Plant-based meats are products designed to imitate animal meat, in taste, texture, aroma and appearance. But that is not all, the goal is to fully recreate the experience the consumer has when eating animal meat, working both in terms of organoleptic properties and familiarity with the plant-based product. This is because the main consumers of these products are people who eat meat but at the same time seek alternatives to reduce their consumption.
After growing 33 % in 2020 with $1.4B, sales of meat alternative products have begun to stagnate remaining equal to the previous year, according to the article published by Forbes “Lifeless Market For Meatless Meat”.
For sure, compared to a few years ago, this market is getting more saturated as we can see more and more companies and start-ups emerging to develop plant-based meat. However, consumers currently have also raised the bar: they are not willing to compromise, and are demanding plant-based products that fully meet characteristics such as taste, texture and price. The key to keeping this industry active in the long run, moving from niche to mainstream products, is definitely to improve existing products, and look to innovation for new product development, stimulating consumer demand, purchase and repeat purchase.
Below are the 4 areas where vegetable meat still has room for improvement, and which it needs to achieve to consolidate its market now and in the future.
1.Differentiation: texture, taste and territory
According to the Good Food Institute, 73% of consumers agree that vegetable meat should imitate the taste of traditional meat. At the same time, 47 % of consumers say they would like more variety of plant-based meat on the shelf.
Currently, the largest plant-based meat product is plant-based burgers, which are made with textured plant proteins, gelling agents (methylcellulose), vegetable oils, coloring and flavoring. Other types of meat alternative products that can be found after veggie sausages and meatballs are chicken substitutes, which are produced using a technology currently of great interest, namely high-moisture texturization (wet extrusion), which allows for a fibrous texture.
However, although the supply has expanded in recent years, the demand for a greater variety of plant-based meat is steadily increasing, as evidenced by the emergence of many start-ups seeking to create and own fillets or pieces of whole meat, recreating the “marbling” effect given by the fat in animal meat.
Moreover, taste is also not a parameter to be ignored: according to this article published by Food Business News, half of flexitarian consumers agree that alternatives to meat need to be improved in terms of taste, which remains one of the main purchase drivers. Here, in addition to the search for harmony of flavors to recreate the “meat taste,” another key aspect must be considered: taste must be tailored according to the territory and tradition of the place of sale, as there can be many differences between similar products.
2.Highlight the health benefits
Most consumers of plant-based meat, the so-called flexitarians, are driven by a desire to adopt a healthier diet. Although plant products are generally labeled as sustainable and healthy, it remains necessary to best highlight the characteristics in a clear and transparent manner.
Currently, many consumers believe that the benefits of eating plant-based meat are protein intake and low saturated fat, features associated with weight maintenance. However, vegetable meat is not an equivalent to animal meat, as it is incomplete compared to its animal counterpart. Brands therefore should invest in improving these products, such as enriching them in vitamin B12 and zinc, nutrients found in conventional meat, or highlighting positive ingredients and fiber content to reassure consumers that the product is easy to digest.
Price, along with taste and texture, remains the first barrier to purchase for consumers. There is a need to close the gap with animal meat by achieving price parity and making vegetable meat accessible to all. This gap can only narrow over time as production increases, economies of scale are achieved. Beyond that, acting on the price of the ingredients themselves can be an effective strategy in the long run. For example, according to the article “Reducing the price of alternative proteins” published by the Good Food Institute, there are several methods to try to reduce the price of plant proteins, such as improvements on field yields, process scaling, by-product enhancement, supply chain sharing, localized production, as well as optimization of technologies used for extraction. In addition, in the product itself reformulation activities can also induce price reduction, going to meet other consumer needs as well, such as clean label.
According to the already cited article from Food Business News, 66 % of consumers say they look for labels with the shortest ingredient list, and 69% of consumers say simple, recognizable ingredients influence their purchasing decisions.
More and more consumers are looking for plant-based meat alternatives and are also analyzing ingredient lists, considering a short list with known ingredients as better, and healthier. This area then requires product reformulation, looking at continuous innovations in new ingredients and processes. For example, in plant-based burgers, achieving a clean label seems necessary, especially because of ingredients that are perceived as unknown by the consumer, such as methyl cellulose or other gelling agents. In this sense, the emergence of several start-ups that propose new alternative ingredients to existing ones, or blends of ingredients with high functionality, may be the key to succeed in reducing the ingredient list of these complex products, without sacrificing taste or texture.