Plant protein Q&A
By Mindy Leveille, Strategic Marketing Manager, Proteins, Kerry Taste & Nutrition
Are plant proteins “fringe”?
“Today, the plant protein category is growing faster than dairy protein as consumers increasingly adopt a flexitarian approach to their diets for health and sustainability reasons. Food and beverage manufacturers are increasingly developing great-tasting, plant-based alternatives products to answer this consumer demand. Many of these innovative products are receiving positive feedback and are being adopted in many consumers’ daily diets. Effectively, plant proteins are becoming mainstream. It’s very exciting to see this happening.”
Paint us a picture of how today’s plant-based options are better than yesterday’s?
“Constant innovation over the last few years has led to plant-based alternative options that are much tastier, with good organoleptic profiles, compared to the products from even just a couple of years ago. These products are better-tasting, and that’s a result of food scientists finding ways to integrate various new ingredients to make taste and texture come alive. It’s really a tribute to food scientists and researchers. The next step is to improve the clean-label credentials of each product; consumers want indulgent products, but they still want clean labels.”
Which plant-based ingredients and technologies push the ball forward — and what makes them game changers?
“The game-changing advances in plant-based ingredients involve the nutritional quality of the protein ingredients moving up to match that of animal-based protein. Aside from soy, most plant proteins are deficient in essential amino acids, but you can combine plant proteins to increase the protein quality. Kerry’s ProDiem Complete plant protein combines pea and rice protein in one complementary ingredient that is fully equivalent in protein quality to dairy or egg.
“One of the challenges with plant protein can be off-notes, gritty texture and mouthfeel. Flavour-masking technologies and processing-technique innovations are other advances improving the taste and reducing grittiness of proteins in food and beverage applications. Kerry’s ProDiem Complete protein has been developed using proprietary processing and flavour-masking technology to deliver neutral taste and reduced grittiness in application.”
Another game changer in this category would be plant protein solutions for clear beverages. Kerry launched ProDiem™ Refresh, a clear, vegan and allergen-free plant protein solution for clear low-pH beverages (waters). This solution is actually unique on the market. A few years ago, thinking about fortifying a clear, low-PH beverage with plant protein would have been impossible because of solubility, taste and texture challenges but this has been overcome by innovative protein ingredient processing technology.
Where’s the room to grow — i.e., what qualities, from flavour and texture to colour and variety, are still in beta mode?
“Functional plant protein-based beverages are an important area of growth in the global beverage market, which, by the way is expected to grow to surpass
$1 trillion in value by 2022. In fact, our Kerry research report about the growth opportunity of protein in the beverage category, called Unlocking the Power of Protein in Beverages https://kerry.com/insights/resources/power-of-proteins-download, explains why this is a category with untapped potential for growth. In this one innovative part of the protein beverage market, the product possibilities are limitless. Potential product examples that are now possible include a refreshing, clear plant protein water, iced coffee protein drinks, breakfast smoothies, etc. You could also develop products that combine both animal- and plant-based complementary proteins to target flexitarian consumers. There are all sorts of ways, using the various new proteins on the product development palette, to create great new functional beverages.”
How important is it that these alternatives match their non plant-based models? How close are we?
“The consumer category that is driving the growth of plant-based market is the flexitarian category. This group is consuming both plant-based and non plant-based products. For this reason, it is vital that plant-based products match their comparables in order to stay attractive to this consumer category. We are reaching that point right now, as you can see with the success of many plant-based food and beverages. However, there is still room for innovation to improve taste and texture and retain clean labelling. This is an exciting time to be in the food and beverage industry as consumer attitudes and desires shift dramatically to plant proteins.”
“One point to remember is that the global population will grow from 7.8 billion today to 9 billion by the late 2030s. All of these new consumers will need protein, and that can be shared by plant and dairy proteins as market demand expands.”
To wit, which categories not necessarily associated with animal foods – snacks, sauces, pastas, energy drinks, infant formulas et al are now promoting plant versions?
“One area is baby formulas, in which product developers are now using organic hypoallergenic rice protein. Hypo-allergenicity is key for that market given that these plant-based formulas are often used as a solution for infants with intolerance or allergies to cow’s milk proteins. At Kerry, we have organic plant-based protein solutions for infant formulas.
“Energy and protein beverages are an area in which companies with existing product lines using dairy proteins are looking to extend that line by developing plant-based versions of their beverages. The vegan/vegetarian and flexitarian markets are large and growing substantially.
Targeting these categories with a plant-based extension of a current successful product is a winning strategy. Likewise, as consumers seek more plant-based options, expanding current animal-based product lines in snacks, sauces, pastas and others by adding a plant-based version is a healthy growth strategy.”
Do consumers judge these products more gently, given that they’re not necessarily trying to resemble an animal-based original?
“Vegan and vegetarian consumers likely evaluate plant-based products more gently, as supporting non-animal-based food and beverages is key to them. Flexitarian consumers evaluate plant-based more critically, and for that reason continuous innovation in this space is critical.”
Where do you see innovation in this segment happening?
“We tend to think that most of the innovation is occurring in larger companies, but smaller companies and start-ups are also taking the lead in plant-based innovation. It’s quite exciting to see some of these products gain traction and success in the marketplace.”
Many consumers choose plant-based in a bid to eat more “cleanly”. However some of these products contain a lot of “chemical” ingredients. Which ingredients simplify plant-based labels while maintaining functionality and flavour?
“Innovation in the plant protein space can drive the reduction of ingredients consumers wish to avoid. One example of innovation is Kerry’s ProDiem™ Refresh, a clear, vegan and allergen-free protein that is stable in low-pH beverages (such as water) with no need for stabilizers. By using this protein, beverage manufacturers can formulate using plant protein in refreshing clear beverages that don’t compromise on the clean label, sustainability or taste.”
How do plant-based products compare nutritionally to their counterparts? Are some better for you, while others need fortification to measure up? And how is this a challenge for the category going forward?
“Many of the current plant-based beverages, such as almond milk, have protein quality problems. This will become an important issue as consumer concerns shift from taste to nutrition quality. Substandard protein quality could be an issue going forward, and those protein beverages that have a complete protein content will have an advantage over other plant-based choices. Plant milks such as almond can be fortified by adding other plant proteins (like pea), and that is the next stage.”
“Plant protein has the same nutritional challenge in food but is more easily overcome by adding in nuts and other complementary proteins. This may also require adding in other ingredients, such as flavours, etc., to improve taste. A far easier solution is to use a plant protein ingredient that is already complete, i.e., includes all essential amino acids.”
Ultimately, what will tomorrow’s plant-based foods need to survive in an increasingly cutthroat market?
“Plant-based foods will likely come under increasing scrutiny and competitive pressure from traditional food sources and each other. The emerging competitive differentiators appear to be taste, nutrition, protein quality and a clean label. Plant proteins will need to greatly improve their quality, and this will become a key differentiator once taste discrepancies are more or less eliminated. Plant protein products will also need to develop a shorter and ‘cleaner’ (i.e., more
clean-label) ingredients list. Another key aspect will be price differences between existing traditional proteins and new plant proteins as competition steps up between ingredients. Additional price pressures will continue to emerge, and this will have an ongoing impact on the plant protein ingredients market. The end winner will be consumers, who will end up with more nutritious, tastier and cleaner-label plant protein products.”
What are existing consumer trends on the market that you’re seeking to tap into with your ingredients? What propels these trends? How is the market faring?
“Kerry’s research has found that consumers are increasingly looking for clean and simple food products made from natural ingredients. More than 70% read the ingredient deck to check what ingredients make up the products they’re consuming, while 69% want to see more transparency in food ingredients. A full 84% of 18- to 34-year-olds agree with the statement ‘I am willing to pay more for natural food and drinks’.”
“Consumers are also looking for sustainability in their foods and beverages, all the way from farm to fork. Over 50% of consumers state sustainability is important and they associate it with ethical manufacturing practices, eco-friendly products, responsible sourcing and ethical farming practices. Sustainability is an increasingly important concern for consumers, and one the food industry must proactively support.”
Plant-proteins are in the limelight — but what does this spell for the dairy protein market? Has the demand for vegan proteins offset the demand for dairy proteins?
“With our global population projected to reach nine billion by the late 2030s, and with rising consumer incomes in many emerging countries in recent decades, the demand for quality dairy protein should continue to grow. Plant proteins will likely continue to have a rising share of the global protein market, but – with 1.2 billion more mouths to feed between now and the late 2030s – there is plenty of market room for both plant and animal proteins. The need for additional supplies of sustainably produced dairy and plant proteins is expected to continue expanding in the coming years and decades as the world seeks to meet a surging public appetite for quality food and beverage protein choices. Consumer tastes for different kinds of new plant proteins have already developed rapidly over the last decade, so going forward it will take new and innovative plant proteins to augment traditional sources of protein (like dairy) in food and beverage product development.”