The plant-based business is under constant development. In just 4 years, product developments have been going through a revolution and what seemed impossible a few years ago now exists as common consumables across supermarkets. So, what does the plant-based future look like and how do we overcome some of the biggest plant-based challenges?
Plant-based ingredients of yesterday, today, and tomorrow
It all started with soy and tofu. Used in China for 2000 years, tofu was not widely consumed in Europe and US until the 1980's. Tofu, also known as bean curd, is made from heated soy milk and is today an important source of protein for many with a meat-free lifestyle, as well as being an important part of the cuisine of Japan, China, Korea, and Southeast Asia.
Tofu is still a popular plant-based product but now has serious competition from other protein sources that can better replicate the taste and texture of animal meat. Wheat gluten (e.g., seitan), fungi mycelia protein (e.g., quorn) as well as legume proteins like peas and faba beans are all getting popular in the plant-based category, and many companies are experimenting with different fermenting processes to give the final product a meatier texture.
Speaking with Mette Skau Mikkelsen, we asked what she sees as the strongest future plant-based trends? “Alternative meat, dairy and cheese products are now widely available on supermarket shelves making it much easier to keep-up a plant-based diet. Vegan burgers, sausages, plant-based yogurt and ice-cream are now widely consumed both by vegans and people who want to consume less animal product in their weekly diet”, Mette says and amplifies that she believes that the future of plant-based food consists of products that replicate animal products in better ways but also have value as products in their own right.
“Taste and texture has greatly improved in the last few years, and now we start to see plant-based meat alternatives that are indistinguishable from the original product. At Plant-Based Expo in London a few months ago, we ate 3D printed plant-based steaks from the Israeli company Redefine Meat. If I hadn’t known better, I would have thought, I ate a real red steak, but this was a fully plant-based product made of peas and soy protein,” she says and continues. “They market themselves as 'Exactly the same-entirely different' and this is exactly what they are. I see great potential for companies trying to redefine, what we think is a plant-based product and challenge analogue meat on a greater scale.”
What are the biggest challenges in the plant-based industry?
“The biggest challenge in the plant-based industry is the constant need for innovation. Plant-based products are heavily R&D driven, and the development of new vegan products requires huge investments in innovation. Increased competition and consumer demands add another layer of pressure on plant-based producers, that does not exist to the same degree when it comes to more conventional food producers,“ Mette says, “When it comes to public interest in plant-based products, many plant-based trend experts agree that the industry is likely to follow an s-curve: Slow, then sudden. At first, uptake will be low and will suffer repeated setbacks. But as the scale rises and prices fall, market penetration is likely to reach 10% or more. That’s the point at which linear growth suddenly switches to exponential growth. It’s a trend we’ve seen in dozens of technologies, from refrigerators to smartphones.”
“We are currently seeing a setback in the plant-based industry,” Mette explains “but many indicators show that this will quickly change again. At FOSS we are ready for this transition and are building a portfolio of solutions to support all these new food products. Plant-based food needs the support of analytics just as much as the traditional food segments to ensure standardized productions and a quality that’s both safe and uniform.”
How do you work with plant-based research at FOSS?
“At FOSS we work with analyzing plant-based food in different ways. Under the project name `The Plant Cell´ we have several colleagues in Front-End Innovation who are creating analytical solutions for the plant-based industry,” Mette says.
“One example of how FOSS contributes to the green transition of the food system, that is on the forefront of the changes that will most likely impact all FOSS’ customers in the year to come, is a partnership with the Danish companies Thise Dairy, KMC, Chr Hansen, and the University of Copenhagen in a project led by DTU National Food Institute. FOSS is contributing with an FT-IR analysis solution (MilkoScan™ FT3) for measurement of plant-based dairy alternatives, and will evaluate the potential in product development e.g., monitoring of fermentation processes to be ready with solutions that are suited to this emerging industry. The REPLANTED project, which has been launched for the purpose of developing processes and cultures for producing plant-based fermented foods, similar to yoghurt-based products, based on pea, oat and potato, is set to run for three years. The new starter cultures will improve the performance and quality of plant-based dairy alternatives, benefiting all global producers and expanding the range of potential customers beyond the dairy industry.”
How do analytical solutions help the plant-based industry?
“Supermarkets are booming with plant-based food alternatives, and producers are really starting to nail the textures and flavors of especially the meat alternatives. All these new food products need the support of analytics just as much as the traditional food segments, to ensure standardized productions and a quality that’s both safe and uniform,” Mette says.
“We have been working closely with both plant-based dairy and plant-based meat producers, creating analytics packages and solutions to fit their individual needs. Many manufacturers of plant-based meat and dairy products struggle with achieving consistent quality in their production and one of the reasons is a lack of insight into the detailed composition of their products. If you want to make sure that the composition of your products remains the same over time, you need to be able to measure the key parameters of your ingredients at every step throughout the production process, from raw material to finished product. This will also enable you to use the right blend of raw materials and optimize your production processes, limiting waste and reducing costs.”
“Then you can become able to consistently deliver what your consumers want: a delicious, healthy product that is also good for the planet. A product that contains exactly what it says on the label, nothing more, nothing less. A product that looks, tastes, and feels like unique meat and dairy alternatives every time. At the same time, you can improve your processes, reduce costs, and improve your top line,” Mette concludes.
Mette Skau Mikkelsen is Principal Scientist and Head of Plant-Based at FOSS. She is working closely with industry partners within the food innovation space creating analytical solutions for food compositional, functional, and nutritional aspects. With a MSc in plant agronomy and a PhD in Plant Food Science & Technology, she has been working for years in Research and private-public collaborations on ingredient functionality, product development and nutritional evaluation of plant-based foods.