The Role of Plant-Based Proteins in Food Production

You’ve probably seen the commercials and heard the consumer demand—plant-based proteins are having a moment.

Celebrities like Billie Eilish, Beyonce, Katy Perry, and Benedict Cumberbatch have toted the health and environmental benefits of going plant-based. Even fast-food restaurants are getting in on the veggie train by offering Impossible Burgers and Beyond Meat options on their menus. The plant-based section of grocery stores is growing and thriving. So what do food manufacturers need to consider when trying to keep up with the trend?

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Several years ago, there was a cultural war on gluten. Atkins, Keto, and Paleo took off. Consumers began eschewing bread and sugar for low-carb and gluten-free or gluten-friendly options. Celebrities shared their wheat-free lifestyle tips. The bread aisle at the grocery store shrunk, and manufacturers had to offer gluten-friendly spins on their products. While going gluten-free is essential for people with allergies, many (non-allergic) consumers quickly learned that they really missed those carbs!

Over the last five years, clean eating and plant-based proteins have been growing in popularity. It seems that everywhere you look, there’s a new plant-based menu option. Once a tiny “granola” section of the store or a hummus option on a menu, vegan and plant-based products are now ubiquitous.

So what’s the deal with plant-based proteins? As a food manufacturer, do you need to take dairy and eggs off the menu completely? Is this another trend like “gluten-friendly and low-carb,” or will plant proteins continue to increase in popularity?

The Growing Market for Plant-Based Proteins

The numbers point to growing consumer interest in plant proteins. Over 9.7 million Americans follow plant-based diets, rising from around 290,000 in 2004. That’s a significant increase in a short amount of time! Vegans, vegetarians, flexitarians, and even pescatarians (those who eat plant-based except fish) seek plant-based versions of their favorite foods.

So why the sudden interest in plant-based proteins?

A salad packed with plant-based protein is a great option for healthier living.Well, like the gluten-free trend years back, there is a “halo effect” that comes with any approach to healthy eating. People perceive plant-based or vegan foods as more nutritious, even if it’s burgers, tacos, and fried “chicken.” Consumers aren’t entirely wrong, either. Many plant-based options offer lower cholesterol and include vitamins and fiber. Eating more plants IS a good strategy for health, but a processed or deep-fried plant won’t beat an apple in terms of nutrition.

The other factor that plays into consumer interest in plant-based proteins is the ethical and environmental take on choosing plants over animal protein. Documentaries like Food Inc., Forks Over Knives, and Cowspiracy have raised questions about food systems and animal agriculture. Similarly, these documentaries have also highlighted the environmental impact of farming. Many of these documentaries are widely available on services like Netflix and Amazon Prime and have caused consumers to explore ethical questions about food sources.

Studies show that consumers are concerned about the ethical choices of the businesses they support, with 56% of Americans saying they would stop buying from an unethical brand. While many other factors influence food selection—like taste, availability, and even packaging–it’s essential to recognize that many customers want to know where their food is coming from and that it arrived on their plate with the least amount of harm to the world.

The other factor that’s increasing the popularity of plant-based choices is taste. Tastes and textures have significantly improved over the last several years. Companies like Impossible Foods have created meat-mimicking ground “beef” that’s almost indiscernible from the real thing. Using flavoring like plant-derived “heme” that makes a savory taste, these meat analogs are comparable in price, mouth-feel, and flavor. Similarly, Eat Just created Just Egg from mung bean protein. The scrambled substitute has an eggy flavor, texture, consistency, and performance.

In the dairy section, the variety of milk substitutes are wide. Almond, hemp, cashew, rice, soy, and oat milk are widely available in any store and even at coffee counters. Consumers can choose yogurt, ice cream, cultured butter, and aged cheese derived from plants. Constant new inventions and varieties from trusted companies like Ben & Jerry’s mean consumers can get the products they love in a plant-based form.

Now, not everyone is happy about the sudden interest in plant-based proteins. Those who work in animal agriculture, especially dairy, have expressed concerns over these competitors edging in on the market. In 2020, many consumers bought and tried plant-based proteins during the Coronavirus pandemic, causing a 9% growth in plant-based proteins. At the same time, dairy farmers took a hit and were even forced to destroy some of their products.

While the plant protein trend is growing, it’s important to recognize that not every aspect is ideal. Some who work in agriculture and farming may continue to see adverse effects of this new trend. Of course, they will adjust their business approach, but it’s still a hit, especially for small farmers. The prominent players in the $100 billion U.S. livestock and poultry industry will adapt and change, but the trend may still cause concern. Fortunately, demand for animal products is holding steady worldwide and expected to continue to grow as populations grow. While people want plant-based protein, they also still want meat.

Environmental Benefits of Increasing Plant-Based Protein Offerings

With all the interest in plant-based protein, food manufacturers may be wondering if meeting the demand is worth the effort. Are plant-based proteins better for the environment? In many cases, the answer is yes, but in some, we still have a long way to go.

Plant-based milk, like palm leaf milk, is a great non-dairy alternative to cow's milk and a great plant-based proteinNot every plant-based food is excellent for the environment. Ingredients like palm oil, for example, can cause significant deforestation and environmental degradation in the name of plants. The impact of palm oil on the environment is severe.

Almonds and almond milk have also faced scrutiny in some cases due to the high-water requirements for growing almonds. Ounce for ounce, more water is required for almond milk than any other type (besides cow milk). The increasing demand for almond milk has impacted some areas’ biodiversity and may have even contributed to the drought that exacerbated California wildfires this past decade.

Similarly, not every plant-based option is harvested ethically. Human workers on farms across the globe face low pay, backbreaking labor, exposure to pesticides, and unregulated working conditions that can be deadly. Consumers may feel that a plant-based diet is better for the animals, which is certain, but it’s crucial to explore how it can be made truly better for workers.

World hunger has been growing and only increased after the events of 2020 and the Coronavirus pandemic. There are many areas globally, including in the United States, where people struggle to get healthy, affordable food. Plant-based diets can go far in reducing the resource requirements for agriculture. It takes less land, less water, and even fewer plants to feed humans than it does to feel animals in the farming industry.

But animal products are beloved by consumers and a significant part of our diet, especially here in the Midwest. Separate us from our cheese? Never! Producers and consumers are finding ways to work together toward more sustainable options, delicious offerings, and a slow transition to a more environmentally friendly lifestyle. For many consumers, making a difference is about adding more plant-based options to their diet, examining the ethics of their food choices, and appreciating and savoring the non-plant-based items in their meals.

Statistically speaking, the interest in plant-based foods is continuing to increase. As more innovation comes to the food industry, people will keep craving these delicious meat-free foods. It’s safe to say that times are changing. It may be a slow process, but people will continue to incorporate plant-based proteins into their daily diets. The chances that everyone will go entirely plant-based tomorrow are zero, but expect more meat-free meals on the future menu.

What Food Manufacturers Should Consider

So should you get on the bandwagon? In food manufacturing, there is a lot to consider before you change up your ingredients and start offering plant-based takes on your products. Much of the decision is based on your facility’s bandwidth, consumer interest, availability of ingredients, and of course, cost.

If you’re considering changing up some of your products, here is what you should consider.

Does a Plant-Based Protein Fit with Your Product Line?

Does plant-based protein, like tofu, make sense as a product for your food manufacturing line?If creating a plant-based product fits your offerings already, it could be a natural way to increase your appeal to consumers. For example, the famous Girl Scout Cookies (made by ABC Bakers) includes five “accidentally vegan” options in their lineup. With extra diligence on sourcing ingredients like sugar and flavorings, a plant-based option might align with your business.

If you offer frozen foods like tamales, pizzas, or burritos, a plant-based protein may be a simple swap or expansion to your menu. Try a vegetarian take first if you aren’t sure about the impact of going entirely plant-based right upfront. Test the popularity among specific markets to see if it’s something your customers crave.

Cost and Sourcing

2020 aside, the supply chain is robust, and food distribution isn’t usually a problem for manufacturers seeking a new ingredient. However, quality, brand-name plant-based protein (like Impossible Foods “ground”) can be more expensive to source than beef.

Other plant-based proteins like dairy and milk substitutes may be less costly but more difficult to source or work with. For example, aquafaba, a byproduct of chickpeas, has similar properties to meringue powder but is harder to find and comes in a liquid form. Some plant-based proteins aren’t as easily found in commercial quantities, which again can increase the cost.

Consumer Interest

If you decide to follow the plant-based trend with a few new additions to your product line, always measure consumer interest. Before you transition your full product line to “plant-based only,” try one or two product changes and see what people think. This is particularly important if you feel that the change may impact your product’s taste or texture.

Certain plant-based proteins are polarizing, too—like cheese. While there are very good dairy-free cheese analogs available, some don’t freeze well, melt differently, and may have a different flavor than your customers are used to. It’s best to try one or two varieties to start and then expand from there.

Impact on Production and Process

Your production line likely follows a very clear protocol. Any change in ingredients or a new variation on your core offerings will take time and impact production. You may find that heating times need adjustment. You will definitely need to change labeling information. Even the best-by data may require modification. While these steps aren’t huge, they can impact your production and change your facility’s product processing.

Should you decide to offer a plant-based protein option in your product line, you may also want to consider touting and promoting that information to your consumers. If your ingredients are ethically sourced, plant-based, or vegan, let consumers know. Of course, some labels, like Certified Organic or Kosher, require certification and oversight. Still, if you feel your product appeal would benefit from such a label, it’s worth exploring. Catch your consumer’s eye and draw in a new crowd of hungry shoppers.

So is plant-based protein important for your food manufacturing business? It depends on your product line and your target market, but it’s worth exploring. As people focus on health and the environment, they’re likely to continue moving toward plant-based options. As the possibilities expand and evolve in the coming years, consumers will continue to crave these alternative plant-based proteins.