Whether it’s because people are concerned about animal welfare, climate change or their shopping bill, the demand for plant-based foods is reaching a tipping point, and food manufacturers need to be acutely aware of this growing phenomenon.
Vegetarianism and conscious consumerism are no longer on the fringe of the consumer world. In the UK, it’s now far from unusual for someone to be meat-free, especially if they are under 25. Of those born in 1997-2012, 25% already avoid meat and another 30% plan to give it up this year.
But it’s not just Gen Z who prefer plant-based foods. According to Finder.com’s annual dietary trends survey of 2000 adults, 14% (7.2 million) of adults are following a meat-free diet, of which 3% are vegan. This shift in consumer tastes is reflected online, but also in supermarkets, where plant-based foods and other eco-products can be found in the main aisles and chill cabinets.
In the UK, according to the Vegan Society, we saw the launch of more vegan products than any other nation in 2018. In 2019, 25% of new products were labelled vegan. And in 2020, we had the highest consumption of vegan alternative products, such as cheese and seafood, in Europe.
With figures like that, it’s no surprise then that the UK is at the forefront of innovative change as manufacturers rise to the challenge of meeting increasing consumer demand for more ― and more varied ― plant-based products.
Two barriers still exist, however. The first is price. Plant-based products often cost more than the animal products they replace. This could become an issue in our inflation-hit economy.
The other is availability. Can supply keep up with demand?
Food manufacturers now face the challenge of scaling up production of plant-based foods, from batch processes to efficient continuous processes.
Plant-based proteins are made using extrusion, mixing and cooking novel ingredients in mere seconds. Typically, there are three steps to extrusion.
Protein powders, often from pulses, are mixed with water, steam and/or oil. This mixture goes into an extruder cylinder containing two screws. The screws mix the protein as they push it along the cylinder, which is heated by a steam jacket. As the semi-solid mix exits the extruder, it can be cooled, puffed or cut, which is how it can be made to resemble muscle fibre.
After that, the process is not dissimilar to processing any meat product, with shredding, grinding, marinating and coating.
Because this apparently simple process takes only a few seconds, scaling up a kitchen-sized recipe is complex. Especially as manufacturers want to scale up production and also scale down costs.
Food manufacturing software helps minimise product waste. Preventative maintenance of equipment rather than repair and replacement can also reduce costs.
To get all this right, many manufacturers are partnering with companies, including Turners, to design facilities to scale their processes.
Despite the sudden change in the economy, now is the time to find that partner and get scaling.