Plant protein’s future: 2022 Ingredient trends for food, drinks, dietary supplements, and natural products

Nutritional Outlook, Volume 25, Issue 1

Functional foods and beverages, particularly meat and dairy alternatives, are major drivers of innovation for plant proteins, and present a major opportunity for new product development.

Plant-based protein is a category in which innovation has been persistent, continually improving to satisfy the growing and demanding base of consumers seeking alternative protein sources. Functional foods and beverages can be a major driver of innovation for protein in general, but while animal-based proteins such as whey and casein have settled into the category, plant-based food and beverage protein products continue to see new development.

For example, explains Scott Dicker, senior market insights analyst for market researcher SPINS (Chicago), “When we’re talking about functional beverages, usually whey or casein or other milk proteins are and continue to be the market share leader. But oftentimes, the largest growth items are the plant-based proteins.” For example, he says, in the U.S. natural supplement ingredients channel, plant-based multi-protein ingredient sales are growing at 5%. And in the U.S. conventional multioutlet supplement ingredients channel (MULO) plus the convenience channel, he says, plant-based multi-protein ingredient sales are growing at almost 20%.

While plant proteins may not reach the level of sales of their animal-based counterparts in MULO, plant-based proteins have become ubiquitous enough that they are being combined with animal proteins. In fact, animal-and-plant-combo protein ingredients were the highest-selling mainstream functional ingredient last year in the U.S., with sales growing 10% to nearly $2 billion during the 52 weeks ending October 31, 2021, per SPINS MULO tracking.

Where was growth highest for animal-and-plant-combo ingredients last year? In the mainstream supplement ingredients market, sales of these ingredients grew 35% to $37 million in energy-support products, and grew 8% to $20 million in performance products.

Even without animal proteins added in, plant proteins are doing fine. Plant-based protein products often feature multiple plant protein sources, and in the U.S. mainstream market for performance supplement ingredients last year, for instance, sales of multi-plant-protein ingredients grew 11% to $11 million. Multi-plant-protein ingredients remain a top-selling ingredient the U.S. natural channel, too, where, within the natural channel’s top 25 bestselling ingredients last year, multi-plant-protein ingredients came in at #3, grossing $66 million during the 52 weeks ending October 31, 2021.

Plant proteins’ presence is growing in many types of products. According to SPINS sales tracking of plant protein ingredients during the 52 weeks ending December 26, 2021, plant protein in food and beverages grew by 14%, while plant protein in supplements grew 6%.

Clearly, plant-based proteins are becoming more accessible. “Plant proteins, including pea protein, have transcended past protein shakes and are now also found in meal occasions from morning to night,” says Tyler Lorenzen, CEO of Puris (Minneapolis), a supplier of pea protein ingredients. “This allows food eaters the opportunity to try plant-based proteins in a more approachable fashion such as a yogurt, beverages, snacking, and, of course, plant-based meat.”

Pair this innovation and technological advancement with growing fascination with living more sustainably, and you have an environment ripe for plant proteins, says Lorenzen. “With an incredible increase in ESG (environment, social, governance) mandates in the capital markets, net-zero claims by major CPG and big tech, and the curiosity around sustainability for consumers, plant-based ingredients, including proteins, that are built by sources that give more than they take will continue to shift the buying choices away from unsustainable solutions that currently dominate the volume of the market,” he explains.

For some time now, the plant-protein consumer has grown more diverse in that they are not all vegan or vegetarian, and they are motivated by a variety of factors. “Our consumers seek balance and often identify as ‘flexitarians,’” says Adam Grogan, chief operating officer of Greenleaf Foods, the parent company of Lightlife Foods and Field Roast plant-based product brands. “Our consumer research shows people’s top three reasons for choosing plant-based protein are health, sustainability, and variety.”

“The buying behavior for plant-based protein purchases is incredibly nuanced depending on the market segment and adoption curve of the buyer,” adds Lorenzen. “In some cases, the product serves a consumer that is looking for complete replacement for animal proteins (vegan or plant-based eaters). In other cases, what we continue to see driving trial is the flexitarian that is trying to incorporate more plant-based foods into their diet. Flexitarians that eat both animal proteins and plant are looking for great taste, accessibility, and functionality that they are used to. This is where a lot of innovation is occurring to allow both in-home and out-of-home food making and food purchasing to be on par with animal proteins.”

The adoption of plant-based products by a larger swath of consumers also creates different expectations. For example, a vegan or vegetarian may be happy with the flavor of a black bean burger, but a flexitarian may be more inclined to buy a product that more accurately mimics the food they are familiar with. While the seasoned vegan may have no interest in “upgrading” to these newer products, a flexitarian sees these new products as a way to dip their toes in the plant-based pool. Essentially, everyday consumers are much less willing to make the compromises which were inherent in adopting plant-based protein products years before.

New Product Development

Plant-based protein products are no longer competing just against each other but also against traditional proteins. That means manufacturers making plant-based food and beverage products such as meat alternatives need to meet consumers where they are.

“We believe that food is emotional, cultural, and familiar. In many societies, animal proteins are the staple items for many dishes and many people’s food experience,” says Lorenzen. “By creating plant-based options that food eaters are familiar with, we believe the adoption curve will be faster. This is a critical focus for the plant-based industry.”

Plant-based burgers are the biggest driver of trial in the plant-based category, says Grogan. Quick-service restaurants played a large role in this by adopting them as menu items. These menu items serve as a proof of concept that then encourages subsequent sales in grocery.

Other meat products have been more difficult to replicate but have seen some breakthroughs recently. Nutritional Outlook recently recognized Good Catch, a plant-based-fish manufacturer, as its Best of the Industry award winner because of the company’s aggressive expansion into food service, partnering with brands such as Long John Silver’s, raising awareness about not only their products but about the potential of plant-based meat alternatives.

“One of the biggest innovations in plant protein we’ve seen in recent months is around plant-based chicken: traditional chicken represents 42% of animal-based meats, but plant-based chicken trails behind significantly at only 25% of total plant-based protein,” says Grogan. “There are different challenges to overcome when creating plant-based chicken to more closely mimic the color and texture of chicken. Traditional chicken also has a very subtle flavor, which we want to ensure is the case with any plant-based offerings as well. The other thing to consider when we think about plant-based chicken nuggets or filets is the breading system, which is a challenge we don’t face with other plant-based offerings. There’s a need for different binders for different protein sources, and it’s important to keep in mind that we aren’t using eggs.”

Lightlife, for example, has delivered its first breaded plant-based chicken filet and plant-based chicken tender that is instead designed to be sold in the fresh meat case. Lightlife’s unbreaded plant-based chicken product is currently available exclusively in the Whole Foods Market prepared-foods department. “Both offer a taste, color, and pull-apart texture that mimics traditional whole-muscle, white-meat chicken,” says Grogan.

Currently, there are immense opportunities to create innovative plant-based food products, particularly meat alternatives.

“The plant-based protein category as a whole is both dynamic and evolving. Our process for developing new plant-based products starts with the consumer and thinking through what people are looking for that they cannot currently find on shelves at retail,” says Grogan. “Our R&D team is constantly exploring new protein options to discover new ways to bring high-quality, bold-tasting protein into our foods. Field Roast Plant-Based Pepperoni is an example which, unlike competing products, has characteristic fat marbling and delivers an authentic pepperoni taste, crafted with fresh spices, including whole pieces of fennel, cracked black pepper, garlic, and paprika.”

It’s important to listen to your customers. Puris, for example, launched a line of “Pantry” products sold on Amazon that includes Pea Protein Crisps, Sweet Lupin Flour, and Pea Protein Powder. As a protein supplier, Puris sees these products as a link to the end consumer, who can help inform further innovation.

“Our Puris Pantry products allow us to have direct conversations with food eaters to test and learn how we can improve our ingredients and serve the market,” says Lorenzen. “By sharing our innovations with creators at home, we can find new ways to create products of the future, and these creators can see what is possible with pea-based ingredients. We chose these products specifically to have these conversations and learn faster.”

Pick Your Protein

When it comes to plant-based foods and beverages, protein content matters. In most cases, moving away from meat and animal-based products reflects ethical and environmental concerns surrounding the industry. Plant-based alternatives offer a guilt-free way to not only eat one’s favorite foods but also get similar, if not better, nutrition from these products. According to Innova Market Insights’ “Innova Meat, Dairy, and Alternative Protein Survey 2021,” 46% of consumers said that similar nutrition content is “very” or “extremely” important in meat substitutes.

Formulators have to strike a balance between protein content, flavor, and texture to achieve the best possible product. This means using proteins very strategically as well as combining multiple plant-based proteins to achieve the ideal outcome.

“Just like not all plant-based foods are created equal, not all protein sources are created equal. That’s why our products are crafted using a diverse set of sources—from pea to soy, wheat, fava bean, and more,” says Grogan. “Pea protein, for example, has a neutral flavor and good color, but it’s also more difficult to work with because the protein isn’t as strong. This means we sometimes must rely on other ingredients for binding.”

“Diversifying proteins offers many benefits,” he continues. “It’s given us a wide range of ways to deliver a balance of healthy protein to consumers, and it allows us to do it without overtaxing a single resource. In turn, we’re able to contribute toward a more sustainable food system capable of feeding our burgeoning global population.”

Protein ingredient suppliers are also hard at work creating products that meet the needs of specific applications. Puris, for example, recently launched a number of new pea proteins, including Puris Pea Bite+, which is designed with high-moisture extrusion in mind, making it ideal for plant-based meat. It also introduced Puris 2.0, which the firm says is designed for ready-to-drink beverages with smooth and creamy texture, with improved mouthfeel compared to the company’s Puris P870 ingredient.

And there’s more to come. “We continue to see advancements in taste and formats of plant-based proteins, which speaks to the innovation we continue to push,” says Lorenzen.

Flavor and texture are crucial to draw in and maintain customers. While consumers desire nutrition, most don’t necessarily recognize what makes the protein content of one product better than another, nutritionally. According to the “Innova Meat, Dairy and Alternative Protein Survey 2021,” when asked what they thought a complete protein source was, only 18% of respondents knew the correct definition: “adequate proportions of all essential amino acids.” That means if a brand wants to emphasize the quality of its protein content, the protein content needs to be communicated more effectively.

And as animal and plant proteins begin to coexist more, and plant-based proteins begin to achieve greater nutritional parity with animal-based proteins, it’s taste and functionality that will be the real deciding factor for consumers. Will this plant-based burger be as good? Will this breaded plant-based chicken cutlet fry up as well on my skillet?

“Greenleaf Foods believes plant-based protein should exist alongside animal protein to combat the environmental impacts of the meat industry, to feed a growing global population, as well as to appeal to a broader consumer audience. A wider range of alternative meat products is continuing to enter the market to appeal to the rise in consumer demand for plant-based seafood, eggs, and butters,” says Grogan. “As the category continues to grow and more consumers seek to add more plant-based foods to their diets, we predict new technologies and formats will continue to expand as well to focus on enhancing taste, nutrition, as well as mimic animal-based proteins in terms of texture.”