Plant-based proteins are the dish of the day but the big question is whether they can win over meat-lovers. Niamh Michail reports from Las Vegas.
Each year, research and development scientists and food formulators from the world’s biggest ingredient companies come together at the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) show. In Las Vegas this year the hot topic was without a doubt plant-based protein.
The anticipation among these companies, which supply makers of fast-moving consumer goods with the ingredients to create new products, was palpable. But – as with every other food trend – the million-dollar question remains: is it a passing fad or a long-term change in people’s eating habits?
There are two dimensions to consider. First: what is driving consumers to swap meat for plant protein at least a few times a week? According to Steve Walton, the president of food consultancy HealthFocus International, the root cause can be found in macro trends – and that means durable shifts in dietary habits. Significant portions of the population want to eat less meat and more fruit and vegetables for their personal health and for the health of the planet, says Walton, not just a few committed vegetarians.
The livestock industry emits far more carbon than plant protein production, and appealing to this environmental consciousness is a big part of Impossible Foods’ marketing. “Compared to cows, the Impossible Burger uses 95% less land, 74% less water, and creates 87% less greenhouse gas emissions,” the company says. So that’s two boxes ticked by plant-based proteins, and with animal welfare that’s the hat-trick.
But let’s consider the second element: can the food industry actually produce plant-based alternatives good enough to merit a place on a meat-lover’s plate?
Last month, I joined five meat-eating friends at a restaurant that was serving several Impossible Foods dishes. We could choose from a trio of mini burgers, a Japanese-style spicy meatball soup and Thai lettuce cups. No one was vegetarian but everyone ordered an Impossible dish. That in itself bodes well for the plant-based movement – it is genuinely appealing to non-vegetarians.
“We’re making plant-based meat and dairy products first and foremost for meat lovers,” is the mantra from Impossible Foods. And the Impossible Burger apparently “tastes nothing like a veggie burger”.
So did it live up to the hype? The verdict on the texture was both unanimous and positive. It was meaty and had that “bounce” that meat-free protein can struggle to replicate. We were disappointed by the fact that it didn’t “bleed” – but put that down to an overzealous chef. The meat-lovers said the flavour “wasn’t quite there if you compare to a real steak burger”. Still, with better seasoning it would definitely pass the taste test.
Nevertheless, it’s still early days for plant-based proteins, and the food industry is doing its best to ensure the products live up to the hype. They are even attracting investment from outside traditional food industry channels.
Bill Gates has backed Beyond Meat, while billionaire Li Ka-shing’s Horizons Ventures fund invested in Modern Meadow’s lab-grown “clean” meat and Perfect Day’s animal-free milk, which uses genetically modified yeasts to “brew” dairy proteins without dairy cows. As Neil Foster, the commercial manager of Ireland-based food tech start-up Nuritas, put it at the Future Proteins summit in London in April: wealthy people see food health and saving the environment as “cool things to use technology for”.
It’s not just cellular agriculture start-ups from tech hubs like Silicon Valley, either. Some meat companies are also taking note and redirecting dollars accordingly: one of Germany’s biggest meat firms, Rügenwalder Mühle, has said it wants at least 30% of the company’s sales to come from its vegetarian range by 2019.
When the gluten-free trend moved from niche to mainstream, and increasing numbers of consumers began to add gluten-free products to their shopping trolley along with conventional bread, the food industry invested to make those free-from products taste as good as the real thing. There was money to be made and it would be bad business not to.
Similarly, if there’s cash in not using cows, pigs or chicken for proteins, there’s no reason why manufacturers won’t move in to take a slice of this (vegetarian) pie. Plant protein already outpaces growth of meat and seafood, according to Lux Research, and from what I saw at IFT the food industry won’t be short of options to pursue.