Sustainable sourcing: The biggest trends defining an evolving process

By William Dodds

- Last updated on GMT

One of the biggest trends in ingredient sourcing has been the growth in demand for plant-based alternatives. Credit: Getty / MEDITERRANEAN
One of the biggest trends in ingredient sourcing has been the growth in demand for plant-based alternatives. Credit: Getty / MEDITERRANEAN

Related tags Sustainability

With insights from across the food processing industry, Food Manufacture explores how ingredient sourcing has changed with a view towards sustainability, before learning more about the major trends driving innovation and change.

With the pressures and impacts of climate change only becoming more severe, we are in a race against time to reduce emissions and adopt more sustainable practices. Ingredient sourcing is just one part of this process for food and drink manufacturers, but it is an important element, nonetheless.

The four pillars of sustainable sourcing

In a bid to explain what sustainable sourcing entails, Simon McKeating, programme manager at the Scotland Food and Drink Partnership Net Zero Commitment, said there are four main areas for F&B firms to consider – environmental conservation, social responsibility, long-term viability and brand reputation.

“There is a growing realisation across food and drink companies that building a secure and sustainable supply chain not only makes good business sense, but also has the potential to bring with it a number of benefits for a company,”​ McKeating said.

“Building a more resilient supply chain will bring competitive advantage by being more resilient to changing macroeconomic factors, and in turn, stimulate innovation, increase productivity and will meet customer demands.”

Meanwhile, Emilie Haspeslagh, sustainability director at frozen foods business Ardo, explained that sustainable sourcing should incorporate “responsible ingredient cultivation, community well-being, and environmental preservation​”.

“At Ardo, our commitment to sustainability is rooted in a profound awareness of climate change's impact on the future, extending beyond environmentalism to embody a holistic approach vital for our planet and future generations,” ​Haspeslagh continued.

The fact that F&B companies are focusing on sustainable sourcing more than ever before has also been driven by factors such as new regulations and changing consumer preferences.

For example, the UK Government has set a 2050 net zero that is placing pressure on businesses of all sizes to adopt new approaches across their operations. Moreover, as Philippa Knight, marketing director at Puratos UK points out, “68% of Brits now look for products that are produced sustainably”.

“Shoppers increasingly want to know how foods are made – and where they come from – before they buy,”​ Knight told Food Manufacture.

With this in mind, Jemima Boroughs, the managing director for residual stock experts Shropshire Trading, noted that brands “need to be able to demonstrate to their customers the ESG policies that they have in place”​ and the impact that they are having.

“Ensuring that products are sourced from sustainable producers and aiming to reduce the impact that business operations have on the environment should be at the heart of every decision a business takes,” ​Boroughs added.

New tools of the trade

Today, manufacturers need to balance factors such as cost, quality, sustainability, provenance and regulatory compliance, while farmers must weigh the impact of climate change on yields with rising input costs and pricing expectations from retailers.

Nathalie Sadin, corporate sustainability manager at ingredients company BENEO, has observed this phenomenon, stating that food and drink manufacturers are “under increasing pressure” ​as a result.

“Sourcing has become about so much more than being supplied with the necessary raw materials to produce functional ingredients,”​ Sadin commented.

“It is now about ensuring that these raw materials can be sourced in a way that minimises the impact on the planet. To ensure that our raw materials, which include sugar beet, chicory root and faba bean, can be sourced in a way that addresses these needs, whilst ensuring long-term operational stability, BENEO has put in place a range of processes.”

These processes include pledging to source materials in accordance with the Farm Sustainability Assessment (FSA) tool and promoting regenerative agriculture in a way that centres on improving soil health and biodiversity and protecting water resources.

Sadin added: “We have ongoing projects aimed at bringing sustainable farming practices forward. This is a crucial area within BENEO’s sustainability efforts.”

While the range of factors associated with sourcing has created challenges for manufacturers, sales director Gary Lewis of oils and fats business KTC Edibles believes that in some ways finding sustainable ingredients has become simpler.

“Previously, sourcing sustainable ingredients required proactive effort, often involving direct engagement with suppliers to ensure ethical and environmentally-friendly practices,” ​Lewis said.

“Now, more sustainable options are available, accompanied by enhanced transparency in the supply chain. With improved visibility, finding sustainable ingredients has become easier and more accessible, opening up sustainable ingredients to a wider range of buyers.”

Silvi Navarrete, sustainability manager at ingredients supplier SVZ, also highlighted the benefits of new tools that have become available: “Historically, transitioning to sustainable practices has presented challenges for farmers, as their customers often failed to offer adequate compensation for sustainable produce.

“Introducing independent third-party verification, for instance, not only allows claims to be endorsed, but also presents the food industry the opportunity to support farmers appropriately.”

Due to the complexity of the process sustainable sourcing requires more collaboration than ever before, with Knight explaining that for Puratos “partnerships with suppliers are essential for innovation”.

As an ingredients supplier, Puratos offers solutions that support its clients in F&B to reduce their environmental impact, and like BENEO, it has begun working on regenerative agriculture projects alongside raw material producers.

“It’s more important than ever to ensure full traceability of ingredients and to work closely with suppliers to drive sustainable practices along the entire supply chain,” ​Knight added.

Parm Bains, co-founder of plant-based, Pan-Asian brand SHICKEN, also emphasised the crucial role of relationships in the sustainable sourcing process.

“We have complete control over what goes into our meals and where they come from,” ​Bains explained.

“For example, our soy and wheat proteins are solely from co-operative farmers in northern India, which includes family-owned farms that we know and trust. This policy allows us to source authentic and traditional ingredients directly from the country of origin and we can ensure that our farmers are earning a higher income for growing these crops.”

Emerging new trends in ingredients

Just as the process of sourcing ingredients has changed, so too have the types of ingredients being sourced. This is in part driven by food and drink manufacturers looking for innovative new ingredients that can improve their sustainability credentials, but also comes in response to consumer demands.

McKeating has noted a growing interest among consumers in “health and unique flavour profiles”​, in addition to sustainable diets, which has increased demand for new ingredients with functional properties and older, previously underutilised items.

“Food manufacturers are incorporating functional ingredients such as probiotics, prebiotics, omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants and adaptogens into their products to meet the growing consumer demand for foods that support overall health and wellbeing,” ​McKeating said.

“Meanwhile, ancient grains such as quinoa, amaranth, teff, and farro are gaining popularity due to their nutritional benefits and unique flavours. These grains are being incorporated into a variety of products, including bread, pasta, snacks, and cereal, to appeal to health-conscious consumers.”

Sadin supported this assessment, referencing data from a recent HealthFocus International sustainability report: “73% of consumers worldwide now believe that for a food or beverage to be healthy, it must be healthy for both them and the environment. So ingredients that can provide a proven health or nutritional benefit and sustainability credentials at the same time, are likely to be particularly popular over the coming years.”

Another key trend to watch is the continued growth in popularity of plant-based ingredients, with BENEO research finding that more than half of people globally have shown an interest in plant-based nutrition, while almost one in three now identify as ‘flexitarian’.

“Therefore plant-based ingredients that allow for the development of appealing alternatives to meat, fish, dairy or bakery products, will become increasingly relevant,”​ Sadin added.

SHICKEN, which produces 100% plant-based products, has also found the growing interest in reduced meat diets has led to ingredient diversity.

“Ingredient suppliers are working with traditional seeds, pulses, beans and flours to develop an array of options so that plant-based manufacturers like SHICKEN can explore new innovations and capabilities pushing the boundaries of new product development,” ​Bains said.

“The key developments around ingredients in the plant-based protein industry are focused on reducing the allergens and ingredient lists in product offers, as consumers look for the next generation of plant-based food, made with clean recipes, whilst still offering the same taste and texture experience as animal proteins.”

Puratos has observed a similar trend within the bakery sector, with firms seeking new ingredients that allow them to move away from animal-derived fats.

But Knight noted that a deep dive into the types of ingredients is crucial: “Not all plant-based baking fats are created equal however, so they need to consider their environmental impact as well as their functionality.

“As part of our ambitious sustainability agenda, we developed plant-based fat, MIMETIC, which has an environmental impact three times lower than butter, as measured by Product Environmental Footprint (PEF) methodology. In comparison to dairy butter, MIMETIC is responsible for lower CO2​ and methane emissions, uses less land per kilogram of product, and requires less water usage.”

Another trend that Puratos has focused on through its ‘Taste Tomorrow’ insights reports is the preference among consumers for locally sourced ingredients. For example, Taste Tomorrow found that 71% of UK consumers believe that food made with local ingredients has a positive impact on the environment.

Knight continued: “In the bakery sector specifically, we’re seeing more use of flour from local grains produced by regenerative farming methods. This agricultural practice aims to improve and protect soil health, often by reducing the reliance on heavy mechanical work and chemical inputs, such as pesticides and fertilisers.

“We recently launched Sapore Sally, a living sourdough made with regeneratively farmed flour from UK-based Wildfarmed. This gives customers the option to buy sourdough made domestically with local, regeneratively farmed wheat flour.”

Ollternative, part of drinks manufacturing firm Raisthorpe Manor, has driven demand for its products by emphasising the origin of the ingredients used in its manufacturing. The firm’s founder Oliver Medway explained: “Our customers love that we source for ingredients for our best-selling gins directly from our own land.

“We also work with local suppliers that we have long-standing relationships with, and we also source directly from our own land, such as the sloes from Raisthorpe and damsons from our hedge rows. This all reflects our commitment to sustainability and delivering the best possible products to our customers.”

KTC Edibles’ Lewis also noted the increased interest in the origins of different ingredients as a trend that has grown in influence, citing “provenance, certification and traceability”​ as key factors to consider.

“Consumers are increasingly interested in knowing where their products come from and how they're produced,”​ added Lewis.

“As a result, there's a growing emphasis on sourcing ingredients with clear origins, accompanied by credible certifications verifying their sustainability credentials.”

What’s next?

The sourcing process has evolved a lot already and distinct trends have emerged, but forward-looking firms are very much keeping an eye on the future.

At Ardo for example, Haspeslagh said that the firm is planning to further integrate its sustainability practices into its sourcing methods over the next 18 months.

“Our commitment to surpassing verification levels demonstrates our dedication to ongoing sustainability evolution and extending our pledge to include externally sourced vegetables, fruit, and herbs under FSA or GlobalG.A.P standards showcases our deepening commitment to diverse agricultural products,”​ Haspeslagh explained.

“Our proactive endorsement of SAI Platform’s Regenerating Together Programme through our MIMOSA+ program in 2024 underscores our accelerated embrace of global initiatives, reaffirming our commitment to pioneering positive change in the broader agricultural landscape.”

In a similar vein, SVZ hopes that firms continue to innovate in the field of sourcing, driving progress in a way that benefits the entire industry.

“This trend is likely to become more established in business strategies as consumers increasingly prefer products that align with their values,” ​Navarrete said.

“Additionally, there may be increased collaboration and knowledge-sharing among stakeholders within different parts of the food industry, fostering greater alignment of the entire agrifood sector. Companies could form partnerships to explore synergies and scale up solutions for using side streams effectively.”

Elsewhere, KTC is closely monitoring how regulatory changes, climactic events and geopolitical occurrences around the world will influence sustainability efforts within food and drink manufacturing.

“The incoming EU Deforestation Regulation and UK Sustainability Disclosure Standards will change the landscape, forcing companies to become compliant,” ​Lewis said.

“Products and companies that make compliance easy by providing the necessary data and due diligence will likely have an advantage. Alongside that, climate change and adverse weather – as we’ve already seen in Spain with the olive oil crops over recent years – will likely continue to affect ingredients. Global geopolitical events, including the ongoing Ukraine situation and the US presidential elections, will impact key ingredients, including palm and sunflower oil.

“The market will be able to adapt to these challenges, but the key will be how quickly and what the implications will be.”

Whatever the next few years hold, it is clear that progress has been made across the industry to embrace sustainable sourcing methods and invest in practices that protect the planet and community. However, these efforts must continue in full force if the UK food and drink sector is serious about reaching net zero targets.

In other news, Aldi has become the first supermarket in England and Wales to switch to 100% recycled plastic across it soft drink and water bottle own-label range​, excluding the caps and labels.

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