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).
Plant 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.