Out of the rut and into the plant-based future
Plant-based meat alternatives are stuck in the same old formats. Three key parameters plus the right ingredient solution can keep innovation alive
By Flemming Østergaard, Strategic Marketing Manager, IFF
Plant-based meat alternatives are winning more and more space on the shelves of European supermarkets as the category continues its year-on-year growth. Many manufacturers have stepped up their product development in a bid to capture a piece of the action. Yet, for all their activity, consumers could still be forgiven for thinking that many of the newcomer products bring very little news.
The explanation for that is the historical dominance of plant-based alternatives to sausages, burgers, strips, mince and steaks in the product line-up – five formats that have driven the past years’ sales and which continue to have considerable market pull.
Although these products have clearly been a good recipe for success until now, there are various reasons why the tide could turn. To put it bluntly: unless brand owners start innovating very soon, the current fast-paced growth could end up as a slow shuffle, sending the plant-based meat category along the path to stagnation.
That doesn’t need to happen. So many boundless opportunities exist to energise and extend the category that manufacturers are actually spoilt for choice about the direction.
Functional ingredient solutions also exist to enable this new product development. At fundamental level, it boils down to an awareness of three primary factors – consumer segment, nationality and occasion. More on that in just a moment.
Great ready meal potential
It’s within the market for convenient ready meals that the plant-based meat alternative has its greatest potential, either as a meal component or a meal in itself. While the UK has long been the ready meal’s European stronghold, point-of-sale data collected by Nielsen show a significant rise in value sales in countries like Germany and Denmark from 2017 to 2019.
This was, of course, before the pandemic. After a year that has forced many to work from home and imposed severe restrictions on sales from food service channels, consumer food-purchasing behaviour has changed.
While some consumers have become more conscious of making healthy food choices, this has not been the overriding tendency over the past year. Instead, IFF research points to a more general move toward familiar, comforting and affordable food. Convenient ready meals have gained renewed appeal, for example for working parents who have both had to hold down a job and manage the kids’ home schooling – a trend that’s tipped to continue beyond the return to pre-pandemic life.
The ‘new normal’ in retail
Retailers have responded to the ‘new normal’ by ramping up the products that consumers demand most and offering convenient takeaway options that eat into traditional food service terrain. Meat alternatives are increasingly on the retail radar. And understandably so, with Euromonitor predicting 9.7% year-on-year growth in Europe up to 2024.
Brand owners have experienced the direct consequences of this pandemic-induced change on their retail sales. As consumers have shopped less frequently and more in bulk, their purchasing decisions have largely favoured trusted global brands and the store’s affordable, own-label brands. Sales of regional brands, on the other hand, have been squeezed, with many losing shelf space as a result.
Product launch activity reflects the positive climate for global brands and own labels in the meat alternatives category. The brands’ comparatively low share of total product launches indicates the smaller effort they have had to make to maintain consumer loyalty. By the same token, regional brands stand out with a 63% share of total launches in 2020 – a high activity level that is barely visible in sales figures overall.
Beyond the same old same old
Despite these differences in performance, global, regional and private-label brands remain focused on the same old formats. Plant-based burgers and sausages continue to dominate new product launches across the board, followed by alternatives to mince. Dinner is the main target in terms of consumption occasion. In short, manufacturers are conducting their innovation within the same narrow space.
An IFF consumer survey of six European countries has provided some insights into how manufacturers may move forward. Confirming that many consumers have reduced their meat consumption, the survey found that 51% of Europeans regularly consume plant-based meat alternatives at least once a month. Many also express a wish to eat meat alternatives more often, driven by a desire for more nutritional variety and a combination of concerns for health, the environment and animal farming.
Six consumer segments
Beyond that, however, the findings reveal that consumer needs and interests vary. A closer look shows that consumers are split between those with a strong nutritional focus and those who are driven by taste. Among consumers who prioritise nutrition, there are further differences between those who buy plant-based products for their health benefits and those who choose them to help manage their weight.
From these observations, the IFF survey has mapped six consumer segments within the meat alternatives category. Each one represents a potential opportunity for manufacturers to develop new products with a target consumer in mind.
Three parameters for change
Other important considerations are how to innovate new products that can replace the meat element in the familiar day-to-day meals of a specific country and how to match them up with a particular eating occasion. Although dinner remains the most important occasion in Europe at present, good possibilities exist to position plant-based meat alternative products as lunch or snack items in several countries.
In other words, consumer segment, national food preferences and eating occasions all play a role in consumer purchasing decisions. Rather than continuing to launch more of the same types of product, manufacturers who focus on balancing these three parameters in their product development may find a new recipe for success – providing consumers with new plant-based meat experiences that still meet their need for familiarity, convenience and affordability.
Enablers of innovation
Recent years have seen a raft of new ingredients appear to support manufacturers with their plant-based product development. Indeed, the extent of this ingredient innovation has created vast possibilities to develop new, customized products for the ready meals segment.
Textured plant proteins based on soy or pea, for example, can both recreate the texture, succulence and appearance of meat and enable manufacturers to take the leap into new development beyond meat simulation – with seemingly endless variety.
Soy protein is the plant protein with the longest track record in the food industry and remains the strategic choice for most manufacturers. Over time, advances in formulation knowhow have eliminated the off-tastes that were the original disadvantage of soy as well as pea protein, ensuring their palatability. This experience is now being transferred, slowly but surely, to other plant protein sources in the quest for new innovation opportunities.
At the same time, ingredient companies like IFF have developed a broad range of texturising and stabilising ingredients to deliver stable sensory and cooking properties.
Cellulose gives meat alternatives their ‘hot bite’ and firmness immediately after cooking.
Seaweed-derived alginates and carrageenans can be used to add a fat-like texture and juiciness, respectively. Then, there are fermentates and flavourants to deliver an appealing mouthfeel and umami taste, and antioxidants to maintain freshness through shelf life. The list of possibilities goes on.
Nutrition claims ahead
Improved nutrition is likely to be the next innovation frontier for the meat alternatives category. Some manufacturers are already drawing on ingredient solutions that support fat and salt reduction. Attention is now turning to protein quality in terms of amino acid composition, fibre content and fortification with vitamins such as B12. This is important because many consumers instinctively associate plant-based products with a healthier image. In the future, they will require documentation in the form of on-pack nutrition claims.
Once restrictions are lifted and we enter the post-pandemic age, the days when consumers choose the familiar and the comforting will be numbered. Global brands and supermarket own labels will no longer be able to grow their market share while resting on their laurels. And consumers will demand, once and for all, a more imaginative selection of convenient plant-based alternatives to meat that target their particular preferences and needs.
Manufacturers need to start preparing for this near-future scenario. Innovation is the life-blood of the plant-based category. Now’s the time to get out of the rut.