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A Bright Future is Germinating for Alternative Proteins

The interest in plant-based foods is on the upswing as food developers are using plant proteins in a broader range of products. Beef providers are even investing in alternatives, but developers must recognize taste is still king.

By Lauren R. Hartman, Product Development Editor

Plant-based ingredients continue to gain ground as a replacement for animal protein in meat- and dairy-mimicking products. But in the past year or so, any discussion of alternative proteins now includes a new source: cultured meat. While the lab-grown product from animal cells is still years away from practicality, research and investment activity is picking up. Even Tyson Foods, king of all sources of animal protein, has invested in a company developing cultured meat, as well in companies making beef and chicken substitutes from plants.

The main reason plant-based proteins are gaining ground is because they appear to be healthier: Many studies show they help prevent diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and certain cancers. Environmental, sustainability and animal-welfare issues also are important, but those concerns are just as well met by meat produced in the lab.

Protein alternates aren't overtaking animal protein sales by any stretch, but big meat companies like Tyson, Cargill and Perdue are creating investment funds for alternative meat proteins, both hedging their bets and considering they may be key to meeting global protein demands in the future. Likewise, many dairy companies also market a line of plant-based "milks," an acknowledgement that soy and nut milks are here to stay.

Global product launches with a plant-based claim surged to 971 in 2016, up from 194 in 2012, according to Innova Market Insights (www.innovadatabase.com). The global protein alternatives market should top $4 billion in sales this year, according to Persistence Market Research (www.persistencemarketresearch.com), and is estimated to reach $16.3 billion by the end of 2025.

Mintel Group's (www.mintel.com) January 2018 plant proteins report finds 36 percent of consumers are buying plant-based meats, and 46 percent agree plant-based proteins are better for you than animal-based options. While consumers recognize health concerns as a distinct selling point, "they will not waver when it comes to taste," points out William Roberts Jr., a senior food and drink analyst at Mintel.

"Americans are more and more avoiding food products with artificial ingredients and GMOs, and vegetarian, vegan and free-from foods have grown to be regarded as healthier options," he says. "Despite the fact that health attributes, particularly free-from, factor strongly in consumer decisions when purchasing plant-based proteins, at the end of the day, taste is the driving force behind purchase and eating decisions."

But that's the thing: Recent R&D in plant-based proteins is making these substitutes taste better than they ever have, in some cases, indistinguishable from meat. The first generation of veggie burgers were choked down with an acknowledged trade-off on taste. No one would have confused them with real hamburgers. Now it's not so easy to tell the difference.

Actually, taste is the top reason (52 percent) U.S. consumers choose to eat plant-based proteins, according to the Mintel research, outranking concerns over diet (10 percent), animal protection (11 percent), the environment (13 percent) and even health (39 percent).

Daiya ShredsPlant sources are popular

Legume-based proteins, such as chickpeas, lentils, fava, mung and lupin beans, are the current darlings of many product developers and their ingredient suppliers, especially as questions about the health of soy mount. The FDA is expected to revoke soy's unqualified heart-health claim this year.

"Consumers now look for protein from various plant sources including peas, soy, nuts and other plants," says Michael Lynch, vice president of marketing at Daiya Foods (daiyafoods.com). The maker of allergen-free/dairy-free products such as cheeses, yogurt and desserts primarily uses pea protein. Daiya was acquired last year by Otsuka Pharmaceutical Co. Ltd. of Japan. Daiya's team of food scientists and developers is "continuously trying new ingredients and processing methods to improve the quality," Lynch points out.

This year, Tyson will debut a plant-based protein bowl line called Green Street and a high-protein snack brand dubbed Yappah, with the latter's products made from pulp and spent grains left over from other food manufacturing processes.

Chickpea flour is becoming a more popular ingredient, according to Innova. Product launches featuring chickpea flour more than tripled between 2012 and 2017, the market research firm reports. From a nutritional standpoint, chickpea flour contains at least 12 percent protein and has the same nutritional benefits of chickpeas. Compared to wheat and even some other pulse flours, it has a lower glycemic index.

It's also a source of resistant starch. Nutriati Inc. (nutriati.com) and partner PLT Health Solutions Inc. (www.plthealth.com) are introducing Artesa chickpea flour for gluten-free foods such as breads, baked goods and pasta. Nutriati, which will support Artesa's food product development from its applications technical center in Richmond, Va., says the flour performs similarly to wheat flour in various applications and addresses taste, sensory and formulating issues that have prevented other pulse/legume flours from gaining widespread adoption, claims Devin Stagg, PLT's chief operating officer. The production process removes much of the oil from the finished product, producing a clean, neutral flavor and a white color.

Use of seeds and nuts in new products is also growing, notes research firm Grand View Research, driven by the demand for protein-rich foods and a rising vegetarian population. Redd Bar superfood energy bars (www.reddbar.com) are an example that uses 10g of protein from pumpkin seed. Vegan and free of gluten, soy and GMOs, the bar's "powerful" ingredients also include 11 superfoods (maca, mangosteen, quinoa, chia, goji, acai and more), 23 vitamins and minerals and natural caffeine from yerba mate. Pumpkin, flax and chia seeds figure prominently in the snack bars of Kind LLC.

Nondairy impact on dairy

From aquafaba butter to pea protein milks, plant-based dairy alternatives are also reshaping the dairy case. Milk analogs already claim a 10 percent share of the market and are growing at 3.1 percent annually, while dairy milk sales are dropping 3.3 percent a year. Over nearly a 50-year timeframe, traditional milk consumption has declined by nearly 40 percent.

The So Delicious (sodeliciousdairyfree.com) Dairy Free milks line – acquired by WhiteWave Foods and now a part of DanoneWave -- in the past relied strictly on almonds and cashews for its "milks," but it recently expanded with several varieties of coconut milks. For some products, even the packaging is primarily plant-based. Making dairy-free products such as desserts and toppings, coconut milk and yogurt alternatives for the past 30 years, So Delicious has more than 100 dairy-free choices.

Ripple MilkWhile soy and nuts have been the primary ingredients for dairy-free milks, several small companies are investigating pea protein. Goldman Sachs invested $110 million in a two-year-old startup beverage company, Ripple Foods (www.ripplefoods.com), which uses pea protein to create milky beverages in chocolate, vanilla, original and unsweetened vanilla and unsweetened original. Its Ripptein is a pea protein beverage made by extracting the protein by a process the company says strips out any pea flavor.

The result is almost purely protein, according to Ripple founders Neil Renninger and Adam Lowry. Demand for the pea milk was so high at Whole Foods, growth hit 300 percent in a year.

Pea protein also is the base for a new line of milks from Bolthouse Farms, now owned by Campbell Soup Co. "Our new Plant Protein Milk is made with pea protein [and has] 50 percent more calcium than dairy milk and 10g of protein per serving versus just 1g in almond milk," the company spokesman says. "Better yet, it’s vegan, non-GMO, and doesn’t contain dairy, lactose, nuts, soy or gluten."

Recent consumer research from Comax Flavors (www.comaxflavors.com) reveals 36 percent of regular dairy alternative consumers cite health benefits as a main purchase driver. Comax found flavor still the most important product quality to most of these products.

According to a 2016 Harris Poll cited by Comax, 6 percent of U.S. consumers claim to be vegan, up from 1 percent in 2014, while about 3.3 percent say they're vegetarian.

“There has been a shift in consumers’ attitudes and behavior, with vegetarianism, veganism, rawism and flexitarianism on the rise. We see a growing interest in plant-based products in a variety of non-dairy applications including milk, creamer, yogurt and frozen dessert," states Catherine Armstrong, vice president of corporate communications at Comax Flavors.

Elmhurst Milked articleNew York family-run dairy farm Elmhurst Milked (www.elmhurst1925.com) switched its dairy operations from cows to plants and now uses nuts, oats, peanuts and rice to create its "milk." Its "cold mining" process for nuts was created by food scientist Cheryl Mitchell. Almonds grown in California are shipped to a production factory in New York where they're washed and separated into different parts via a cold-mining process. The new process provides 6g of protein to an 8-oz. glass of peanut milk.

Mitchell worked on the process first for rice milk, but wanted to find a milk with the nutrients of traditional cow's milk. Elmhurst Milked was inspired by Mitchell's development, and its beverages have a creamy texture without thickeners, emulsifiers and stabilizers, says product manager Kimberly Behzadi.

The activity is not just in milks: Dairy-free yogurt is absolutely gaining ground, Daiya's Lynch says. "Consumers universally believe yogurt is a nutritious, healthy snack. They also believe dairy-free yogurt is a healthier version because it’s plant based. The biggest challenge is creating alternative products that taste as good as those they’re replacing." But "more companies are focused on improving the taste of these products, and the level of innovation is higher and more robust than any other time in history."

'Clean' meat

Just as dairy associations are challenging the use of "milk" for plant-based beverages, the United States Cattlemen Assn. is pressing regulatory agencies to limit the definition of "beef" and "meat" to products made "from cattle born, raised and harvested in the traditional manner."

Nielsen, along with The Good Food Institute, discovered in recent studies plant-based meat analogs are growing at 7.6 percent, while animal-based meat sales are sliding 0.7 percent. While soy and wheat were original meat alternatives, new ingredients are being commercialized.

Beyond Meat (beyondmeat.com) transforms pea protein into beefy-like crumbles and burgers plus "chicken" strips and sausages. The company reported triple-digit revenue growth in 2017. Unlike meat alternatives that can lack taste and texture, Beyond Burgers closely resemble real beef patties, and are actually pink in the middle. They've been noted for "bleeding" and sizzling on a grill, further accentuating their beefy attributes for meat lovers.

The company says about 70 percent of consumers who buy its plant-based burgers are not vegetarians but are flexitarians − consumers who eat beef and chicken, but are trying to cut back on meat intake with occasional plant-based proteins.

Meat is also being replaced in jerky with coconut. Chewy jerky from London's MightyBee Ltd. (www.mightybee.com) is made from 100g of pure coconut flesh and comes in Spicy BBQ, Teriyaki and Chocolate Hazelnut flavors. They're certified-organic, vegan and preservative-free. Cocoburg (coconutjerky.net) offers Original, Chili Lime and Ginger Teriyaki.

Impossible Foods (www.impossiblefoods.com) found a plant-based imitator of animal protein in the form of a molecule called heme that gives meat its craveable flavor and smell. Although this chemical is exceptionally abundant in meat, heme is essential to every branch of life, including plants. Using a heme-containing protein found in plants, Impossible Foods makes a burger that looks and tastes so much like the real thing most people would never guess its base is completely vegetables, the company claims.

Lab-grown meat appears years away from commercialization, but companies are investing in and developing the technology. Simply put, scientists take animal cells and grow them in the lab, creating an animal-based protein but without animal cruelty issues or an impact on the environment. Memphis Meats, which last March unveiled what it called the first chicken strips grown from self-reproducing cells, estimates it can grow a pound of chicken for less than $3,000, reported the Wall Street Journal.

In addition to Memphis Meats, Hampton Creek reportedly is working on the technology, as are SuperMeat of Israel and Mosa Meats of Netherlands.

"The science has been demonstrated. We just need to scale up production to bring down prices to make this product commercially viable for the mass market," says Bruce Friedrich, executive director of Good Food Institute, which offers consulting for early-stage companies developing plant-based foods. "Clean meat is one of the most exciting innovations of our age, and we have the technical ability to make it a reality."