Boom or bust: Are consumers ready for the alternative protein revolution?24 Jun 2022
While excitement over alt-proteins is high among industry and investors, major challenges remain for companies looking to convince consumers to switch to a plant-based ‘meat alternative’.
Despite massive interest in the plant-based meat and alt-protein sector, it is important to remember that the category is still nascent, and that companies have many challenges to face when convincing shoppers to make a long-term switch away from meat, said experts speaking as part of a panel session discussing the challenges and opportunities for alternative protein at F&A Next in Wageningen recently.
Moderating the panel, Alon Chen, CEO and co-founder of Tastewise questioned whether consumers are choosing the right brands, and if they are, whether they are choosing them repeatedly.
“Is there actually a viable addressable market for brands to start with?” he asked.
Affordability remains a key issue for alt-protein
Erik Jan Ransdorp, international director of R&D better meals at the Kraft Heinz Company, warned that affordability is a core issue facing the alt-protein space.
“Whenever I think about innovation, I always think of the five fundamental consumer needs - of which taste and affordability are probably the most important ones. And the affordability is an issue.”
“If I look at the shelf here in the Netherlands, and I look at the premium pricing on all the alternatives to meat, it's averaging way over 25%,” he said, noting that previous talks at the conference had discussed more than 900 million people who live in poverty and cannot afford to eat properly already.
“How on earth can we make it accessible to them?” he asked.
Kristen Rocca, principal at investment company Unovis, warned that one of the biggest challenges is that conventional animal agriculture is heavily subsidised.
“Those kinds of subsidies aren't yet afforded to the alt-protein sector,” she said. “So, companies are trying to drive down to price parity, but it takes time. The sector is nascent.”
The investment specialist noted that there is enough room in the market for the different large number of companies looking to innovate in the space – noting that each company is coming with different angles, flavours, prices, formats, and working in different geographies.
“We're trying to displace or disrupt a $1.7 trillion market,” she said. “There's a big world out there that needs to be disrupted in the food system.”
Taste and texture are vital to gain consumer confidence
Roland Snel, global lead for new proteins and technology at ADM, noted that over 56% of consumers now consider themselves to be flexitarian, with almost a third of those eating plant-based alternatives at least once per week.
“The biggest hurdle for them to consume more … by far the biggest factor is taste,” he said.
Frank Giezen, managing director at Ojah, a Dutch company specialising in technologies for the production of plant-based meat analogues, added that while taste, in terms of flavours, is quite easily adaptable, the challenge for many producers is getting the right texture and mouthfeel.
“We always say is it’s texture that's most important, a crispy outside, for instance,” he said, noting that the ‘bite’ and tenderness of a meat analogue is more important to consumers than the flavour, which is often more adaptable.
Snel said the industry is, however, making big steps to improve the taste and texture of products – with a lot of development happening in the food service market, in particular.
Adapting to regional flavour preferences is important
However, he said that it will be vital for companies to focus on identifying the right technological solutions to create the issues of taste and texture.
“One of the hurdles that we still have is that succulence, that bite,” he said, noting that new technologies, such as precision fermentation, are providing new solutions to the challenge.
Adapting to regional tastes and serving local demographics for flavour and format will be vital to gaining a global mass market adoption for alt-proteins, added Rocca.
“We can't push burgers across the world and expect broad adoption of these products,” she said. “Localizing to culinary palates, more novel proteins that have complete amino acid profile [will be needed].”
Health: The biggest factor for consumers, says Tastewise
Chen noted that recent consumer data from Tastewise found that health considerations are the most important driver for consumers looking to switch to an alternative protein.
“According to some of our research, health is five times higher than sustainability and animal welfare combined,” he said. “So, if we actually want to convince people, after flavour, and after affordability … actually health is the main reason consideration.”
Giezen added that many products currently on the market are “not as healthy as they should be,” with high salt content a particular issue for many brands and products.
However, Ransdorp noted that the perception of plant-based and alt-protein as ‘healthier’ has already shifted consumer and retailer habits.
“We've gone through an interesting time in the pandemic,” noted the Kraft Heinz expert. “I guess everybody has seen in his own local supermarket that the aisle of meat changed from a small proportion of vegan or vegetarian to almost 50/50. Right?”
“There was a driver for people to realize, what I put in my mouth actually has a direct impact on my health,” he said. “Sometimes we need a crisis to make a change.”
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