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Alternative protein vs. conventional meat

With consumers increasingly proactive in minimising meat consumption for environmental, health and animal welfare-related causes, the alternative protein sector is on the up, and meat is increasingly in competition with alternative proteins for fridge space.

In Australia alone, plant-based alternatives increased by 46% in FY20, making it a trend to keep a close eye on (Food Frontier). COVID-19 has contributed to the boost; its impact on those suffering from underlying health conditions, including hypertension, heart disease and diabetes, resulted in increased medical recommendations to shift towards alternatives to increase absorption of macronutrients, micronutrients and antioxidants (Mordor Intelligence).

"As little as 5 years ago, there was much less demand for meat free alternatives compared to today, so there was much less variety and availability for people wanting to reduce their meat consumption. However, in recent years, there has been an exponential increase in consumer demand for plant-based products, and with it, there has been a huge influx in the number of great future-focussed brands making alternate protein products. With greater innovation in product development, the plant-based meat sector has improved dramatically, and we’ve seen a phenomenal improvement in the variety, quality, and availability of plant-based options," says says co-founder of Fable Food Co, Michael Fox.

Then exacerbated growth is segmented by source; plant protein, mycoprotein, algae protein, insect protein and, although in its infancy, cell-based cultural protein.

"That consumers will eat more plant protein in the future is inevitable. The question is: will this protein be processed to look and taste like meat? I believe consumers will adopt plant protein but in an authentic way that allows it to be recognised as plant protein rather than mock meat! There is an opportunity for food science to create and modify plant protein to deliver greater diversity of texture, taste and flavour. There is an opportunity for nutritional science to create and modify plant protein-based foods in a way that provides better overall nutrition."

- Dr. Roger Harker, New Zealand's Plant & Food Research Institute

How do we best forge ahead in a fragmenting industry demanding familiarity, great taste and the right texture? New Nutrition Business placed Alternative Proteins as food trend #3 for 2021 and deep-dived into how to best market products.

1. Keep it familiar

Over a third of consumers' shopping decisions are based on looking to try something new however the contradictory balance of familiarity is vital in developing alternative proteins. Pulses and mushrooms prove to be preferred compared to Beyond Meat's likes because of their close connection to what consumers consider 'natural' and are supported by nutritionists as being good sources of protein.

A simple visit to your grocery store reflects this increase. Popular brands such as Kellogs and Masterfoods adapt familiar foods with alternative proteins- chickpeas in place of wheat or plant protein in place of whey.

According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), lactose intolerance (inability to digest lactose) affects 30-50 million Americans and over 90% of the adults in east Asia. This ticks not only the health halo but opens the door to celiacs and vegans, increasing market opportunity.

2. Appeal to the senses

Although the UK's vegan population more than doubled between 2016 and 2018 (NatCen), it isn't the vegan community driving the increase in meat substitutes but those aiming for a meat-free Monday or a Soul-free Sunday. This consumer still seeks the texture of meat but with less guilt. However, the meat substitute sector is comparatively stale to the other alternative protein fragment. The meat substitute market is overpopulated and is a competitive market to enter with growth at only 18% per annum (New Nutrition Business).

T"here has been an exponential increase in the demand for, and interest in, plant-based products, and the sector will continue to grow rapidly. However consumers don’t want to compromise on taste, health or price for meat alternatives, even though there are so many benefits from an environmental and animal welfare perspective," says Michael Fox.

If you already exist in the category or are seeking to enter it, appeal to consumers using communications on the naturalness to overcome the consumer perception of meat substitute being highly processed.

3. Looking beyond the nut

Knowledge of protein types remains in its infancy, but time will change that. As industry innovation evolves, so will the awareness through marketing the wide variety of alternative proteins sitting outside of pulses, soy and pea. As we begin seeking alternatives to eggs, mung beans' opportunity will increase, a current replacement to the usual scrambled choice. Being a cousin to soy means it appeals to those with soy allergens.

Another rising star will be duckweed, also known as water lentils. Duckweed proliferates and can be suited to vertical farming and hydroponics, making it a food of the future.

An area not highlighted by New Nutrition Business as a trend nor strategy is cell-based meat. This meat is produced using animal cells and biotechnology, tissue engineering, molecular biology and synthetic processes. Some imagine this to be a sci-fi predicated form of food; however, the product is ready to go. With investment crawling compared to competing for alternative proteins, the pressure of climate change is forcing those seeking to maintain a red meat diet and save the planet from considering the protein alternative. In America, 7 out of 10 consumers said they would swap cell-based chicken for traditional meat (Food Dive). 21% said their top reason for purchasing it would be for ethical reasons, while 19% said health was the priority. Sustainability however, only saw a top of 12% giving up meat for the sake of the plant.

The future is becoming greener and cleaner, and the food industry is leading it. As the sector grows and new sources are identified, those looking to enter the market will need to ensure that introducing the food will need to be reflective of the consumer feedback, with texture being a ruling flaw for specific brands.

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