Plant protein opportunities are great, but significant challenges remain

Experts discuss the ongoing challenges and opportunities facing the plant protein market.

Plant proteins continue their entrée into consumers’ lives, embraced by both niche health food shoppers and mainstream fast-food eaters alike. (As evidence of plant proteins’ mainstream success, one need look no further than the McPlant plant-based burger scheduled to debut on McDonald’s menus next year.) But for all the opportunities plant proteins generate, challenges remain as companies figure out how to overcome product development obstacles.

During a Nutritional Outlook webcast in November, three speakers provided their views on both the opportunities and challenges plant proteins face.

The Consumer Force Is Strong

Interest in plant protein is strong on the consumer front. Webcast speaker Tom Vierhile, vice president of strategic insights, North America, for market researcher Innova Market Insights, noted, “Over the course of the year, Innova Market Insights conducts a number of consumer surveys, and what we’re finding with these consumer surveys is that consumers globally are warming up to the idea of plant-based alternatives to traditional meat and dairy products.”

So strong is that appreciation that it spurred the category’s forward movement in 2020 amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Even as overall new product innovation in the U.S. decreased 14% between January and August compared to the year before, the percentage of products making plant-based claims increased during that period, said Vierhile. It’s a testament to the strength of the plant-based movement. (Innova draws on insights from its Innova Database of new product launches.)

Interest in plant protein began building long before the pandemic. Consumers remain attracted to what they perceive as the health halo around plant proteins, as well as what they see as plant proteins’ clean-label and environment-friendly appeal. To this end, Vierhile used the Happy Planet brand as an example, which touts its pea-protein-containing smoothie as “clean protein.” Plant protein’s health halo endures despite the fact that animal proteins outperform individual plant proteins as complete protein sources and in terms of digestibility and bioavailability, pointed out webcast speaker Kantha Shelke, PhD, CFS, principal at contract food science and research firm Corvus Blue LLC.

Also, the term plant-based is gaining popularity at a faster clip than terms like vegan or vegetarian, partly because plant-based does not seem to infer a strict, prohibitive diet. “One thing that’s definitely helping plant-based prosper is the fact that it is a very inclusive concept,” said Vierhile. “It’s something that falls in line very nicely with the flexitarian concept. Consumers can flirt with this and maybe one, two, three days a week can go plant-based, and the other days of the week they can consume whatever they choose.”

Longstanding vegan and vegetarian brands are also taking a second look at how to modernize their business, pointed out speaker Lori Amos, founder and president of marketing and public relations firm Scout 22, whose clients include many plant-based companies.

“There are some existing vegetarian brands that are reformulating—Morning Star and Quorn are a couple that come to mind,” she said. Some vegetarian brands are even reformulating to remove all animal-based ingredients from their products because they realize that vegetarians are “becoming a more narrow group and that it just behooves them financially, as well as for future growth and expansion, to just make it vegan,” she said. Vegan is interchangeable with plant-based, she said.

But Challenges Remain

While consumers may be enthusiastic about the idea of plant proteins, executing successful plant-protein products is harder than they might imagine. Many of the formulating challenges associated with plant proteins—incomplete protein sources, less digestibility, beany or off notes, even color challenges (since the color of plant proteins can darken in finished products)—are still hurdles to be cleared, said Shelke.

Plant proteins behave differently during manufacturing, she said, noting that “pre- and post-processing sensory profiles [of plant proteins] are not always robust, and plant-based materials tend to be reactive and change continuously.”

Another challenge lies at the source. “Plant-based ingredients are complex and a relatively new entry in the supply chain,” she said. Each plant protein source carries its own set of challenges. “It’s important to note that an immense number of functional challenges in the plant-based ingredient arena…are unique to the source,” she said.

Even among the same source type, consistency can be difficult to achieve. “Because they come from plants, and crops vary annually and even within the field depending on where it’s grown and the conditions…consistency is a very big issue, leading to an issue of reproducibility in the finished product,” Shelke said. Also, she added, supply chains are still developing, and “the sophistication of suppliers is still not quite there.”

Still, companies see the plant-based market as an alluring opportunity even though they might not realize of all of these challenges up front. Said Shelke: “It used to be that companies would develop their food products based on technical information, and that they had followed all the rules and regulations and they launched their product out in the marketplace. But today, products are being designed and launched based on philosophies, and people who have not had a background in food science or food manufacture have jumped in to cater to a philosophy…” Rather, she said, they should be asking themselves questions centered on “the fundamentals of formulating with plant-based.”

For instance, she advised, “If you are reformulating, or if you’re starting from scratch, and making a product that already exists in the marketplace but now with only plant-based and that has no animal base, then it’s important to baseline the ingredients. Understand the composition of the original product and confirm that composition and the functionality of each of the ingredients. Most of all, identify the interactions of these ingredients that are important for the finished-product definition. For example, is it crystalline? Does it melt nicely? Does it melt sharply? Is it shelf stable? How long is it stable? What does it taste like? What is its texture, what should its texture be, and what does it look like? Does it look like the counterpart that you’re now trying to mimic? Also, establish target-audience guardrails. Do you want it to be clean label? Can we have genetically engineered materials? Should it be fresh or frozen? Can it be fresh or frozen just because the other original product was fresh or frozen? What should its shelf life be? What about convenience?”

Shelke walked webcast attendees through key issues. “Form matters. The protein that you have, or the plant material that you have—is it intact or extracted and isolated? And if it’s been extracted and isolated, what is its configuration, because all of these have a tremendous impact on how the human body perceives them and then digests them…”

Quality matters. “You select the plants based on the desired protein functionality, and protein functionality is affected by the source and by processing—whether it’s fractionated or whole, whether it’s done through a wet process or a dry process, the mode of drying, how it was dried, how fast it was dried. And if there were any modifications by chemicals, enzymes, fermentation, etc. All of those cause a difference,” Shelke said. “The extent of purity also depends. So, a dry-milled product, for example, is often not as pure as a wet-milled product. You can get much higher concentration from wet-milled products, but wet-milled products are also very, very expensive and also come with the very large usage of energy and water, so their carbon footprint doesn’t seem that great.”

Safety matters and requires knowledge to execute. For instance, she said, “Spore-free milk is really important, especially if you’re going to be making yogurt or a nut-based yogurt or a nut-based-milk product. But it’s important to note that when you’re trying to sterilize it, which is at 250 degrees Fahrenheit, it’s very difficult because plant proteins tend to denature at 180 degrees and precipitate, coagulate, become lumpy, and become really horrible to deal with.”

Meanwhile, Shelke said, plant-based materials are often inherently gritty or fibrous, so particle size must be controlled in order to achieve an ideal texture—“but without disrupting its intrinsic ability to stay in suspension or to be in an emulsifier,” an endeavor often difficult and expensive.

Finally, taste and mouthfeel considerations are paramount, “because at the end of the day, no matter how terrific your product looks, if it doesn’t taste like and if it doesn’t feel like and if it doesn’t cater to the old consumer behavior, it’s not going to succeed,” she said, noting that the plant-protein extraction process can also impact flavor and create off notes.

“Plant-based ingredients are sensitive to processing conditions—everything: the moisture content, the relative humidity, the pH, the temperature. Everything affects them,” she added.

Vierhile acknowledged that such challenges remain. Based on Innova’s data-gathering, “One area of concern is that relatively few consumers, or a small percentage of consumers, are drawn to plant-based purely because they perceive that these products taste better. So that could be something that could cap overall growth going forward.”

The cost of working with plant proteins is generally also higher due to the fact that different product applications and plant protein sources require developing different solutions.

Said Shelke: “In general, plant-based proteins are higher [in cost] than the basic animal-based proteins that have entered the ingredient space in the marketplace. And the reason for that is the amount of research and development that is being done, the capital investment for new equipment, a lot of trial and error, and also the fact that a plant-based material is not a one-size-fits-all, slam-dunk alternative for an animal-based ingredient. It depends on the type of application, and it depends on the type of process and on what else has been added. So the rest—making or formulating or designing products with plant-based—is starting out slightly more expensive or definitely more expensive…” Over time, she said, these obstacles will lessen as experience and knowledge grows.

For now, higher cost is a barrier that some consumers won’t or can’t overcome. “The cost of plant-based foods, the price point, it really matters in some communities, especially food-desert communities where people are really price sensitive,” Amos pointed out.

Said Vierhile: “From a consumer standpoint, these are the two things that area really holding consumers back from plant-based right now: taste and texture, but also price and value. Almost a third of U.S. consumers say that’s another factor holding them back. Those two factors are really the things that are going to drive future adoption rates, and companies that can overcome those issues are going to be the ones that can win in the marketplace.”

The Future

Industry and food scientists are working to overcome the challenges inherent to plant proteins, and there is no shortage of innovation happening.

One area of development is, of course, the exploration of emerging plant protein sources. While soy and pea protein are established in the market, other sources are capturing interest.

Vierhile pointed to fava bean protein and hemp protein. Of fava bean, he said, “It seems to have some advantages over soy and pea protein in some cases. For one, it has no taste, so it may avoid some of the issues that you might have with pea protein.”

Shelke highlighted chickpea protein and nut protein. And Amos said that mycoprotein is an emerging ingredient to watch.

Opportunities to discover and develop new protein sources remain, Amos said. “The majority of commercially available plant-protein ingredients comes from just 2% of the 150 plant species on which today’s global food supply depends. So there is a lot of opportunity in new products and new exploration into plant-based proteins.”

From her perch in the marketing world, Amos sees a lot of “white space” still out there for plant-protein innovation. She listed some of them: “Hemp meat, mycoprotein, comfort foods, charcuterie and deli meats and cheeses. Seafood is huge and growing. Eggs, candy, baked goods—we’re now seeing croissants and traditional baked goods that you wouldn’t even think could be made vegan are being made vegan, and they’re delicious. And, of course, ethnic foods. There’s a lot of innovation in that.” Not only that, but an intriguing development is “plant-based accessories”—such as an umami oil developed by the milkadamia brand that consumers can spray onto their vegetables to make them taste more meat-like.

Science will play a major role in propelling the category and what can be achieved with plant proteins, Amos added. “The intersection of food and science—this is fascinating,” she said, pointing to exploration areas such as cellular agriculture, cellular aquaculture, lab-grown meat—and even 3D-printed meat.

Education will also help bring in consumers who until now have rejected plant-based options. “There are cultural and societal pressures” about eating plant-based in some cases, Amos said. “Not eating meat [is considered by some] as not manly and not something culturally that you would do or you would consider, so there are certainly some messaging challenges,” she said.

Pros and Cons

The bottom line is that there is still so much learning and development to happen in the plant-based market. Said Shelke: “This is pioneer country, and even the so-called leading and leading-edge innovators are still learning about the fundamentals of commercially viable nutrition, taste, and texture, and a commensurate market realization.”

She concluded: “There’s a lot we can do with plant-based, but how we do it and how we do it as we learn more and more in the science world is really what’s going to take us to the finish line and take us to successful market realization.”

You can watch this webcast, “Plant Protein: What’s Around the Corner?”, on demand for free here.