efficient production that offers massive sustainability advantages and something that scales really well—we know that, because fermentation has been used to produce foods for thousands of years. We know a lot of different types of fermentation processes have been scaled across food, beverages and pharmaceuticals.

We’re extremely excited about fermentation as a source of biomass—something like Nature’s Fynd, where they’re cultivating an entire microorganism as a protein source that can be used as both an end product and as an ingredient in end products. We’re really excited about fermentation as a way to process plant proteins more efficiently or effectively, allowing them to have the structure, texture and taste profile we want.

And we’re really excited about some of the more high-tech forms of fermentation, like precision fermentation (recombinant protein production), where we’re essentially programming the plants or microorganism host to synthesize super-high-value molecules. That’s really useful, because we’re able to produce egg proteins, like what Clara Foods is doing, or dairy proteins, like what Perfect Day is doing.

But it will also produce really high-value aromas and colors—for example, Impossible Foods relies very heavily on heme, which is produced microbially through precision fermentation, to provide that rich, iron-y, chalky, bloody taste for a lot of its products, like burgers. Fermentation combines really well with plant-based production, because there are different complementary uses and benefits of the inputs. And then in terms of the outputs, we’re able to get different types of proteins.

And the more we try, the more likely we are to find that perfect combination that creates a flaky white fish or a really juicy salmon. We’re also able to find really high-value, functional additives that are providing texture, binding things together, and providing a better and healthier source of fats that we can use in the final product.

It’s a very exciting time to be on the ground floor of something really large—and it’s all, of course, dependent on consumers continuing to come into the category. But we’ve seen it before with plant-based milk. We’ve seen consumers embrace alternatives before in a variety of other categories, like margarine and butter, or sugar alternatives. And we think that, based on where things are going and the sales results, there doesn’t seem to be any end in sight.

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