That doesn't mean to say that there's no room for improvement among plant-based versions of meat options, though. There's still huge growth potential in meat analogues, or, as Neville Tam, head of brand for The No Meat Company, puts it, 'the crowd could become an even bigger party'.
“Currently there is so much more space in the supermarket dedicated to meat than is currently available for plant-based meat alternatives, although this balance is changing to reflect consumer demand,” he says.
The growth opportunities in plant-based meat substitutes lie in creating greater choice for the consumer while mimicking the precise flavour, mouthfeel and texture of real meat.
Bending to flexitarian demands
But what there isn’t space for is more of the same. As the category matures, product development strategies need to evolve to attract ‘casual’ as well as committed vegetarians and vegans.
The rise of flexitarianism has emerged as one of the driving forces behind the growth of meat analogues in recent years. Beneo’s Global Plant-Based Survey 2021, involving almost 12,000 consumers in ten countries, found that one in four now identify as flexitarian, making this the most important target group for manufacturers of plant-based products.
Olivier Chevalier, senior product manager functional proteins at Beneo, explains: “While the first wave of plant-based popularity was driven from a somewhat niche audience of health and eco-conscious shoppers back in the 1980s, today, the booming trend has shifted into the mainstream as more consumers incorporate plant-based products into their diets.”
Although the flexitarian movement offers a huge opportunity for food makers, appealing to this discerning contingent places greater demands on product developers, as consumer research has shown.
Earlier this year, Kerry carried out a consumer study to uncover sensory expectations around plant-based burgers and cheese alternative slices. This found that flexitarians are more critical versus vegan and vegetarian consumers.
“While sustainability is a top driver, consumers are unwilling to compromise on taste and seek products that are as close as possible to the taste experience of animal products,” says Fiona Sweeney, director of strategic marketing at Kerry Europe.
What do flexitarians want?
According to Kerry, in the case of plant-based burgers, flexitarians around the world agree that beef is their sensory benchmark; consumers desire a plant-based product that tastes as close as possible to a real beef burger.
“Essentially, flexitarians want a burger with only the positive taste attributes of a real beef burger coupled with improved nutrition and better environmental impact, so the overall experience is better,” explains Sweeney.
It’s all well and good knowing what consumers want from their burger, but how do formulators actually deliver that?
Kerry says in plant-based burgers it is the flavour factor that elevates a taste experience from good to great.
“Consumers are specifically looking for authentic cooking flavours that are usually associated with meat such as chargrilled and caramelised notes. They are also looking for a more intense meaty flavour (slightly smoky, umami and savoury) which has depth, complexity and fullness. And finally, an authentic taste where bitter plant-based notes are not present but have not been overcompensated for with added salt or excess flavouring,” says Sweeney.
The Kerry Authentic Savoury portfolio is said to offer a range of savoury flavours and extracts that deliver “authentic, true, chef-inspired taste profiles”, while Kerry Tastesense Salt provides a toolbox of solutions that promise to deliver on salt and umami taste while reducing the amount of sodium in a product.
Flavour, texture and mouthfeel
But flavour is just one dimension of the taste experience, and Sweeney emphasises that consideration must also be given to texture and mouthfeel. Here, she says one of the most important characteristics is a variation in bite: a burger that has a firm outer (a result of charring) and a soft inner.
“If delivered correctly, variation in bite can create a sensation for consumers that’s very close to the desired meat-like experience,” she notes.
Beneo’s research also showed that taste and texture are key to convincing flexitarians to buy meat and fish alternatives.
“Globally, 81% of flexitarians agree that meat alternatives should be tender and easy to chew like real meat and 74% agree they should be juicy,” notes Chevalier.
To this end, BeneoPro W-Tex is a range of textured wheat proteins that is designed to help manufacturers develop meat alternatives with a meat-like texture and juicy mouthfeel. Also, Beneo’s recent acquisition of Dutch company Meatless B.V. has enabled Beneo to broaden its portfolio of plant-based texturisers to include solutions derived from raw materials such as rice, faba beans, wheat, pea, lupin and quinoa.
Sarah Augustine, senior brand manager at vegan food producer Squeaky Bean, believes that the key to capturing the interest of flexitarian consumers lies in two core areas: taste and choice.
“It’s important to remember that while flexitarians want to actively reduce their meat consumption, they aren’t rejecting it based on taste and texture; they simply want to reduce the amount they consume,” she notes.
With this in mind, she says consumers choosing to eat it because they want to, not because they have to, has always been the focus for Squeaky Bean.
“This means experimenting with different flavours and production methods to create something really special. Squeaky Bean’s Chargrilled Mini Fillets have an excellent marinade, but we pair this with a chargrilling process that gives an incredible depth of flavour and tastier visual appeal,” explains Augustine.
Her definition of ‘choice’ relates to the ability to innovate and get new products to market quickly. Squeaky Bean, she says, is regularly broadening its line-up. Since launching Pastrami Slices it has added a range of meat slice analogues, including Applewood Smoke Ham Style Slices, Roast Chicken Style Slices, Spanish Chorizo Style Slices and Milano Salami Style Slices and Spicy Pepperoni Style Slices, to sustain consumer interest.
Beneo agrees that variety is an important factor to drive consumer engagement with plant-based products; it reports that 45% of flexitarians say that more variety would encourage them to buy more meat and fish alternatives in the future.
For food manufacturers this might mean moving beyond the ‘safety’ of burgers and sausages into uncharted territory.
Keen to support manufacturers in adventurous new product development, Beneo has just developed a recipe for vegan dim sum, which, instead of the traditional meat-based filling, contains a vegetable filling made with rice starch and textured wheat protein.
Fake steak, natural ingredients
Less ‘adventurous’ but arguably more challenging are plant-based whole muscle products such as steak. One company that has recently moved into this area is Meatless Farm, with the launch of plant-based steak.
The company’s managing, Michael Hunter, admits that recreating the taste and texture of steak was a challenge, but says the company used 'the best of what plants have to offer' to deliver great taste and quality.
“Our signature pea protein recipe provides a tender bite; we use natural ingredients like bamboo and pea fibre to provide a steak-like texture, and fruit and veg like beetroot, carrot and blueberries to give a meaty steak-like colour. Our target audience also likes a juicy steak, so we use sunflower or rapeseed oil to deliver the necessary fat content,” he explains.
Hunter emphasises that the steak is not overly processed, saying 'we use plant proteins and natural ingredients to maximise the flavour'.
Clean credentials are something that other meat analogue producers are keen to shout about too.
Eatplanted, a Swiss producer that has just entered the UK market, says it has committed to using only clean ingredients and no additives in its products. Its planted.chicken, for example, contains just five ingredients: pea protein, fibre, oil, water and B12.
“We don’t add anything extra like salt or fat for the texture or mouthfeel, but rather allow our proprietary biostructuring approach that combines protein structuring and biotechnology to create that mouthfeel and fibrous texture,” explains Vicky Kummer, head of corporate communications at Eatplanted.
Supply issues lead to substitution
Whilst they are still a focus, formulation challenges have, to an extent, been overshadowed by concerns around ingredient sourcing and pricing in recent times. Sunflower oil, which is widely used in plant-based meat substitutes, is one of the ingredients whose supply has been disrupted by the war in the Ukraine.
Meatless Farm, like many food manufacturers, normally uses sunflower oil from Ukraine in its products, but says it is currently substituting this with rapeseed oil from several European countries.
Fortunately, its peas all come from Canada, where it works with local farmers and has a production facility to make its own textured protein.
“This gives us more control over the process used and the end result,” says Hunter, adding, “There has been some increase in pea prices, separately from the impacts of the war in Ukraine, due to a reduced harvest following drought in Canada last year.”
The No Meat Company is also feeling the effects of the war on ingredient sourcing.
“Ukraine is the largest exporter of sunflower oil and the conflict has significantly impacted supplies, therefore also increasing prices of sunflower and the demand for and prices of replacement alternative vegetable oils." says Tam. "We have been working hard to minimise disruption to supply, working with our partners to redevelop our recipes with rapeseed oil where possible."
Emerging plant-based proteins
With ingredient sourcing a major challenge for plant-based producers, new options are always welcome. Here are some emerging protein ingredients that could be of interest:
Canadian firm Burcon NutraScience will soon be marketing sunflower protein isolate worldwide after securing a $1m co-investment from Proteins Industries Canada.
“We are still in the development phase but we expect to commercialise this exciting new plant-based protein ingredient in the very near future,” Martin Schweizer, VP technical development, at Burcon, tells this publication.
Burcon will partner with oil processor Pristine Gourmet to further develop its process for producing sunflower protein isolates from by-products of sunflower oil production.
According to Burcon, one key advantage of sunflower over other plant-protein sources is that it is not associated with any of the major food allergens, making it label-friendly.
The company says the isolates have 'a neutral flavour and offer unique properties that make them ideas as a food ingredient in a variety of applications', particularly formulations that require delicate flavours.
With demand for pulses on the increase, in April, Beneo announced a €50m investment in a new pulse processing site in Offstein, Germany. The facility will produce protein-rich pulse ingredients, initially focusing on protein concentrate and starch-rich flour from faba bean. The company says faba bean ingredients can be used in a variety of applications, from dairy and meat alternatives to bakery and cereals.
At an earlier stage of development is rubisco - a protein found in green plants. A crucial enzyme in photosynthesis, rubisco is found in every leaf of every green plant on earth, often in considerable quantities.
In its pure form, rubisco has a neutral aroma, colour and flavour, a good balance of the essential amino acids and good gelation properties, making it a useful protein for processing into meat substitutes in order to provide a firm ‘bite’ or improved mouthfeel.
Researchers at Wageningen University & Research have succeeded in extracting rubisco from various crop residue streams - most recently tomato leaves.
“It is a completely mechanical method based on pressing and filtration steps. That way the protein stays fully functional for high end applications,” explains Marieke Bruins, senior scientist in protein technology at Wageningen.
The researchers say large-scale application of this process will increase the availability of plant-based proteins and help to accelerate a transition towards a more plant-based diet in developed countries.
Rubisco is currently under Novel Food review by the European Food Safety Authority.