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What’s fueling the surge in plant-based products?

28/10/2020

Over the last 5 years our EFMP partners have helped launch numerous plant-based products into Europe. Engaging and educating the audience on the benefits of plant-based products has been a core component of our success. Plant-based products are slowly but surely becoming part of our daily reality. Thanks to an increased awareness of the benefit of plant-based alternatives on both our health and on that of the planet, people across the world are incorporating more plant-based products into their diet. 

What started out slowly is fast gaining momentum and we wanted to explore the factors that are contributing to the accelerate growth in the plant-based sector.

As opposed to a diet or weight-loss fad, the consumption of plant-based products is a growing global lifestyle that seems here to stay. In Europe, huge amounts of investment are being poured into companies devoted to innovating the alternative protein industry, causing an unstoppable flow of new, exciting developments. From the level of the individual consumer all the way up to large multinationals, the focus on exploring the possibilities of plant-based products is steadily growing. 

 

What are plant-based products?

According to the Plant-Based Foods Association: “The plant-based claim is based on the final product and not the process used to produce the product. Plant-based food is defined as a finished product consisting of ingredients derived from plants that include vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, seeds and/or legumes.”

Popular plant-based products include meat alternatives such as tofu and tempeh and dairy alternatives such as plant-based milks (soy, almond, oat, coconut and rice) and nut cheeses. However, the term has generally been used to refer to a product that contains a high level of natural ingredients or that has been reinforced with plant-based ingredients. “Plant-based” can also refer to non-edible products, for example, shampoo and clothing materials, if they are mostly or completely made of plants. 

The term “plant-based” originally arose as an alternative to “vegan” or “vegetarianism”. It is notable that “plant-based” does not necessarily mean vegan and in fact, the term is often used to differentiate between the two. Whereas veganism is seen as a whole philosophy concerning animal welfare and environmental issues, a plant-based diet is primarily concerned with personal health and wellness. 

 

We’re eating more plant-based products.

In the past five years, the number of products claiming to be “plant-based” has grown by 68% globally, according to Innova. Euromonitor International found that the plant-based market in Western Europe has doubled in size since 2012. A study by Food Navigator revealed that in 2019 the consumption of plant-based meat substitutes in Europe made up 40% of the total global consumption, a number which is predicted to increase by 60% in 2025. 

When it comes to product labelling, the term “plant-based” has been found to be more appealing than “vegan” or “vegetarian” in some Western European countries such as Belgium and the Netherlands. As such, the idea of a plant-based diet has been growing in popularity. The term is increasingly used on the packaging of products such as snacks and baked goods to indicate the use of natural ingredients as opposed to highly processed ones. “Plant-based” can also be used to denominate a product containing few ingredients, most of which are derived from natural sources. 

 

What is causing the growth in the plant-based market segment?

The growth in popularity of plant-based products can be attributed to a wide range of factors, one of the most significant being a general increase in vegetarianism and veganism. In the UK, for example, around one in eight people is now vegetarian or vegan, according to a report from the supermarket Waitrose. In the same report, vegans cited their top reasons for adopting the dietary choice as animal welfare, health concerns and environmental issues. What’s more, with the report revealing that 21% of the British population now claim to be “flexitarian” - meaning they follow a mostly vegetarian diet - we can infer that, as of 2019, a third of Brits are actively reducing their meat consumption.

However, the consumption of plant-based products is not necessarily motivated by the same reasons as veganism and vegetarianism. In actual fact, many plant-based products originally arose as a response to the demands of allergy sufferers. A large portion of those who drink plant-based milks, for example, do so primarily because of an intolerance or allergy to lactose. What originally started as an industry consisting of poorly tasting “free-from” products, grudgingly consumed by those with no other choice, has since flourished into a thriving industry of plant-based foods that can mimic the taste and texture of their animal-based counterparts. 

These days, plant-based products are often consumed as part of a plant-based diet, which can cover a vast range of dietary choices, from vegetarianism to simply increasing one’s daily intake of fruit and vegetables. It is safe to say that the primary reason for the increase in consumption of plant-based products is because of personal health concerns. Plant-based products are a healthy alternative than those of animal origin. 

Consumption of plant-based products seems to be rising alongside their increase in availability and visibility. Another driving factor in food trends is convenience: consumers who do not follow a plant-based or vegan diet will nonetheless often choose a plant-based product if it is presented to them as part of their daily shopping or dining habits. 

The vast range of dietary motivations for consuming more plant-based products is matched by the industry's huge potential for innovation and development. Since the plant-based diet is not restricted to one fixed formula, as veganism and vegetarianism are, plant-based products can cover a whole host of food types, from completely substituting an animal product to adding a healthier reinforcement to an existing product. Common in the US, for example, are drinks consisting of milk blended with plant-based products, such as dairy and almond blends. 

Another important factor is sustainability. Particularly in Europe and North America, populations are becoming increasingly aware of the huge environmental impact of the meat industry. The amount of greenhouse gas emitted in the production of animal-based products dwarves that of their plant-based counterparts. A 2018 study by Joseph Poore found that a global switch towards veganism would halve the carbon emissions of the food industry, as well as freeing up land currently dedicated to rearing livestock for uses such as reintroducing flora and fauna destroyed by farming. 

 

Innovation in the plant-based sector

All across Europe, disruptive start-ups are innovating the ways in which we produce and consume food, particularly with regards to plant-based products. Citing the sustainable future of food as a hugely important issue in Europe, the EIT food invested €5 million in sustainable food startups in 2020.

Existing food producers are also expanding into the plant-based market, with brands such as Pizza Express and Dr Oetker tapping into the convenience aspect by producing plant-based pizza bases. Burger King has even introduced a range of plant-based products for its vegetarian menu, including an Impossible Whopper made of plant-based meat. In Canada, KFC has launched its first-ever plant-based chicken sandwich. In 2020, Swiss food giant Nestlé announced their plans to begin R&D in the plant-based sector, focusing on creating vegan versions of their frozen and chilled meals as well as developing plant-based alternatives for chicken, bacon and sausages. 

Elsewhere, innovation has been exploding in the plant-based alternative protein sector. Egg replacements are growing in popularity, with vegan alternatives making use of proteins from legumes such as aquafaba - the drained liquid from tinned chickpeas - as well as yeast and microalgae. 

Nowhere, however, did protein alternatives make such a splash than with the arrival of the Beyond and Impossible burgers. These hyper realistic beef replications are produced from pea proteins and bear a startling resemblance to the texture and taste of burgers, even seeming to “bleed” like meat. It is fascinating to follow the developments in the meat-alternative sector, where incredibly innovative techniques are employed against the huge challenge of finding plant-based substitutes for the aromas and mouthfeel of animal products, from bacon to chicken breast. 

Perhaps the most exciting innovations in the plant-based sector are in the new applications of fermentation. Although an already established process in the production of products such as tempeh - which is made by fermenting soybeans with a type of fungi -, a small but rapidly increasing number of companies are developing new fermentation applications to both create new, sustainable plant-based proteins and to enhance the flavours and textures of already existing cultivated meats. According to the first-ever state of the industry report solely dedicated to fermentation by the Good Food industry, new applications of fermentation processes have caused this technology to become the third pillar of the non-animal protein industry, which also includes plant-based proteins and cultivated meat. This is the technology that made the Impossible and Beyond burgers so disruptive and represents only the tip of the iceberg of possibilities that fermentation can bring to the table. 

Creating plant-based products that people really want to eat and that go so far as to make us really crave them is no mean feat. US-based company FoodMotif, which last year received a $90 million investment, is concerned with exactly that. They take an exceptionally scientific approach and attempt to understand how food breaks down in our mouth through the study of rheology, which is the science of how solids and liquids transform under stress and pressure. The company is also looking at partnering with companies in the neurobiology sector to map and imitate how our brain responds to food, from the moment we perceive it until it reaches our stomach. In this way, FoodMotif is creating ingredients to add to existing plant-based products that will give them that extra bite, so to speak, by employing techniques of fermentation and biotechnology. 

In Germany, dairy-alternative company Legendairy looks set to disrupt the dairy industry by using microbial fermentation to cultivate real milk whey and carein proteins. These are then combined with plant-based fats to create hyper-realistic cheese alternatives. Being the first company in Europe to create non-animal milk proteins, Legendairy has raised €4M. In the US, this industry is more advanced. In 2020, dairy-alternative company Perfect Day, who create similar fermented milk proteins to produce ice creams, received the biggest ever investment for a fermentation-based alternative protein company: $300 million.

In August 2020, British company THIS, who create what are deemed to be some of the most realistic chicken and bacon substitutes on the market, raised €3.8 million in investment capital. The company was founded by two self-proclaimed meat-lovers who were unsatisfied with the selection of plant-based proteins. Their chicken and pork alternatives are cultivated mostly from soy, but in the future, they are looking at working with oats. 

 

European growth

In Europe, the biggest markets for plant-based products are, in order of size, Germany, the UK and France. In Germany, one in every 10 new products released is now vegan, according to Mintel data. UK supermarket Waitrose saw an 80% increase in sales of plant-based BBQ products in 2019. Even France, a country whose love of meat and dairy is world-renowned, saw a 116% growth in the plant-based food industry in 2017. 

The industry has been growing steadily in Europe for the past few years but the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic caused the market to experience an unexpectedly sharp increase. The spread of the new coronavirus caused consumers to actively seek out plant-based foods following a widespread shift towards a more natural and healthy lifestyle. This has caused disruptions in the meat industry, which were further aggravated by outbreaks of the virus in meat processing plants causing production to slow down. As a result, predictions point to a general decrease in the consumption of animal products in the next 10 years and, consequently, an increase in plant-based diets. 

It looks like plant-based products are here to stay. Due to several factors, notably the versatility of the industry as well as its huge growth potential, the plant-based food sector looks set to explode over the next decade. Growing individual concerns for personal health, as well as the unsustainability of the meat and dairy industry, are causing sections of the population to adopt a plant-based diet. With a seemingly endless range of opportunities for innovation and development and considerable amounts of funds being invested into the industry, it looks like we’ll be adopting a smarter, more sustainable set of eating habits before we know it. 

If you have a plant-based product that you want to launch into Europe please get in touch with the EFMP and we can share our knowledge and experience in this sector.

 

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