Still hurdles for plant protein to clear

While meat substitutes are improving, taste and price still big issues for industry to contend with

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Plant-based protein has come a long way from the days when those seeking meat alternatives were relegated to chickpeas, beans and lentils.

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Plant-based protein has come a long way from the days when those seeking meat alternatives were relegated to chickpeas, beans and lentils.

Even when they were mushed, crushed and formed into burger patties, which can be very tasty, those “veggie burgers” or “garden burgers” that became popular with some consumers in the 1980s still didn’t taste like meat.

That may be fine for committed vegetarians, but they make up less than seven per cent of Canadian food buyers. The real prize in this sector is cultivating the “flexitarian” consumers looking to swap at least some of the animal protein out of their diets for health or environmental reasons.

Steve Helber / AP Files

Food manufacturers came out with the likes of Beyond Meat, which consumers associate with plant-based alternatives, about 10 years ago.

It’s become clear that if it looks like meat and acts like meat, these consumers want it to taste like meat too.

About 10 years ago, food manufacturers came out with the likes of Impossible Burgers and Beyond Meat that we associate with plant-based alternatives today.

Using technologies such as genetically engineered strains of yeast, or extrusion under high heat and pressure to form plant proteins into a meat-like texture, they’ve been able to more closely mimic the meat-eating experience. Coconut oil and cocoa butter substitute for the animal fat. In some products, beet juice is used to replicate the “bleeding” from a meat product.

There are hundreds of plant-based dairy and poultry products on the market as well, with more arriving every day. Likewise for the types of technologies used to create them.

Protein Industries Canada, one of the “innovation superclusters” supported by the federal government, predicts that over the next decade plant-based foods will become a $25-billion player creating 17,000 jobs in the Canadian economy. It sees Canada becoming a hub for innovation and investment, a premise underscored by world-class processing facilities such as Roquette locating in Portage la Prairie.

Prairie farmers are major producers of the ingredients for these products, growing everything from peas, wheat, canola and even oats, now being turned into “milk.”

However, a researcher with the Washington-based Good Food Institute (GFI), a consortium of organizations promoting alternative proteins to sustainably feed the world while addressing climate change, says there remain hurdles to overcome.

“The biggest opportunity to win is on taste and price,” Priera Panescu told the Plant Forward conference this week in Toronto.

Many find plant-based alternatives too expensive, although the gap is closing as the cost of meat continues to rise and increasing scale in the plant-based protein sector brings production costs down. A study produced by the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University and BetterCast Analytics in April showed that on average, alternative proteins cost 38 per cent more than meat. That’s a hard sell during a recession.

Consumers cite improving their health as their primary reason for eating plant-based foods. However, surveys also show that consumers who don’t buy them believe they are too highly processed and full of sodium to be healthy.

The “Is it healthier?” question is a hard one to answer because it depends on what the alt-meats are being compared against, Panescu said. Compared to red meat, a GFI study found it was slightly better on some metrics and about the same on others. But compared to lentils? Not so much.

On the sodium question, are we comparing an alternative meat product against unprocessed red meat, or as it’s served at the dinner table, where most of us sit down within easy reach of a salt shaker?

As for whether they are too highly processed, certain processes actually improve the nutritional profile of foods, she noted. Helping consumers make informed choices will be an important part of the industry’s growth.

It seems winning over Gen Z and millennials will be key to this sector’s future. Two-thirds of these demographics surveyed say they expect to consume more plant-based foods in the future.

They are also more apt to cite environmental concerns as a reason. Those consumers will be behind 69 per cent of global spending by 2040.

While it’s unlikely meat will completely disappear from the average consumer’s diet anytime soon, the trends point toward us eating less.

Laura Rance is vice-president of content for Glacier FarmMedia. She can be reached at lrance@farmmedia.com

Laura Rance

Laura Rance
Columnist

Laura Rance is editorial director at Farm Business Communications.

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