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Plant protein sources-both novel and familiar-are set to win big with consumers this year.
According to recently released Nielsen data representing retail sales across all outlets over the 52 weeks ending August 12, 2017, plant-based meat analogs generated $565 million in revenue at a growth rate of 7.6%, while plant-based cheese products brought in $90 million at 20% growth and plant-based milk $1.5 billion at 3.1% growth.
“Together, this is more than $2 billion in retail outlet annual revenue from products containing plant proteins,” says David Welch, PhD, director of science and technology at the Good Food Institute (GFI; Washington, DC), which worked with Nielsen to develop the data. “With more innovative plant-based foods coming to market,” he says, “this growth is certain to continue.”
Sales figures are strong in the dietary supplements category as well. According to 2017 data from SPINS, plant protein is a top-selling ingredient across all channels. It’s the second-most popular ingredient in the natural channel with $76,142,530 in sales and third in the specialty gourmet channel with $5,294,717 in sales (SPINSscan Natural, SPINSscan Specialty Gourmet, 52 weeks ending November 5, 2017). Energy support and weight loss are key functional areas for plant protein, according to SPINS.
“There’s definitely a huge shift that’s happening,” says Michele Simon, executive director, Plant Based Food Association (San Francisco). “The shift is coming from younger people who are more aware of their food choices and reject the conventional big-food way of doing things.” In response, major manufacturers like Campbell’s Soup and NestlÃ© are acquiring smaller companies that treat promoting plant-based proteins in their food products as their mission. “Clearly,” Simon says, “the conventional players see the writing on the wall and they want to be part of it.”
But as “big food” and all who consume it turn more toward plants, their interest raises questions as to whether sufficient plant-protein options will emerge to meet demand. And at least from a species-diversity standpoint, existing sources for plant protein ingredients are surprisingly limited. “Today’s global food supply depends on 150 plant species,” Welch notes. “Yet the vast majority of commercially available plant-based protein ingredients comes from only 2% of these species.”
In fact, more than 60% of the plant protein flours, concentrates, and isolates that global ingredient suppliers sell are soy-derived, he says. But the upside, he continues, is that “a significant pool of potential plant protein sources is still available for exploration-and this doesn’t even take into account the almost 250,000 additional plant species not used in agriculture today.”
Pulse-based options are perhaps the poster proteins for what’s possible, and pea proteins offer proof. Though they constitute less than 10% of the offerings in the current database of plant proteins, they’ve seen “an explosion in growth” since their appearance in recently launched products from Beyond Meat and Ripple, Welch says. “This growth has generated considerable interest in novel pea strains and other pulse proteins such as those from fava bean, lupin, and garbanzo.”
It’s a Jungle Out There
But pulse proteins are hardly the only up-and-comers. Welch cites a Lux Research report indicating that proteins from fungi and algae, “which are less resource-intensive than terrestrial plants,” will emerge in the next few years.
Simon points to Upton’s Naturals use of the tropical jackfruit in its shredded meat product, and she expresses amazement at the variety of plant-based milks crowding supermarket shelves. “There’s no end to the types of ingredients that can be turned into milk,” she says, including flaxseeds, macadamia nuts, and even the Oceanic pili nut. “There’s just so much creativity. You see the same thing in the yogurt category.”
But, it’s inevitable that quite a few plant-based products across categories won’t make it past the novelty stage. “What I worry about is the disconnect between what we see at the expos and what shows up in the stores,” Simon says. “Obviously, it’s a really competitive marketplace, and so no, they’re not all going to survive.”
After all, enormous acreage is already planted to the commodity soy and wheat that dominate plant-based proteins-with all the economies of scale that implies. Further, centuries of breeding followed by decades of hybridization and engineering have “endowed these plants with remarkable yields and robustness,” Welch adds. Besides, soy and wheat proteins have proven to work in plant-based meat-all of which makes them ideal for further optimization of traits that improve their suitability to such products. “As a result,” Welch says, “proteins from other crops will have to show significant improvements in multiple attributes, including cost, taste, texture, and sustainability before they’re widely adopted as ingredients in plant-based foods.”
How long can this last? Even plant proteins’ vaunted sustainability cred may not be as green as it seems. As Welch notes, “When we think about plant-protein sustainability, it’s important to think about the entire production process, from the starting crop to the end product.” Water needs, soil, climate suitability, and even the processing required to produce a protein ingredient must factor into the equation.
And because isolation and concentration cause “considerable energy losses,” Welch says, “manufacturers are now investigating more efficient milling and processing techniques specifically optimized for plant-based meat and beverage manufacture. As a result, farmers will be able to grow more crops that provide proteins better suited to plant-based meats and beverages while requiring less water and energy.”
Regardless, Simon adds, when you compare plant proteins’ production to the animal-based agriculture it aspires to replace, the former always come out ahead. Ultimately, says Simon, “We want to make the economic case for why we need more agriculture to supply the plant-based foods industry.”
Room to Grow
Welch is optimistic about the future of plant-based proteins. He says, “I’ve been really excited by the methodical approaches of Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods, Hampton Creek, and others to create plant-based mimics of animal products.”
Their R&D labs are fast at work analyzing the animal products they’re trying to mimic, characterizing the components responsible for the taste, texture, aroma, mouthfeel, and other attributes consumers associate with them and identifying plant–based analogs. Says Welch, “I’m looking forward to more plant-based products that provide that type of sensory experience. I think we’ve just scratched the surface with the types of products that can be created with plant proteins.”
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