Do it right or don’t do it at all
A common thread being woven into most conversations at this year’s show was the need for manufacturers of plant-based meat analogues to put quality product out on the market.
While it goes without saying that producers only hurt themselves if they put out low quality goods, they may also be unwittingly damaging the reputation of the plant-based market as a whole.
In the rush to jump on the hype train, the market has been flooded with brands trying to get a piece of the pie and many have fallen by the wayside as those producers offering something special start to stand out on the top and the market begins to consolidate.
However, consumers aren’t truly aware of the different brands or types of plant-based meat – in their eyes, one piece of fake chicken is indistinguishable from the next. This mentality can lead to a situation in where one bad experience with plant-base meat can lead to a consumer dismissing the entire sector in disgust.
Manouk Wolbert, application technologist at functional ingredients firm Ojah (pictured left), described a scenario in which a bad experience could taint consumer perception of the market.
“Imagine you’re a consumer and you’ve never had plant-based meat alternatives before. One day you’re brave enough to go to the shelve thinking ‘I want to do something good for the environment and try meat alternatives for once’,” said Wobert.
“You look at this bug shelf of products and you don’t know what productor to go for – what product is good – so you just pick one, you eat it and it turns out not good because there are a lot of bad products out there [on the market].
“If you had that experience, you’re not going to go back and try another meat alternative – you’re just going to stick to meat and that’s not good for anyone in the plant-based market.”
(Plant-based) meat is back on the menu
Probably unsurprising to most readers was the number of meat alternatives on display at Plant-Based World Expo 2023. The hall was dominated with new products to the market and novel solutions offering manufacturers a way to create meat analogues that are getting more and more indistinguishable from their animal-based counterparts.
Brands such as New Meat have been embracing new technologies such as 3D printing to create steaks and pulled meat that mimic the mouth feel of the real thing, with attendees queuing up to sample burgers that would make you question if a cow hadn’t been involved in the production process.
Many of the big players in the world of functional ingredients and food solutions were also on hand to display their wares, with pea protein the star player behind many of the meat alternatives being cooked up by professional chefs throughout the day.
The shear volume of plant-based meat products getting closer and closer in both flavour and texture to the real thing on display was a testament to the advancements that the market has made in such a short amount of time.
As Martin Habfast, co-founder of plant-based meat firm Umiami explained: “Compared to two years ago, I think the quality is a little higher. The category has stepped up.”
Despite this focus on replicating meat as closely as possible, there was still room in the hall for more traditional alternatives to meat. Dragonfly was on hand to showcase traditional, Japanese-style tofu made in Devon to attendees looking for something a little less focused on providing a one-to-one meat experience.
Of course, Plant-Based World Expo Europe wasn’t just a showcase for meat analogues. From new innovations in plant-based cheese, chocolate and drinks were all on full display, as well as a plethora of flavour options that capitalised on being plant-based.
With reformulation a major topic in the food and drink industry at the moment, manufacturers have been targeting ways in which they can reduce the sugar content in their products.
Stevia has been posed as such solution to the question of sugar reduction and it was right at home at this year’s show. But like many of the plant-based alternatives on the show floor, there is still some ways to go before consumers will openly accept stevia as a viable replacement to sugar.
Ingredion was at this year’s show on a mission to demystify stevia and try and get more consumers to understand its application as a ‘healthier’, no-artificial sweetener.
“It’s a bit of an education that we’re trying to do as well around stevia – there are a lot of consumers still unsure as to what stevia is,” said Ingredion growth platform manager for sugar reduction & specialty sweeteners EMEA Helen Hook.
“I think most people know that it’s a sweetener, but does everyone know it’s not an artificial sweetener? Does everybody think it still tastes the same way it did when it was first launched? So, we’re trying to go through that education piece to say it’s plant-based, it’s not an artificial sweetener and we’ve come such a long way now and actually, it can taste good.
“If we can help consumers understand, then we can be more confident with manufacturers to say, ‘look, there's the education piece out there, they understand they want something that's healthy, that's plant based and they are going to buy a product with stevia in it’,” she added.
We need to build consumer trust
Building on Ingredion’s mission to grow consumer trust for Stevia, there was also talk of the plant-based meat alternatives industry’s need to do the same.
With one bad experience having the potential to steer consumers away from plant-based meat for life, there is a greater precedence for building trust in the sector.
This extends to more than just trust from consumers though – there needs to be more trust between producers as well.
Speaking at a panel on the future of the plant-based market, Radinder Harrison, commercial director at Veg Capital, described the industry as being fragmented and there needed to be a push towards collaboration if the sector wanted to see more growth.
“Brands need to work together so that as an industry we can pool resources and communicate some of the benefits to consumers,” she explained.
Also speaking on the panel, Andrew Godley – professor of entrepreneurship & innovation at the University of Sussex Business School – echoed Harrison’s call for greater trust between food firms, but also a need to build the public’s trust in the category as well.