Will Plant Proteins Continue to Gain Market Traction?

Like many food industry professionals who attended IFT19, immediately following the conference we spent a fair amount of time catching up on client requests and emails.

There’s a consistent theme to these recent emails – and to those we’ve received over the last year. The theme reads like this “Plant proteins are disrupting the food industry by delivering on consumers’ desire for novel products that are good for them and good for the planet.” Sound familiar? If so, read on for insights from IFT19, and to understand how our food team’s plant protein supply chain analysis leads to insights on sources, technologies, partners and, of course, innovation.


image of Lawrence speaking with food industry professionals at IFT19

What's feeding the interest in plant-proteins?

IFT19 reinforced that consumer concerns around animal-derived ingredients are leading to big changes along the plant protein supply chain. During the expo, we spoke with academic experts and leading industry players who validated the well-known concerns feeding the interest in plant-proteins: impact of animal versus plant sourcing and processing on the ecosystem, and consumer demand for sustainable and nutritious health and wellness products. An emerging driver in this market category is consumer interest in alternative proteins for optimal health and nutrition – a concept that resonates with personalized nutrition and functional health and wellness benefits from food. We have seen this with our clients and have helped them understand how alternative proteins are driving investment and innovation activity along the plant protein supply chain.

We believe plant proteins will continue to gain market traction if innovations continue to drive progress in supply chain economics, and, more importantly, improve sensory and functional characteristics in the plant proteins.

My key takeaways from IFT19 on plant proteins 

Alternative Proteins for Optimal Health

Piggybacking off consumer’s demand for products that deliver on improved health, IFT19 highlighted concerns related to increased consumption of plant-based foods and potentially inadequate protein intake. Several technical sessions highlighted the lack of scientific studies supporting plant proteins’ nutritional aspects. Outside of soy, rice, pea, and wheat, there’s a need to evaluate and compare the quality, digestibility and overall health benefits of plant proteins to traditional animal proteins. Moving forward, we’ll see an increased focus on evaluating a plant proteins’ digestibility and amino acid profile, particularly the essential amino acids, as lysine is generally the limiting amino acid in plant proteins.

At Innovation Advisors, we advise ingredient suppliers and brand manufacturers in how best to select and implement plant proteins to their portfolio. A key enabler of our client’s success is our customer-centric interactive evaluation matrices that enable clients to evaluate plant proteins based on critical success factors. These include amino acid profile, digestibility (PDCASS), generally recognized as safe (GRAS) status, functional and sensory performance, and leading technology and processing innovations that may unlock future opportunities. We also work with our clients to explore product innovation opportunities by matching combinations of plant proteins to deliver population-specific products (e.g. sports nutrition, infants, women’s health, baby boomers, etc.).

Innovations in Processing: Structure-Function

Plant protein products dominated the IFT19 expo floor. Unlike first-generation plant protein products that typically used a single plant protein source (soy or pea) and lacked flavor and texture, today’s products come in a range of tasty and satisfying options. These second-generation products are implementing plant protein blends to overcome earlier hurdles. However good the current products, consumers are seeking new products that have bold flavors and unique textures, and that mimic the traditional animal-based products many are used to eating (meat and dairy products). For example, in products where sensory aspects – the smell, taste or look of a product – play a prominent role (e.g. meats, deli, yogurt, etc.), plant proteins fall behind traditional protein sources. Companies have tried to address plant proteins’ shortcomings (e.g. bitterness, grittiness, off-flavors) with many seasonings and flavor houses developing ingredient solutions to complement plant-protein products. IFT19 highlighted the need and opportunity for protein blends to match the functional aspects of the animal-derived protein they are replacing. We continue to work with product developers challenged to achieve the ideal functionality and textural characteristics by identifying strategies and ingredients that deliver on taste and texture.

As an R&D extension for our clients, we unlock the potential of various plant proteins (pea, hemp, rubisco) using a science-based technology scouting framework. We’ve identified unique solutions for our clients that enable plant protein solubility across a wide pH range (e.g. pH 3-10) and less susceptibility to precipitation under higher heat processing conditions. This is a result of technical due diligence and careful analysis of each plant protein’s physicochemical properties. We’ve learned that plant protein functionality is highly dependent on the extraction technique and isolation parameters (pH, temp, solvents, etc.). Our clients have leveraged this insight to identify specific proteins with unique functional properties that enable them to develop new product offerings.

Have you decided to incorporate plant-based nutrition in your portfolio?

Many of our clients were struggling with the challenges of formulating a great product – particularly at higher protein levels or in gluten-free applications. RTI’s Innovation Advisors works with small and large food and beverage and CPG companies to evaluate and develop actionable strategies in the plant protein space that support clients’ overall growth mission, and that encompass impacts to labeling, consumer perception, regulatory status, supply chain, and product development. By doing so we ensure our clients better align their efforts and allocate their resources to areas, technologies, and partners that support their strategic near and long-term opportunities within the dynamic plant protein market.

How can we help you in the plant-based nutrition space?

Let us know.

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About the authors

Susan Mayer is our technical food industry leader, with great problem-solving, strategic, and communication skills. Our clients rely on her experience in product development, product lifecycle management, and public-private food industry partnerships to understand how technology, research, and the right suppliers can create innovation opportunities. How does her work with us benefit food companies? Susan believes that our human-centered design perspective makes all the difference. ‘Product developers always believe they are thinking about the consumer, but our human-centered design approach to considering technology brings an entirely different perspective.’ Susan applies her love of food science to her hobbies; she and her husband formulate and brew beer, much to the delight of their friends and neighbors. Susan has an M.S. in Food Science and a B.S. in Foods from the University of Maryland, College Park, and is a Certified Food Scientist.
Lawrence Blume, Ph.D. is passionate about collaborative partnerships that bring innovative solutions to challenging research and development roadblocks. A lead advisor for our food science and biotechnology innovation, Lawrence brings extensive experience leading technology-focused opportunity forecasts in support of competitive advantage, product differentiation, and commercialization strategies for C-level executives at companies ranging from early startups to Fortune 500s. Over the last decade, Dr. Blume has applied his background in cannabis physiology and pharmacology towards novel commercial applications in the medical, CPG, and food and beverage spaces. He received a Ph.D. in Physiology & Pharmacology from Wake Forest School of Medicine and a B.S. in Biology with a minor in Biochemistry from Duquesne University.

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