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Plant protein takes off

7th July 2019

Almost every day there is some new media story about the inexorable rise in plant-based alternatives to meat and dairy products. Most recently, widely reported data from the Good Food Institute and Spins highlights the growth in US sales of dairy product substitutes overtaking that of more established milk and meat segments – albeit from a lower base.

Growth in dairy and meat substitutes hits the headlines

The market growth represents the intersection of consumer interest in protein for its positive health and waste management attributes, as well as growing concerns about the environmental impact and ethics of traditional animal-based sources. While vegans still represent a small – if vocal – segment of consumers, vegan products continue to be a significant area of new product innovation.  According to Innova Market Insights data there has been a 45% average annual growth in global food and beverage launches that were positioned as vegan between 2013 and 2017, increasing market penetration in Europe from 1.5% to 7% over that period.

Investor interest is also increasing. Food + Tech Connect reports a third of investment in food start ups was directed at meat and dairy alternatives. Investors have put an estimated US$17 billion into US plant-based and cell-based meat companies in the past decade – US$13 billion in 2017 and 2018.

It’s likely to be a relatively durable trend as more consumers report a desire to reduce traditional meat and dairy consumption. Flexitarian or “reducitarian” diets are becoming more mainstream for perceived health and environmental benefits, and a greater range of products with improved taste and functionality, it’s never been easier to eat a more plant-based diet.

A survey of 500 consumers conducted in late 2018 by DSM across German, France, the Netherlands, UK and US found 58% of respondents were reducing their dairy intake, although it wasn’t a conscious decision, 41% were similarly reducing meat intake. Once a more plant-based diet was adopted, 71% of conscious meat reducers expected to reduce their meat intake further over the next five years, while 60% of dairy reducers had similar intentions.

With the mainstreaming of meat substitutes like Beyond Burger in retail and food service the rise in plant-based protein seems unstoppable. There are also some anomalies around the type of plant-protein rich products that are gaining so much popularity. They are highly processed. Fast casual food chain Chipotle has recently said it won’t be jumping on the faux meat bandwagon with Beyond Burger type offering as it doesn’t fit with their ‘food with integrity’ principals due to “the amount of processing it takes to make a plant taste like a burger”.

While many consumers who are making the switch to plant protein cite health as a key driver, nutritionists warn many substitutes are high in salt, calories and fat. For example, at Burger King the meatless Impossible Whopper – made with soy protein, potato protein, coconut oil, sunflower oil and heme, a molecule that makes it look and bleed like real meat – is 630 calories. The regular Whopper is 660 calories. The meatless version has 1,240mg of sodium verses 980mg for the meaty version.