Over the next decade, the global plant-based food market is predicted to triple in size, with plant-based food sales forecast to surge by more than 12 per cent. However, for some experts, the increase in sales of highly manufactured meat and dairy product alternatives has raised some concerns.
As a food scientist, agri-business consultant and founder of FMCG business incubator and accelerator Seedlab Australia, many so-called ‘plant-based’ alternatives are failing to deliver on taste, promise, price, and most importantly, nutrition.
There are basic nutritional building blocks that as humans, our cells and bodies need and crave – vitamins, minerals, salts, protein, sugars, fibre, fats – and the list goes on. The reality is some highly manufactured meat and dairy alternative products are masquerading as real foods and are not providing the nutrition our bodies require, the wow factor that our taste buds expect, and may not be worth the higher price point they command.
The influence that large food brands have had on the plant-based market is evident by the many companies that have switched from incorporating mushrooms, nuts, legumes, and vegetables as ingredients in meat alternatives, to more frequently utilising highly scientific food technology processes in the production of plant-based alternatives that look and attempt to taste like meat and dairy. However, the final products may or may not contain any whole foods or comparative nutritional value at all. Many plant-based alternatives are now a blend of extracts, isolated food components and other single chemical ingredients.
Recent stories coming out about the global plant-based food sector include the plateau of plant-based meat sales in the US, which is predicted to soon play out in the Australian market, UK meat brand Heck reducing its alternative range from 15 to two, and v2food closing its Wodonga, Victoria plant.
In a 2022 study into sensory expectations around plant-based burgers and cheese alternatives, global taste and nutrition company Kerry found that 60 per cent of Australian consumers began eating plant-based products as they were considered healthier than the alternative, while 51 per cent were consuming these products for positive environmental impacts.
Outside of vegetarian and vegan communities, consumers are purchasing these products either for novelty reasons, because of enticing branding and packaging that positions the product as being better-for-you, because social media made them trendy, or because they were on special.
The emergence of plant-based meat alternatives initially presented an opportunity to address nutritional, ethical, and environmental issues in a unique and impactful way, by incorporating wholefoods including nuts, mushrooms, legumes, and vegetables into food products in quantities greater than we had seen previously.
The conundrum comes when the only alternatives for people who choose not to consume animal-derived meat and dairy products – for whatever reason – are products made from extracts, concentrates, isolates, thickeners, sugar, oils, and dextrose, with a percentage of mushroom, pea and rice protein, and potato starch. Labelling such products plant-based is a bit of a stretch – ‘non-animal-derived’ may be more accurate.
Just because something has a slight resemblance to the look and texture of meat or cheese, it doesn’t mean it delivers the same nutrients that the human body needs.
We need to continue to support and encourage producers and food manufacturers to look for sustainably produced, nutritious ingredients including wholefoods that deliver holistically on taste, nutrition, economics, and environmental responsibility.
Hazel MacTavish-West is the CEO and co-founder of Seedlab Australia. With a career spanning over 25 years, Hazel has a Bachelor in Agriculture & Agricultural Chemistry and PhD in Plant Biochemistry.
Seedlab Australia is a unique national incubator and accelerator program for Australian and New Zealand producers of value-added food, non-alcoholic drinks, and sustainably produced personal and home care products. The team draws from over 150+ years of collective business experience and team leadership and is made up of industry leaders who are passionate about helping businesses make their dreams real.
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