Plant Protein: Success is driven by ingredient innovation, technology advances, and keen business strategies

Nutritional Outlook, Nutritional Outlook Vol. 24 No. 4, Volume 24, Issue 4

Plant protein suppliers are ramping up to meet the coming demand.

There was a time when beef was king and vegetables were boiled to within an inch of their life. In recent decades, however, meat’s faced some negative associations with health concerns, environmental issues, and climate change. But meat-eaters worldwide aren’t putting down their steak knives anytime soon. According to one organization, people on earth still consume around 350 million tons of meat per year, and global meat consumption is estimated to reach between 460-570 million tons by 2050.1

Why? Probably because meat tastes so darn good.

With only 5% and 3% of the world’s population self-identifying exclusively as vegetarians and vegans, respectively2, the plant protein market, and those who serve it, are burdened with a bunch of challenges.

Still, talk to any leading ingredient supplier tasked with encouraging the addition of plant protein to people’s diets, and what they see instead are opportunities. Those opportunities start with the notion that there’s room in the market for everyone—carnivores, herbivores, and especially omnivores.

Merit Functional Foods (Winnipeg, MB, Canada), a solutions-based food ingredients company, is a relative newcomer to the plant protein market, having stepped onto the playing field in the fourth quarter of 2019.3 Company co-CEO Ryan Bracken focuses on where the real market opportunity for growth lies: with flexitarians.

“‘Plant-based’ used to be synonymous with vegan and vegetarian diets, and that’s no longer the case,” he says. “With the rise of flexitarians—those who try to eat more plant-based foods but still consume meat and other animal-based products in moderation—we’re seeing the floodgates open when it comes to consumers making the switch to plant-based products.”

Jacquelyn Schuh, product marketing director, protein nutrition solutions, ADM (Chicago), agrees that by promoting a flexitarian lifestyle approach, brands can help ease people into more plant protein consumption by “starting small.” She suggests, “This could be offering hybrid foods or beverages that may not be purely plant-based, such as a dairy product that blends traditional dairy with plant proteins, or a black bean burger with dairy-based cheddar cheese on top.”

Yadunandan Dar, director, platform and business development, plant-based protein, U.S./Canada, at Ingredion Inc. (Westchester, IL), points to data indicating that most consumers eating plant-based products are flexitarians or people eating plant-based foods part-time for health or sustainability benefits. “This data is important, as these consumers typically substitute animal protein–based meals with plant protein–based meals, or in some cases add plant-based protein to normal meals to increase protein content,” he says.

And there’s more good news, according to Schuh: “There’s certainly room for new plant proteins in the market, as consumer demand is booming. Our research shows that consumers have a higher affinity and are willing to pay a price premium for alternative products that have more plant proteins and wholesome ingredients on the label. In the consumers’ eyes, the more plant proteins, the better.”

Aurelie Mauray, PhD, market manager for pea and new proteins, Americas, Roquette (Geneva, IL), discusses how innovation is driving further usage. “The plant-based meat market is growing rapidly, showing a proliferation of formats, textures, and flavors on store shelves.”

In February 2020, Roquette expanded its Nutralys plant protein line with a specialty pea protein ingredient that helps reduce salt in plant-based meats. According to a press release, “Beyond new tastes and new textures that allow for delicious culinary experiences, Roquette [with Nutralys L85M] will now offer its customers the ability to create plant-based meats with less salt in order to meet consumers’ demands and expectations when managing their daily sodium intake.”4

Mauray advises the new ingredient is “readily available for the EU market, and we are working on geographic extension for the Americas.”

New Ingredients Are Hot, Hot, Hot

For those customers and consumers looking beyond the well-established plant proteins like pea and soy, there’s room to educate and space to innovate. Schuh says her company’s proprietary research (ADM Outside Voice) found that the type of plant protein in a product is important to 88% of global plant consumers, with 92% of U.S.-based plant consumers feeling the same way.5

“While mainstream plant protein sources like soy continue to grow in popularity, options like wheat and other wholesome ingredients like chickpea, navy beans, and quinoa are expanding in global use,” states Schuh. “This is being driven in part by consumer curiosity in an expanding range of plant protein sources and variety, in addition to reaching individual nutrition goals or motivational pursuit of a ‘healthy living and healthy aging’ lifestyle.”

According to Schuh, ancient grains are also emerging solutions for alternative offerings thanks to the health benefits linked to fiber and whole grains. She shares that 66% of U.S. consumers are likely to pay more for a product with ancient grains.5

Bracken is especially keen on the growth potential of canola protein, given his claim that Merit is the first-to-market in the world with its line of food-grade, non-GMO Puratein canola protein. He realizes there’s educating to be done about this innovative offering, and his company has started that process.

He says, “When you say ‘canola,’ most people—whether they’re in the industry or not—immediately think of canola oil.” But, according to Bracken, the canola oil seed contains substantial amounts of unique proteins that provide exceptional functionality. He cites two main proteins in canola as napin and cruciferin. Napin, he explains, is a highly-water-soluble albumin protein that has excellent whipping and foaming capacity, while cruciferin is a globulin with gelation and emulsification properties.

“As a new offering to the marketplace,” says Bracken, “canola protein is a white space generating a lot of excitement—especially for formulators.” Merit Functional Foods, says Bracken, has begun commissioning and producing its canola product and is excited to start collaborating with brands interested in utilizing canola protein in applications such as dairy alternatives, meat alternatives, baking and batters, and more.

There’s another reason for Bracken’s excitement. “By using canola as a source of protein, we’re creating an entirely new value-added revenue stream for growers in Western Canada, which was previously limited to the extraction and sale of canola oil.”

Ingredion’s Dar believes that innovation and development of new plant-based proteins with desirable flavor and texture characteristics are strong for target applications such as meat alternatives, dairy alternatives, and protein-enriched beverages. “Further developments include protein bases with increased consumer appeal, such as fava beans, lentils, and chickpeas,” he says.

His point about flavor and texture is well-taken, as that’s been one of the plant protein category’s main challenges.

Schuh says the same. “Beyond plant protein type, innovations around color, taste, and texture are ever-expanding and becoming more nuanced.” She adds that “Creating an alternative-protein application is like piecing together a puzzle. It’s important to see the entire picture first to help establish a game plan that will result in delicious, appealing offerings.”

Bracken agrees. “What’s critical is that plant-based products must meet the demands of consumers. No longer can there be a trade-off in taste, nutrition, or texture,” he says.

Dar is realistic when he advises that “although significant advances have been made, some barriers remain in overcoming taste and texture challenges in multiple plant-based applications.” But, he adds, “There is growing adoption of plant-based diets by more and more consumers in many types of food products, in part because of the availability of a variety of plant-based foods with significantly improved taste than was available just a year or two ago.”

ADM has been a leading supplier in this space for decades. Many recent innovations focus on solving texture challenges specific to meat alternatives, such as chicken and seafood, which are growing categories in plant-based, says Paula LaBine, marketing director for baking, milling, and starch, ADM.

Last September, ADM added two new versatile ingredients to its portfolio: a wheat protein and a textured wheat protein, both originally launched in ADM’s Prolite Line and now rebranded under ADM’s PurelyNature line. Says LaBine, “We’re thrilled with how positively our PurelyNature wheat proteins have been received since launching this fall. Our customers appreciate how easy it is to use the new wheat proteins in formulation and processing on top of addressing texture challenges to meet consumers’ expectations for plant-forward applications.” In addition, LaBine states that the products deliver the right balance of taste, texture, and functionality—factors that are important as “our research finds that while more than 70% of consumers rate protein from plant sources as healthy, taste remains the number-one barrier for purchase behavior.”5

Beyond the Ingredients

It’s not just the ingredients that are new. Innova Market Insights shared data during a webcast hosted by Nutritional Outlook last fall that provided some snackable tidbits about the plant protein market. For example, when Innova surveyed global consumers in 2019 and asked, “Which claim do you prefer when buying alternatives to meat and/or dairy?,” six in 10 global respondents preferred the marketing term plant-based over vegetarian or vegan. Product marketing reflects this, with Innova reporting that average annual growth in global food and beverage launches with claims such as “plant-based,” “100% plant,” or “plant power” rose by a 57% CAGR between 2015 and 2019.6

Innova’s data, pulled from its Innova Database, also supports the idea that plant protein innovation is moving beyond the established categories, noting growing numbers of product launches containing plant protein especially in these categories, from 2015 to 2019, in the U.S.: dairy/dairy alternatives (+21%) and supplements (+18%), not surprisingly—but also bakery (+9%), snacks (+9%), and cereals (+4%).6

The Innova Database also tracked the fastest-growing plant-based proteins in global meat- and dairy-alternative product launches from 2017 to 2019 (based on those categories with 20 or more new product launches in 2019), and fava bean protein came in on top (+439%), followed by hemp protein (+369%), rice protein (+105%), and potato protein (+38%). Pea protein, already one of the most popular plant proteins, demonstrated its staying power at 67% growth.6

More-Discerning Customers

“Consumer acceptance of plant-based alternatives lies in the sensory experience, including aroma, appearance, taste, texture, functionality, and cooking attributes,” says Schuh. ADM’s research finds that 50% of flexitarian consumers agree that meat alternatives need taste improvements, and more than 20% say that texture needs to be improved. Plus, 70% of global plant consumers report taste and nutrition as equally important.5

Suppliers are stepping up to solve problems. “At ADM, we focus on enhancing a product’s entire sensory experience well before the first bite or sip is taken,” Schuh asserts.

“While early adopters of the plant-based movement may have been more forgiving of a plant-based product’s taste,” says Merit’s Bracken, “today the consumer base has significantly grown, and with that growth has come the expectation of good taste and texture and the ability to move to a plant-based diet without trade-offs.”

The good news is that with the promise of improved tastes and textures, consumers may be more willing to try new forms of plant protein.

Bracken is betting that canola protein will appeal to a broad base in broad applications. “Whether it be whipping and foaming functionality for plant-based ice creams, or gelling characteristics in plant-based burgers, canola protein offers unique functionality to provide that meat- or dairy-like experience that consumers are seeking,” he says.

For his customers, Bracken adds, “Whether reformulating or developing a new plant-based or protein-fortified beverage, our high-quality plant proteins are game-changers as a result of our proprietary extraction technology and unique purification process.”

Schuh looks to plant protein diversity as another way to move the plant protein category mainstream. She advises that formulators can help the process along by blending the lesser-known plant proteins with recognizable ones. “Our research shows,” she says, “that 68% of U.S. flexitarians prefer a blend of two or more plant proteins in meat alternatives, and 52% prefer a blend in dairy alternatives.5” As an example, her company has ingredients that combine pea protein with chickpeas or navy beans, incorporated into a wide variety of food applications.

“Plant protein blends not only boost protein content and achieve dietary diversity, but specific combinations also may help round out taste and texture,” states Schuh.

Plants, Plants Everywhere

As the plant protein market continues to grow, companies are making sure they’re able to keep up with the demand through new, state-of-the-art manufacturing plants.

For example, Ingredion opened a new facility last September to manufacture pulse protein isolates and related products in South Sioux City, Nebraska. Dar says pea protein isolate and pea starch are the first ingredients being produced there because the North American market presents significant demand for both ingredients.

“Currently, the market imports most of its pea isolate and pea starch from overseas, with only very limited domestic supply. Ingredion’s U.S.-based facility will help fulfill the strong demand for a domestic supply of pulse protein isolate and starch, providing a significant improvement in supply chain as well as improved sustainability due to local sourcing and manufacturing,” Dar says.

Merit Functional Foods announced the official opening of its 94,000-sq-ft plant-protein facility in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, in February of this year. According to a press release, the project is the first commercial facility in the world with the capability to produce food-grade canola protein. It will have the flexibility to also produce pea protein.7

As a new company in the space, it was important to Merit to find the right location to produce plant-based proteins with a scalable operation. Winnipeg fit the bill for a number of reasons. As a Canadian company and proud founders who are Manitobans, Merit wanted to support its local community, according to Bracken.

But the choice to build in Winnipeg was also a strategic decision considering its proximity to the company’s raw materials. Says Bracken, “All of our non-GMO pea and canola are grown right here in Western Canada.” In addition, he says, “Winnipeg, Manitoba, utilizes sustainable hydroelectric power sources for water, power, and natural gas, which helped us support our project’s utility requirements, in addition to a high-quality source of water.”

Last but not least, the area provides access to skilled labor, notes Bracken, as well as plant-based food innovation support through regional universities and applied research centers.

Merit isn’t the only company keen on the benefits of Manitoba.

Roquette’s Mauray notes that in this booming plant protein market, the less-visible plant protein ingredient suppliers faced the challenge of making large-quantity protein ingredients available. Roquette answered that challenge with plans for increased capacity for pea protein with its brand-new pea-processing plant in Portage la Prairie, Manitoba. Says Mauray, “This ensures a reliable supply to North American customers.” Sometime in 2021, she advises, Roquette will have the largest capacity worldwide, having a combined pea-processing capacity of 250,000 tons of peas per year between France and Canada. According to news reports, the plant expects to be at full capacity in 2022.8

“Sustainability and high-performance ingredients are our main pillars for developing new protein solutions to become the long-term leader in plant protein specialties for human nutrition and a reliable partner for our customers,” states Mauray.

What’s Next for Plant Proteins?

“Performance-based plant ingredients are one part of successful development. Our application centers located in all major regions support product development for local customer expectations,” says Mauray. “You would be amazed at how differently plant-based burger patties can be formulated depending on where the product is to be launched.” As an example, she advises that consumer expectations for texture in a plant-based burger in the U.S. are for more firmness versus what those in the European Union are interested in.

“The market’s going to continue growing. The passion behind the adoption of more plant-based products is undeniable,” says Merit’s Bracken. “The world is hungry for change, and we’re here to make superior plant protein accessible on a global scale.”

ADM’s Schuh sees the market headed in a variety of directions as these solutions work to meet evolving consumer demands. “There will be a greater need for plant protein–forward offerings to also have additional functional claims, such as being fortified with fiber and gut microbiome–supporting ingredients,” she says. “We also anticipate new meat- and dairy-alternative formats to emerge especially as consumer desire expands beyond the bun to shellfish and shrimp, plant-based cheese, and ready-to-eat protein snacks. While new formats and greater accessibility of alternative options pop up, the consistent demand for clean and clear and shorter ingredient labels will not subside.”

Additionally, Schuh says that product developers will need to get creative when developing great-tasting products that also use fewer ingredients. “Next-generation technologies like 3D printing and protein fermentation will also be a major part of driving innovation into the future.”

Ingredion’s Dar advises there are still supply and demand challenges that need to be addressed, such as development of regional supply chains and stability of supply to positively impact the cost equation and ultimately the cost-to-serve. However, he is also optimistic about the future of plant proteins.

He says, “Eating plant-based is a long-term shift in eating habits of mainstream consumers. It is a new way to look at how to meet consumer protein needs without being disruptive to the environment. The demand for plant-based foods and ingredients is expected to continue to grow over the foreseeable future for current ingredients as well as ingredients providing new functionality and benefits over the next five to 10 years, especially as more and more consumers adopt products with improved taste and nutritional balance.”

References

  1. The World Counts. “Tons of Meat Eaten Globally This Year.” Accessed at: www.theworldcounts.com/challenges/consumption/foods-and-beverages/world-consumption-of-meat/story
  2. Reinhart RJ. “Snapshot: Few Americans Vegetarian or Vegan.” Gallup website. Published August 1, 2018.
  3. Press release. “Merit Functional Foods Brings Unmatched Purity, Exceptional Taste to the Plant Protein Industry.” Issued October 10, 2019.
  4. Press release. “Roquette Continues to Improve Plant-Based Cuisine.” Issued February 19, 2020.
  5. ADM Outside Voice proprietary research
  6. Plant Protein: What’s Around the Corner?” Presentation from Innova Market Insights on November 10, 2020, during Nutritional Outlook webcast.
  7. Press release. “Merit Functional Foods Opens World-Class Plant-Based Protein Facility.” Issued February 9, 2021.
  8. Heppner K. “Roquette Powers Up $600 Million Pea Protein Plant.” Realagriculture. Published January 18, 2021.