As plant-protein demand grows, plant-protein ingredients are overcoming growing pains, including challenges of scaling up, as well as formulating hurdles.
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One of the most valuable skills to have in the health-and-wellness biz is knowing how to separate the novelties from the “new normal”-the passing fads from the real-live future. So as we approach a future wherein the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations predicts1 we’ll need 70% more food to feed every human on the planet within 30 years, it’s a safe bet that whatever that real-live future has in store, it’ll have a place for plant proteins.
And yet we needn’t gaze that far into the out years to appreciate plant proteins’ impact. These phenomenally popular ingredients are already so ever-present that they no longer qualify as just au courant; they’re a bona fide movement.
But while the public may be ready for plant proteins, are plant proteins ready for the public? And are supply lines sufficiently stocked with options fit for commercial formulation? After all, any novel ingredient goes through “growing pains” as it transitions from trendy to trusted-and some plant proteins have experienced pretty rocky adjustments already.
Regardless, says Samantha Ford, business development director, AIDP (City of Industry, CA), “Whether manufacturers are ready or not, the demand for plant proteins is there and rising. If anything, that market push will drive manufacturers to innovate and ramp up their development work to keep up with consumers’ needs.” And with their wants-for consumers want more protein in their lives, and they want it to come from plants.
Voting with Their Dollars
The Good Food Institute (GFI; Washington, DC) and the Plant-Based Foods Association (PBFA; San Francisco) worked with market research firm Nielsen (New York City) to define the total retail audience for plant-based foods within Nielsen’s Expanded All Outlets Combined Channel, which scans outlets including grocery, drug, mass merchandise, club, dollar, and military stores, as well as Whole Foods Market.
They found that total U.S. retail sales of plant-based meals as well as meat, dairy, and egg substitutes topped $3.1 billion last year alone, with 8.1% growth for the sector year over year-even as sales of all food in the same channel declined 0.2%. Notes Zak Weston, corporate engagement specialist at GFI, “Many of the larger plant-based companies-Boca, Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods-report double-digit growth in sales since last year.”
Similarly, when Innova Market Insights (Arnhem, Netherlands) reported2 on plant protein trends last year, it found not only that consumers are leaning toward diets with less meat and more plants-fully 44.1% of U.S. shoppers surveyed told Innova that they increased their meat substitute/alternative consumption over the prior year-but that industry is listening. To wit, the indexed number of global new food and beverage launches bearing plant-based claims saw a CAGR of 67.6% from 2013 through 2017.
To Your Health
It’s easy to see why the plant-based category is enjoying such growth. “Plant-sourced proteins appeal to so many consumer desires,” says Pam Stauffer, global marketing programs manager, Cargill (Minneapolis). “You name it: non-GMO, organic, sustainable, vegan, non-big-8 allergen, label friendly. Consumers understand what an ingredient like pea protein is, and they feel very confident feeding products like that to their families.”
Concerns about animal welfare, antibiotics in meat, and the general sense that plant-centered agriculture is gentler on the earth than raising livestock also play to plant proteins’ benefit. But “above all,” says Shaheen Majeed, president worldwide, Sabinsa Corp. (East Windsor, NJ), “health benefits established through research are making people turn to plant sources for their protein requirements.”
He cites new Mintel research3 showing that 76% of Americans believe proteins from plant sources are healthy, with around 28% turning to protein alternatives for weight-management benefits. In addition to that Majeed adds, “People are consuming plant-based proteins for satiety and to build muscle mass and strength.”
According to a HealthFocus International survey4, plant-based foods’ health halo factors especially strongly into younger consumers’ interest in the category. But Millennials, the survey found, were actually “more apt to cite environmental, sustainability, and social issues among their key drivers,” notes Matthew Jacobs, global product line leader for plant proteins at Cargill.
Whatever their reasoning, Millennials are a “driving force” in the growing popularity of plant-based foods, says Alison Rabschnuk, GFI’s director of corporate engagement. Mintel5 found 30% of Millennials eat meat alternatives every day, with 50% choosing such options a few times per week-underscoring a “flexitarian” streak that’s yet another “growth center” for the category, Rabschnuk adds.
Revolution in the Dairy Case
“Given that Millennials account for 25% of the U.S. population and are estimated to spend over $1 trillion annually,” Rabschnuk continues, “their tastes are already redefining the marketplace and giving the food industry a glimpse of the mainstream foods of tomorrow”-plant proteins included.
Witness the revolution in the dairy case. Plant-based milks were a “miniscule” fraction of the total domestic dairy market until Dean Foods bought WhiteWave and moved its plant-based items to grocery dairy cases, GFI’s Weston says. “Sales exploded, and now plant-based dairy is 10% of the U.S. dairy market and growing as fast as the overall dairy category is shrinking.” And if more mature protein sources like soy, almond, and coconut still dominate milk alternatives, they’re making room for the pea protein, macadamia, pistachio, and even spent barely milks-thank you, beer industry-fast gaining share.
All this has the smart money sizing up potential investment targets. “[Data firm] Crunchbase6 reported that $250 million in publicly disclosed investments in the ‘alternative protein’ startup space has been made in the last two years,” Rabschnuk says-which doesn’t even account for privately made investments. “Some companies are taking stakes in plant-based innovators-Tyson and Cargill both invested in Beyond Meat-while others are buying plant-based companies outright,” including not only Dean Foods’ investment in WhiteWave, but NestlÃ©’s purchase of Sweet Earth, Maple Leaf Foods’ purchase of both Lightlife Foods and the Field Roast Grain Meat Co., and Pinnacle Foods’ purchase of Gardein.
“It’s obvious that plant proteins have outgrown their initial niche status and become mainstream,” observes Alison Raban, certified food scientist, BI Nutraceuticals (Dominguez Hills, CA). And she’s noticed the shift not only in the types of products appearing on shelves, but in “the trends in ingredient requests we receive from a variety of manufacturers, big to small and mainstream to specialty.”
Among plant protein ingredients, soy “is still the highest ranked in terms of market size due to its use in many mainstream food items,” according to Mintel data7, says Danielle Black, senior product manager, proteins, Glanbia Nutritionals (Fitchburg, WI). But in the nutritional foods category, pea protein wins. Taken together, the two sources’ “high protein content and low-cost nature” makes them popular choices with manufacturers, Black says.
But they’re not alone. “While soy remains most prevalent as a base, along with wheat and pea or bean proteins, growing demand will summon new sources from nuts, seeds, and novel legumes,” Weston wagers. Rice- and potato-based ingredients got the endorsement of a respective 81% and 80%, respectively, of consumers whom Mintel7 surveyed when asked which plant-based proteins they favor and given the option to choose all that apply. Black adds that this feedback is perhaps “because of the familiarity of side dishes and snacks with those ingredients.”
Even aquafaba, the water left after cooking faba beans, chickpeas, and other legumes, is drawing attention as a plant protein source, says Liz Specht, PhD, senior scientist at GFI. Thus, she concludes, “Picking any one plant protein to highlight is tricky because there’s so much potential in every category.”
But harvesting that potential won’t be easy. “Some plant proteins may be popular in name with consumers,” notes Black, but unless the source is nutritious, high in protein, sustainably low cost, and yields an ingredient with formulation functionality, “it will be hard to scale up production in food for a mainstream audience.” And as it happens, she adds, “The functional properties of plant proteins are still in a development stage.”
Indeed, taste, texture, and mouthfeel are oft-noted drawbacks, with the flavor profiles of some plant sources described variously as beany, bitter, “green,” or reminiscent of cardboard-stark contrasts to the relatively creamy flavor of dairy proteins like whey. Even mild-tasting, highly concentrated powders “can add some off flavors or mute other better-tasting ingredients,” Raban adds. “And whole-food sources of protein that carry a strong fiber quotient can compromise product texture” with their grittiness or graininess.
Specht surmises that the sensory gap separating traditional dairy from plant-based proteins might be an artifact of years of breeding designed to maximize the latter’s usefulness as animal feed or ingredients for “highly processed foods.” So as preferences tilt toward “natural, plant-based, organic, specialty, and healthy foods,” she says, “plant proteins will need to be optimized for a new consumer palate.”
And because consumer tastes are largely grounded in what they find familiar, plant-based alternatives to animal products will have to “find ways to replicate all the sensations of the foods they’re replacing,” Specht continues. “Many animal ingredients have multiple uses in food production, with one providing desirable flavor, texture, or ease of formulation, for example. It can be a challenge to find one-to-one plant-based replacements for such animal ingredients.”
Supply lines pose uncertainties, as well. Brands looking to formulate with novel plant protein “face the common innovation dilemma of sourcing uncommon ingredients in smaller quantities, which makes per-unit costs higher,” Specht says. “As the plant-based market continues to grow, economies of scale will make novel plant ingredient prices drop.”
At least that’s the hope. But even here, hurdles remain. “This is sometimes a chicken-and-egg issue,” observes Jon Getzinger, CMO, Puris (Minneapolis, MN). “It’s difficult to spend large sums of money to commercialize a new plant protein source when it isn’t accepted yet by consumers or food manufacturers.” So when a source goes viral and formulators flock to it-think pea protein a few years back-demand invariably outstrips supply until producers increase capacity-“provided,” Getzinger says, “it makes economic sense.”
Work in Progress
Those are a lot of stars to tease into alignment. But the fact that plant proteins continue to thrive indicates that they’re falling into place-albeit sometimes slowly.
As Paige Ties, senior technical service specialist for research and development at Cargill, says, “There’s a development curve throughout the supply chain that new plant proteins will experience. But as processors gain a greater understanding of the variables impacting the functional, nutritional, and sensory attributes of their protein, that learning moves upstream.” The upshot: “From a formulation perspective, our ability to incorporate plant proteins into a variety of applications has grown by leaps and bounds.”
For example, a persistent challenge when formulating with plant proteins has been their fondness for water, which hydrates the protein and increases the density of, say, the puffed cereal, snacks, and baked goods where they appear. Ties says that her team has done “extensive testing” with a range of protein types and blends to standardize rheology “so that formulators don’t have to change the amount of water in their formulas dramatically.”
Diversifying plant protein formats-from concentrate powders and fractionated isolates to “whole-food” protein ingredients-has also expanded plant proteins’ applicability-and given formulators options. “For some,” Raban says, “the high concentration of powders makes formulation easier since less product is needed. But for others, the whole form has benefits besides protein.” For example, her company’s chia protein isn’t as high in protein as its pumpkinseed protein concentrate, she says, “but it can add fiber and omega-3 fatty acids. So formulators working on a granola bar might look to a whole ingredient like chia, whereas a protein shake developer might want a mild-tasting concentrated protein form, like our faba bean concentrate.”
Perhaps even more exciting, protein scientists in labs across the country are using tools like hydrolysis to increase plant-protein solubility-a boon to beverage formulation-and enzymes like transglutaminase to “stich plant proteins together to increase their crosslinking capability,” Specht says, which is critical to plant proteins’ ability to replicate meaty textures.
“Other forms of milling and processing can selectively remove bitter components or anti-nutrients that can impede vitamin absorption and impact both taste and nutrition,” she continues. “There are also tremendous opportunities to leverage advances in sophisticated high-throughput breeding informed by genomics to develop strains for specific applications in plant-based meat, dairy, and eggs.”
And while centuries of breeding have given commodity crops like corn, soy, and wheat a head start vis-Ã -vis high yields, robustness, and streamlined harvest, “these gains can now be realized in previously underexploited crops like peas, lentils, and beans in much shorter time frames and with much lower overall R&D cost because of these technological advances in trait mapping and breeding methodology,” Specht says.
She foresees a day when plant proteins can be tailored to form, say, strong meat-like fibers when extruded, or bind fat and water for a juicier texture. “These approaches can also overcome some sensory issues,” she goes on. “The abundance of bitter and beany components can often be reduced through breeding. More advanced techniques like genome editing may enable breeders to eliminate some of these undesirable compounds altogether.”
Outstanding in Their Field
These possibilities aren’t just science fiction, either; they’re protein processing fact. And the rapid development of the pea protein space is proof. As Ties explains, “It all starts with better plant proteins.”
Cargill recently signed a joint venture with Puris to actualize those improvements in pea protein ingredients. “While most pea proteins bring a host of flavor issues,” Ties explains, “Puris pea protein is decidedly different.” Sourced from non-GMO yellow pea seed varieties specially selected to minimize pulses’ typical off flavors, it’s processed without chemicals “to bring out the best flavor possible,” she claims. “We’ve completed qualitative descriptive analysis testing and our customers have done their own comparison testing-and consistently, our pea protein comes out on top.”
Adds Getzinger, “In just a few years, we’ve shown that pea protein can work well in a variety of applications, helping to deliver solid, plant-based nutrition that tastes great, all with the transparency back to the farm that many consumers are calling for.”
Glanbia has pushed the ball down the field, as well, by developing plant proteins with increased stability and solubility for beverage applications. “We’ve also developed plant protein solutions for bars and bakery systems that increase shelf life and improve texture,” Black adds. The company has even patented a technology that improves dispersibility and flow rate for plant-protein powders. “We are also improving mouthfeel and stability of plant proteins for use in applications such as plant-based yogurts and aseptic beverages.”
But not all new protein technologies are so high-tech. Sabinsa’s newly launched Promond is an all-natural vegan protein sourced from almonds (Prunus amygdalus) standardized to contain not less than 50% protein. Along with a mild taste, the ingredient contributes a complete array of amino acids, including high levels of branched-chain amino acids, says Majeed. Even better, he adds, it’s both lactose and gluten free, “hence no bloating!”
So as plant protein production keeps escalating to meet demand-and, over time, way in the future, possibly approaches the scale of animal-protein production-does the former run the risk of losing the sustainable “green sheen” that’s helped endear it to so many consumers in the first place?
Probably not. “It takes 9 calories of feed to get one back in chicken meat,” Weston points out, “and chicken is one of the most ‘efficient’ meats to produce!” Hogs, cattle, and lamb take an even higher feed toll per pound of production. “Plant-based meats can be produced much more efficiently from an ecological perspective,” he says, “making them a more sustainable alternative.”
And consider the pea, Getzinger proposes. It returns nitrogen to the soil where it grows, “displacing some or all of the fertilizer that a farmer would need to apply to fields.” Peas also require moderate amounts of water, can act as a cover crop, and minimize use of herbicides otherwise needed to stanch weed growth.
So they, and other plant sources, deserve a place at the table. “By now,” Getzinger concludes, “most of us realize that there’s simply no way that enough animal-based protein can be sustainably produced to supply the needs of the world’s ever-growing population. The numbers simply don’t work. Plant proteins have to be part of the solution.”