Plant Protein's Sustainability Benefits for the Planet and Your Business

May 17, 2016
According to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, the current global population of 7.3 billion is on track to reach 9.7 billion by 2050. With that many more mouths to feed, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) calculates that food production will have to grow by 70% just to keep up.

But what foods to produce? Assuming we want all those new humans to grow up strong, smart, and productive members of society, we’ll need to supply them with sufficient high-quality protein to stave off the physical, cognitive, and metabolic damage that protein malnutrition wreaks.

So does that make flank steak a human right? Not if we know what’s good for us or our planet, says Alan Rillorta, director of branded ingredient sales, AIDP Inc. (City of Industry, CA). “Production of every kilogram of meat protein takes an input of 7 kilograms of plant protein,” he explains. “Not a very efficient conversion, right?” If the UN’s population projections bear out, “Imagine what the resulting food production would do to our world if we continued with the same habits as we have now?” he asks. “It’s simply not sustainable for our future.”

That future may be a way off, but its portent puts the present vogue for plant-based proteins in a new perspective. The celebrity diets, lifestyle features, and breathless marketing that surround the phenomenon may carry the whiff of a fleeting fad, but for those taking the longer view—like Rillorta—plant protein is serious stuff. Don’t call it a “passing trend,” he insists, because “a passing trend is something that implies freedom of choice.” With more people exerting more pressure on the earth’s limited resources, “I don’t think we’re left with much choice but to continue seeking more sustainable and environmentally friendly solutions,” he says. In other words, we’re left with plant protein.


Protein Prominence

That’s not a bad thing to be left with in today’s nutrition environment. Fully 78% of consumers consider protein in general to be an important part of a healthy diet, and more than half of adults claim to want more of it, according to “Protein Perceptions and Needs,” a 2014 report from The NPD Group (Chicago). And whether those consumers are on the “Paleo” plan or just looking for an excuse to call burgers health food, Rillorta traces their preoccupation back to the usual suspect: the Internet.

“We’re in an information age where information spreads quickly,” he says. “Within a short amount of time, the idea of needing more dietary protein has really taken off.” The upshot: the entry into the market of entirely new segments of consumers “who never really consumed supplemental proteins before,” he says.

Rikka Cornelia, product manager, BI Nutraceuticals (Long Beach, CA), agrees. Just look at demand for protein powder. “Once only popular amongst bodybuilders,” she says, “it’s now gone mainstream with a broad range of consumers, from those aiming to maintain a healthy lifestyle to vegetarians seeking protein supplementation.”


Bumper Crop

Not long ago those vegetarians were limited mainly to soy-based options. But the variety of plant-sourced proteins available to them and others has shot through the roof. The boom reflects a more general shift in American diets to plant-based eating, notes Yoko Difrancia, public relations and marketing manager, House Foods (Garden Grove, CA), who cites a recent survey that her company conducted with Wakefield Research finding that 55%—“more than half”—of Americans plan to eat more plant-based foods in 2016 than in the prior year.

Fifty-five percent of Americans cannot all be vegetarians, so even meat eaters must be finding something to love about the plant kingdom. And indeed, “In the last few years, flexitarians have become a new market” for plant proteins, making up an estimated quarter—and growing—of the total, notes Udi Alroy, vice president, marketing and business development, Hinoman Ltd. (Tel Aviv, Israel).

What drives them all to plant proteins is a collection of qualities encompassing plant proteins’ perceived labeling cleanliness and “natural” bona fides, compatibility with allergen-free diets, and “pleasing organoleptic properties” compared to earlier protein generations, says Danielle Black, product manager, Glanbia Nutritionals (Fitchburg, WI). And don’t discount the novelty factor, either. Adds Alroy, “Vegetarian-source proteins are viewed as innovative and have a lot of appeal among ‘early adopters,’ who are becoming key opinion leaders.”

Beyond that, Cornelia believes that plant proteins are unique in providing two paired properties that mindful consumers increasingly seek: nutrition from a cruelty-free source. “Nutrition speaks to the population’s concerns about health, and cruelty-free speaks to their concerns about ethics,” she says. “And these concerns aren’t passing fancies. As consumers learn more about foods and their supply chains, the stronger their stances on these issues become.”