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Natural Foods Merchandiser

Beyond plants: Innovation delivers next-gen proteins to natural products retailers

Investors are putting billions of dollars a year into plant-based proteins and consumers are responding. See what's next in alternative milk, dairy, meat and seafood.

In late 2020, the XPRIZE Foundation, a nonprofit organizer of global technology competitions designed to address the world's greatest challenges, launched a $15 million, four-year competition to develop "cutting-edge chicken and fish alternatives that are globally accessible and provide scalable, sustainable and nutritious food-security solutions." Though the hefty purse is nothing to sneeze at, it hardly compares to the investment dollars pouring into the plant-based food sector, particularly for meat and dairy replacements.

The Good Food Institute reports that $1.5 billion was invested in alternative protein companies in 2020 alone.

The number of transactions in plant-based foods overall climbed to 83 in 2019 from 23 in 2016, according to New Hope Network's Nutrition Capital Network. As of November, an estimated 113 transactions took place in 2020. Three-quarters of those were valued at a total of approximately $3 billion, NCN reports.

These investments are fueling a multitude of technological breakthroughs in the plant-based food and beverage sphere in terms of ingredients, organoleptic attributes and product formats. Many of the companies developing these next-gen offerings also prioritize long-held natural products industry values such as health, sustainability, transparency, traceability and access, giving retailers in this space a lot to be excited about.

Flexitarian values

Flexitarian consumers may be primarily seeking the health benefits of plant-centric diets, but many also have growing concerns about the environment, food safety and animal welfare. Today's explosion of plant-based innovation in meat and dairy substitutes is luring people with the promise that, by making minor adjustments to what and how they consume, they can reap both the nutritional and ethical rewards.

Flexitarians are, literally, eating it up. According to SPINS, natural plant-based foods and beverages commanded nearly $640 million in the 52 weeks ending Dec. 27, 2020 (SPINS Natural Enhanced Channel), a year-over-year dollar volume percent change of 23%. Within that, refrigerated plant-based milk is the largest segment while refrigerated plant-based meat is the fastest growing, although most alt dairy and meat subcategories are experiencing at least double-digit growth. In particular, plant-based ice cream, yogurt and refrigerated almond milks have some of the highest dollar values, while refrigerated plant-based grounds (meat) and meatballs boast two of the highest year-over-year volume dollar change percentages.

'Real' competition

Much of this market growth is thanks to plant-based products moving ever-closer to their animal counterparts in taste, texture and performance. However, with those barriers surmounted, brands must add the nutrition back into their products to meet the consumers' ever-growing demand for healthy foods—further accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. To do so, brands are formulating with an expanding variety of plant proteins.

Pea protein is resonating with consumers, with sales growing 202.9% in the 52 weeks ending Sept. 6, 2020, SPINS reports. And in terms of product innovation, New Hope Network NEXT Data and Insights data from Expo West 2017 and 2019 show that legume-based proteins and nuts are stealing market share from grains and seeds.

Algae is another new plant protein to watch. GFI recently highlighted the potential of microbial fermentation using substances including microalgae as the "third pillar of the alternative protein industry." Another up-and-comer is mycelium (fungi), with which several alt-meat companies are formulating currently.

Protein isn't the only macronutrient focus of plant-based tech—fat might well be the next frontier. Though still unavailable in the U.S., Spanish plant-based meat brand Heura Foods has created a technique for solidifying olive oil at room temperature. The result is a juicy plant-based burger with far less saturated fat than both the typical beef patty and coconut oil-based plant burgers.

Plant-based for all

In addition to nutrition, consumers are keeping a keen eye out for sustainability, traceability and transparency when shopping for plant-based foods. Now that these products exist, people want to know how they were created.

Another important question is price and therefore accessibility. How can bringing more health to more people really mean a lot more people?

For brands committed to using plant-based foods to address the food system's environmental ramifications and social inequalities, the ability to scale and achieve real impact hinges on making their products accessible to consumers across the board.

Plant-based egg brands Eat JUST and new(er)comer Zero Egg, a foodservice-only offering (for now), are making accessibility a top priority. Beyond the Butcher has recently launched a new brand, Mainstream, aiming to offer plant-based alt meats at a price point more competitive with real beef. Encouragingly, the list of similarly motivated brands is steadily growing. 

Next-gen categories

Customers may be demanding more—more nutrition, more responsibility, more sustainability—from today's plant-based foods, but they still want their taste buds tantalized and culinary imaginations tickled.

Innovation in plant-based technology is driving a whole range of next-gen products and categories: plant-based chicken that looks and tastes just like the real thing; plant-based seafood with all the natural umami of the ocean; plant-based "cheeze" with convincing tang and meltiness; plant-based eggs that whip into the perfect scramble.

Another emerging trend is products that not only replace the real thing but also take the concept to deeper levels of function, convenience and even accessibility.

For example, plant-protein grounds or "shreds" made from pea, oat and other sources are easy to prepare and substitute in any recipe.

The products featured in this gallery capture some of the latest innovations in plant-based meat and dairy alternatives.

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