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Author: Mindy Hermann

Mindy Hermann, MBA, RDN is a food and nutrition communications consultant in metro NY. She enjoys following trends in the food industry and is a frequent contributor to publications such as Today's Dietitian and The World of Food Ingredients. Mindy also writes trends reports for Innova Market Insights, a global food and beverage market research firm based in Arnhem, Netherlands, as well as articles for professional journals.

Proposed Changes to School Meals and Their Impact on Plant-Based Options

In February 2023, the USDA issued proposed changes to the regulations around the nutrient composition of school meals. Child Nutrition Programs: Revisions to Meal Patterns Consistent with the 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans outlines changes in several key areas to help better align meals in schools with the most widely accepted US dietary recommendations. The proposal is open for public comments until April 10, 2023 and changes are scheduled to be implemented for the 2025-2026 and 2026-2027 school years. 

Here is a look at the proposed changes and their possible impact on plant-based options in schools:

Added sugars: Currently, sugars are not limited as long as sugar-containing items fit into established calorie caps for the total meal. The proposed changes will place limits on the amount of sugar in leading sources of added sugars in school meals, namely grain-based desserts, breakfast cereals, yogurts, and flavored milks. USDA hopes that limiting added sugars will incentivize manufacturers to develop products with less added sugar.

Data from Innova Market Insights show that sugar-related claims, led by a no added sugar claim, currently are among the top claims on plant-based products. Products with a plant-based or vegan claim tend to be less sweet than their conventional counterparts. Additionally, manufacturers of plant-based sweetened products often use alternate natural sweeteners such as stevia and monk fruit and naturally sweet ingredients derived from fruit. Use of the rare sugar allulose also is growing.

Milk: Proposed changes to milk regulations focus on placing limitations on the provision of flavored milk because flavored milks typically contain added sugars. The USDA doesn’t address milk alternatives and seeks feedback from school districts that offer them under the current milk substitute process requiring that nondairy beverages offered as fluid milk substitutes be nutritionally equivalent to the protein, vitamin, and mineral content of fluid cows milk. California recently became the first state to fund plant-based products in schools; it is expected that California schools are sharing with USDA their experience with plant-based milk alternatives.

Whole grains: Current whole grain regulations require that at least 80 percent of the weekly grains offered in the school lunch and breakfast programs be whole grain-rich, defined as containing at least 50% whole grain ingredients. Two rules are being considered. The first would maintain the current regulation while the second would require whole grain-rich products four out of five school days and allow enriched, non-whole grain products one day a week.

A high proportion of grain-based foods are made only with ingredients of plant origin, so this regulation has only minimal impact on plant-based declarations.

Sodium: Current regulations require school breakfasts to meet transitional sodium limits of no more than 640 mg per weekly meal average for high school students, with lower limits for children in elementary and middle school. Sodium limits for school lunches are being phased in with one set of average weekly meal limits in effect as of July 2022 and a more stringent set of limits in effect starting July 2023. The new regulations propose to require additional 10% drops in sodium limits for lunch beginning in school years 2025, 2027, and 2029 for breakfast beginning in school years 2025 and 2027. USDA hopes that the phased schedule will allow manufacturers enough time to reformulate their products.

In 2022, plant-based burger alternatives contained approximately 300-600 mg sodium, depending on the brand and serving size. Products with higher sodium levels could push a meal well above the average sodium limit, depending on sodium content of other meal components. Innovation in product formulations, along with wider use of global salt-free seasoning combinations and incorporation of flavorful, naturally lower-sodium ingredients and meal components, will enable manufacturers to comply with the more stringent requirements.

Nuts and seeds: In some situations, nut and seed butters are counted as only 50% of the meat/meat alternate component of the meal and must be served with another meat or meat alternate in order to be counted as a full meal. The new regulation proposes to allow nuts and seeds to be credited for a full portion of meat/meat alternate.

Competitive foods and “smart snacks”: Competitive foods and smart snacks are foods that are sold on the school campus but are not part of school meals. They are subject to limitations on calories, fat, saturated fat, total sugars, and sodium. Proposed regulations would exempt hummus from fat limitations of no more than 35% of total calories but would continue to limit its saturated fat to no more than 10% of total calories. The sesame paste and/or olive oil in hummus can push up the percentage of calories from fat; the new regulation would acknowledge that hummus is a wholesome, nutrient-dense food option despite the amount of fat.

Language changes: Proposed changes include referring to meat/meat alternatives as protein sources, to better reflect the variety of foods that can be offered within this meal component, including cheese, yogurt, eggs, tofu and soy products, nuts and seeds, and beans, peas, and lentils, in addition to meat products.

What’s next: Some school systems, like California and New York, embrace plant-based alternatives in school meals. New York City schools offer Plant-Powered Fridays with plant-based menu offerings often prepared from scratch in school kitchens. Foodservice provider Chartwells K-12 recently introduced its Veg-Out plant-based concept into school districts nationwide, with more than 100 options for children who are vegetarian, vegan, flexitarian, plant-centric, or interested in trying different types of dishes. Other districts seek to limit plant-based options. A proposal brought before the Iowa State Legislature that would have banned meat and egg substitutes from school meals also brought up the importance of accurate labeling of meat alternative products. 

What’s Hot in Plant-Based? Natural Products Expo West 2023 Has Clues

With thousands of exhibitors across the natural products space and tens of thousands of visitors, the annual Natural Products Expo West, better known simply as Expo West, is among the top must-see shows in the industry. This year’s event, held in Anaheim, CA, March 8-11, was buzzing with energy and new product activity. Here are key plant-based product subcategories to keep an eye on:

  • Whole muscle meat alternatives have been the holy grail for the industry, which to date focused primarily on plant-based ground products. Canada-based Urbani Brands recently introduced its ribeye steak product manufactured from a combination of soybean protein and oil, tapioca, konjac root, and other ingredients. At Expo West, Konscious Foods featured a variety of sushi rolls with whole-muscle fish produced from seaweed, konjac, and pea protein. Current Foods tuna and salmon products are created from pea protein, potato starch, and algal oil and are designed to be consumed “raw” in sushi, sashimi, poke bowls, and other applications. unMEAT offers plant-based canned luncheon meat and tuna and is introducing canned chunk chicken, chilli with beans, and roast beef alternatives.
  • The battle of the burgers continues. Despite a highly saturated marketplace, plant-based burger brands continue to emerge and differentiate themselves from the competition. Nobull brands itself as the “true veggie burger” that is “not meant to be a meat imitator, but a true, whole-food, real food veggie burger” made from lentils, brown rice, quinoa, chickpeas, and vegetables. The ingredient list for burgers from Dr. Praeger’s is almost entirely vegetables, along with starches and flours for binding. Actual Veggies and Big Mountain also focus on their vegetable content rather than trying to recreate a meat-like burger.
  • Global plant-based products offer cultural diversity in authentic recreations of traditional dishes. Triton Algae Innovations, a San Diego-based food startup, launched its “Too Good To Be” Pork dumpling with algae, cabbage, onion, and plant-based pork. Funky Fresh offers a sweet potato and black bean vegan spring roll in addition to its conventional product line. Italy-based Mia Green Food produces a line of Italian-style plant-based deli slices, including protein-rich alternatives to turkey breast, carpaccio, pepperoni, and prosciutto. Wheat gluten is the primary protein; pea and chickpea flour may also be used depending on the variety. Mozzarisella creates its vegan mozzarella and Parmesan cheese alternatives using brown rice sprouts, along with oils and thickeners. Somos has a full line of plant-based classic Mexican dishes – refried beans, black beans, burrito bowl kits, and main dishes. Pea protein is widely used to the brand’s dishes containing plant-based ground meat.
  • Dairy alternative drinks are coming closer to replicating the protein and calcium profile of dairy milk by adding protein and calcium to a base that tends to be low in both. Oat continues to stand out as the most prominent base for dairy alternative drinks, although choices have broadened to include pistachio, macadamia, sesame, and the newly introduced mushroom milk. Animal-free milks made with whey from Perfect Day are trying to win over a consumer base among flexitarians who are interested in dairy alternatives and animal welfare but are not necessarily committed to a vegan diet.
  • Next generation cheeses are incorporating traditional cheesemaking techniques to recreate the texture, flavor, and performance of dairy cheeses. Climax introduced vegan blue, brie, feta, and chevre cheeses that are “high in protein, at parity with dairy, and with better fats and other nutritional properties.” The company website notes that it explores combinations of plant-based ingredients that can be optimized to “produce indistinguishable alternatives to animal-based products.” Mia Parmegan plant-based Parmesan is similar in appearance to a wrapped Parmigiano wedge, can be grated, and also melts. Bel Brands featured its Nurishh plant-based cheeses and its green wax-wrapped Babybel Plant-Based, each with added calcium and vitamin B12.
  • The keto diet is a variation on the age-old meat-rich, high fat, high protein, low carbohydrate diet. This current iteration has fully adapted for the plant-centric consumer, with plenty of nuts, coconut, and non-caloric sweeteners. Super Fat Keto Nut Butters are made with a base of coconut, almond, and macadamia; they are sweetened with erythritol and stevia. Super Fat also offers keto cookies. Madly Hadley markets a keto friendly, gluten free, soy free plant-based coconut bacon. Carbonaut breads and buns are fortified with protein and fiber, raising protein content to up to 12 grams per serving and lowering carbohydrates to 2-3 grams of net carbs. Sola breads, buns and bagels, all labeled keto-friendly, are an excellent source of both protein and fiber. Their high fiber content reduces net carbs significantly. Keto-friendly Catalina Crunch Cereal gets its protein from pea protein; fiber from potato, corn, and chicory root; and fat from sunflower oil, coconut oil, and almonds. Stevia provides sweetness without carbs or calories.
  • Noodles and pasta naturally are plant-based, unless they are made with eggs. Today’s plant-based pasta trends include a broader range of flours, use of vegetables for color and nutrition, and low carbohydrate options. Pastabilities formulates and markets its pasta products for different types of diets: high protein, high fiber, and low calorie. The Wildfare line of organic, vegan pastas are flavored and colored with a range of vegetables, including beetroot, broccoli, olive, sweet red pepper, tomato, spinach, and black carrot. Andean Valley produces pasta from quinoa grown sustainably in Nicaragua. Miracle Noodle plant-based noodles have close to zero calories and carbohydrates as a result of their konjac flour base.
  • Mushrooms loom large in product launches. Functional mushrooms have been added to supplements, beverages, and food products. The company Meati uses mushroom root protein as the base for its product line of cutlets and steaks. Big Mountain offers its Lion’s Mane Mushroom Crumble that supplements lion’s mane with shiitake and portobello mushrooms. The product is high in fiber and protein. Bravo Tea promotes a Mushroom Wonders line with a choice of lion’s mane, reishi, turkey tail, chaga, maitake, cordyceps, or blended mushroom.
  • Soy-free products are becoming more common across a broad range of categories, including burgers, dairy alternative drinks, snack mixes, and even tofu, where one company sampled a tofu made from fava beans rather than soy.

Expo West is nearly back to its pre-pandemic energy and innovation and likely will continue to be among the go-to shows for plant-based innovation.

Plant-Based Ground Meats are Striving For Sensory and Nutrition Parity

Ground meat alternatives were among the first products to gain attention in today’s plant-based movement. Pioneers BeyondMeat and Impossible utilized groundbreaking technologies to create meat alternatives that were much more meat-like than their predecessors. Competitors followed and ground meat alternatives continue to hold a prominent position in the marketplace because of their versatility and ability to mimic ground meat in functionality and sensory features.

A November 2022 report by Innova Market Insights on meat substitutes describes the landscape for meat alternatives. Europe is the biggest region for total meat substitutes launches tracked globally while North America holds a 14% share of the meat substitutes launches tracks in the 12-month period between July 2021 and June 2022.  Burgers, ground meat and meatballs substitutes comprise nearly half of all launches.

In its 2023 forecast, New York-based Baldor Specialty Foods, a supplier to foodservice, hospitals, retail, and wholesale, named “Plant-Forward” as a top trend for this year. The company observed 46% year-over-year Q3 growth between 2021 and 2022 in ground meat alternatives. It anticipates expanded options this year that incorporate more chickpeas, mushrooms, and other vegetable bases, as well as expanded plant-based menu options and restaurant choices.

Making magic from protein, fat, and starch

Proteins often are blended to optimize both functionality and nutrition. A combination of rice protein and soy protein enhances water solubility, foaming, and emulsification properties. Wheat protein confers gelation properties to soy protein; additionally, the lower protein quality of wheat is enhanced by the high quality of soy. Combining wheat with pea protein also improves protein quality.

Ingredient manufacturer Cargill recently introduced a new textured protein from peas and wheat. Company literature notes that the textured protein blend has a neutral taste and mimics the texture, firmness, and juiciness of ground meat.

The saturated fat in animal-based ground meat is hard at refrigerator temperatures but melts during the cooking process, imparting a characteristic juiciness to burgers. Manufacturers of plant-based burgers typically incorporate highly saturated plant-based fat such as coconut or palm oil and may add a less saturated fat like canola oil.

Starches help bind and stabilize plant-based ground meat products. Many interact with protein and/or help retain moisture. Potato starch and corn starch are common ingredients with the added feature of being gluten-free. Products that include wheat flour also contain gluten.

Going head-to-head on nutrition

Ground beef offers a distinct nutrient profile that has not yet been fully replicated – positively or negatively – in plant-based alternatives. A 4-oz cooked ground beef patty, provides 230-290 calories, depending on the percentage of fat, up to 19 g total fat and 7 g saturated fat, 94 mg cholesterol, no carbohydrate or fiber, and 25-30 g high-quality protein. It has a PDCAAS (Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score) of 1.0, the highest possible score. Ground beef is a good source of riboflavin (vitamin B2) and the minerals copper and iron, and an excellent source of niacin (vitamin B3), vitamins B6 and B12, and the mineral zinc. Unseasoned ground beef is relatively low in sodium.

Much of the conversation around plant-based burgers centers around protein and protein quality, referring to its profile of essential amino acids and its digestibility. “Soy protein is a high-quality protein with a PDCAAS of about 1.0,” says Dr. Mark Messina, executive director, of Soy Nutrition Institute. “Researchers have shown that protein quality using a newer measure, DIAAS (Digestible Indispensable Amino Acid Score), also is high for soy protein isolate, tofu, soymilk, and leading plant-based burgers made with soy protein.” Because of variations in their protein concentration, soy protein isolate has the highest PDCAAS, followed by soy protein concentrate and then soy flour. Pea protein also is high quality but not quite as high as soy protein. Wheat protein has lower quality measures than soy or pea; it often is combined with a higher quality protein. Whole food bases like jackfruit can have little or no protein.

Plant-based burgers can come close to the amount of total and saturated fat in ground beef, depending on their fat source. Coconut oil is highly saturated – the jury still is out regarding whether plant-based saturated fat is less harmful to health than animal-based. The major benefit of plant-based burgers is their lack of cholesterol, which is found only in foods from animals.

Plant-based burgers typically are fortified with nutrients to replicate the composition of ground beef. Market leaders Impossible Beef and Beyond Burger are fortified with several B vitamins and the mineral zinc.* They also provide calcium and fiber, nutrients not present in beef burgers. In contrast, a non-fortified patty with vegetable and/or fiber-rich vegetable or grain-based ingredients may be a good source of fiber but no declarations of B vitamin content.

Burger alternatives are higher in sodium than unseasoned ground meat because they require sodium, typically salt and salt-containing ingredients, to enhance their flavor. In an October/November 2022 article in The World of Ingredients on formulating plant-based meat alternatives, Chef Charlie Baggs notes the importance of balancing flavor using ingredients that collectively address all five tastes — salt, sweet, bitter, sour, and umami. One way he works toward managing the amount of sodium in new products is by manipulating the placement of sodium, for example, in a coating or seasoning; using ingredients with natural umami, and adding high-flavor ingredients that are relatively low in sodium.

It will be interesting to watch the evolution of plant-based burgers in terms of ingredients, sensory qualities, and nutrition. Consumer acceptance also is vital. Additionally, any impact on health status – positive or negative – will depend more on the overall diet than on the individual foods chosen.

*based on website information at the time of writing

Mindy Hermann, MBA, RDN, is a food and nutrition communications consultant in metro New York and a market research consultant for Innova Market Insights, Arnhem, Netherlands.

Plant-Based Cheese Innovation Improves in Variety and Quality

Innovation in plant-based dairy alternatives has spread to cheese, where the types and numbers of plant-based cheeses continue to grow. Data from Innova Market Insights shows that the use of protein ingredients in new product launches of alt-cheese – led by chickpea, fava, pea, and potato protein – tripled between 2017 and 2021. More than 500 new products were launched in the past 12 months alone. Dairy alternative cheeses also are gaining consumer acceptance. Consumers surveyed globally by Innova in 2022 responded that dairy alternatives are healthy, tasty, and convenient, and that flavor, health, and cost are most important influencers of purchasing decisions.  

Fats and Starches 

Most plant-based cheeses today feature a combination of fat and starch derived from various nuts, legumes, starchy vegetables, and grains. Coconut and cashew are most used for body, fat, and texture; most typical starches include potato, corn, and tapioca. This fat-starch combination in plant-based cheeses confers a soft solid texture at refrigerator temperatures, along with creaminess and meltability at higher temperatures.  

Improving Nutrition 

Many established alt-cheese ingredients provide little or no protein. In order to better match dairy cheese, manufacturers have begun to increase their use of plant-based protein ingredients. Data from Innova Market Insights shows that protein ingredients in alt-cheese – led by chickpea, fava, pea, and potato protein – tripled between 2017 and 2021.  

Cheese producers can access a range of different proteins for the purpose of improving the product’s nutritional profile. Chickpea protein is emerging as nutrient-rich ingredient that also offers textural and functional benefits for both hard and soft plant-based cheeses. Isolated proteins produced by Israel-based ChickP contain 90% protein. The Israeli company InnovoPro also produces a protein-rich chickpea ingredient for use in plant-based cheese production. Brookyn, NY-based RIND, a producer of cave-aged alt-cheeses, incorporates mung bean and chickpea proteins into its cheese slices, and soy into its soft cheeses. Miyoko’s Creamery has announced a plan to produce dairy-free cottage cheese from watermelon seed milk and sunflower seed milk.  

Replicating Traditional Methods 

Traditional production processes for plant-based cheeses help convert their non-dairy ingredients into products that look, taste, and melt in a way that replicates dairy cheese. Award-winning RIND, for example, produces a soft-ripened, cave-aged Camembert-Bleu blend from a combination of cashews and tofu. The company offers an extended line of aged cheeses built on its Camembert-Bleu base. In Europe, several alt-cheese producers such as La Fauxmagerie are also employing traditional production methods used to produce classic aged cheeses. 

Introducing Precision Fermentation 

Precision fermentation is poised to revolutionize the production of non-dairy cheeses. The precision fermentation process involves engineering microbial DNA to produce whey, casein, or dairy fat that is bioidentical to those components in cows’ milk and cultivating those microbes in a nutrient-rich solution without using animal products. Because products of precision fermentation do not contain genetically modified DNA, they do not need to be labelled as bioengineered, and often carry non-GMO certification. In some applications, the microorganisms themselves, rather than their by-products, are cultivated and harvested as a protein source. 

Perfect Day opened the door to precision fermentation dairy ingredient production. It was first-to-market with its precision-fermented whey protein from genetically engineered microbes. The company supplies its whey to partners such as Betterland Milk, Brave Robot and Graeter’s ice creams, California Performance Co. sports supplements, and Modern Kitchen cream cheese. Bold Cultr, a cream cheese product from General Mills, utilizes dairy protein from precision fermenter Remilk. New Culture focuses on the production of dairy-identical casein protein ingredients. Fooditive, based in the Netherlands, is developing non-dairy versions of several types of casein that will provide cheese-like flavor, texture, meltability, and mouth feel. Swiss start-up Cultivated Bioscience is working on an alternative to animal-derived dairy fat. Although these dairy ingredients are animal-free, some may not consider them to be vegan. 

Vegan proteins can be produced by harvesting and processing the microbes themselves. Nature’s Fynd cultivates the microbe Fusarium flavolapis into a protein-rich, fungus “mat” that is harvested and processed into solid, liquid, and powdered forms of a high quality, plant-based protein. ProteVin, produced by start-up Nextferm, is a yeast-derived, high quality protein that performs like whey but has a neutral flavor and is animal-free.  

Challenges Offer Opportunities 

To gain wide acceptance, plant-based cheeses need to compete with dairy cheese on several factors, including flavor, texture, aroma, performance, and cost. Acceptance in foodservice, including restaurants, also is essential. Common complaints regarding cheese alternatives include ‘off’ flavors, bitter notes, rubbery texture, and tackiness. These can be overcome in certain applications such as sandwiches, where bread plus additional ingredients and condiments can distract from the potential sensory shortcomings of the cheese. Cheese-rich dishes such as lasagna and macaroni and cheese may be less satisfactory, depending on preparation method and other ingredients. 

Product improvements are ongoing. Kerry, for example, recently released its Kerrymaid vegan slice that is formulated with less starch to improve texture and performance. The slices peel, fold, and melt in a way that resembles standard processed dairy cheese slices.   

Plant-based cheese does not yet replicate the nutrition profile of dairy cheese. While protein content of some products is similar to that of dairy cheese, products do not match dairy cheese for content of calcium and potassium, two shortfall minerals in the American diet. Many products also do not contain vitamin B12. Alt-cheeses do outshine dairy cheese nutritionally in two ways – they are cholesterol-free, and most are lower in saturated fat.  

Innovation is expected to continue to move plant-based cheeses closer to full replication of their dairy counterparts, allowing consumers to choose among a growing variety of products that deliver on multiple dimensions. 

Replicating Nutrition in Plant-Based Fish, Seafood and Eggs

Sustainability considerations, along with tremendous plant-based momentum, are driving innovation in plant-based versions of animal protein foods. Dairy was first, followed by meat, and now fish and eggs. Replication of taste and texture at an acceptable price point are top priorities. But nutrition also is a consideration, especially when trying to replicate nutrient-rich foods such as fish and eggs that have unique health benefits.  

Consumer Awareness 

Plant-based seafood is relatively new. As such, its growth potential is attractive. In surveys conducted by Chicago-based foodservice market researcher Datassential, nearly half of consumers surveyed in the US responded that they are familiar with plant-based seafood. A sizeable subset of younger consumers, about one-quarter, were both interested in plant-based fish and seafood and find the concept appealing. However, plant-based seafood appears on few restaurant menus and only a small percentage of those surveyed report eating it.  

Plant-based eggs likewise are gaining traction. A 2022 Data Bridge Market Research survey predicts that the global alt-egg marketplace will grow at a compound annual rate of 28% and reach $11.89 billion by 2029. Baking applications and breakfast foods are attractive areas for innovation. 

Competing with Nutritional Profiles 

Fish, seafood, and eggs present attractive nutrition profiles. As described by Jessica Miller, RDN, LD, nutrition communications manager, Seafood Nutrition Partnership, “vital nutrients in seafood include minerals, vitamins, protein, and omega-3 fatty acids.” Many fish and seafood species have little or no fat; fattier species are rich in omega-3 fats that support heart and brain health. Eggs too provide important nutrients. In addition to their supply of affordably-priced high quality protein, eggs are rich in the B vitamin biotin, the minerals selenium and iodine, and the essential nutrient choline. They are among the few foods that are a natural source of vitamin D, a vitamin of public health concern in the United States.  

Several considerations affect the feasibility of nutrition parity. Consumers often shop based on taste and other sensory features rather than nutrition, as is demonstrated by the retail success of plant-based milks that are low in protein and other dairy milk nutrients. Ingredients that can replicate the sensory features of their animal counterparts typically do not match the nutrient profile of animal-based protein components. Nutrient-rich ingredients may have off flavors, as well as properties that interfere with other ingredients. Nutrition parity also can push cost to an unacceptable level. For now, plant-based fish and seafood products tend to focus on protein and/or omega-3 fatty acids, while plant-based egg products provide protein. 

Pursuit of Protein  

Replication of protein content is a key focus and is likely to capture the attention of consumers. In the Innova Market Insights 2022 Health & Nutrition Survey, over half of consumers surveyed in 11 countries reported being extremely or very interested in protein. Many plant-based fish and seafood products match the protein content of their fish and seafood counterparts. Soy offers high protein quality at an attractive cost and can be shaped into products that resemble the texture of fish and seafood. Soy ingredients vary in their percentage of protein based on whether whole soy, soy protein concentrate, or soy protein isolate is used; the more isolated the protein, the higher the protein concentration and lower the concentration of other nutrients such as carbohydrate, fiber, and fat. Pea protein offers high quality protein and is less likely than soy to cause allergic reactions; disadvantages include its cost and “beany” flavor. Proteins from chickpeas, lentils, fava beans, and navy beans are emerging as protein sources in alt-seafood. Dominant proteins in plant-based eggs include lupin/lupini beans, mung beans, and soy beans. Soy offers the highest quality protein, while the protein in lupin and mung beans is nearly as high quality. 

The Texture Trade-Off 

Several plant-based seafood products are based on konjac, a starch extracted from the root of an Asian tuber. Consumers may be familiar with konjac as the main ingredient in ‘miracle noodles’, a refrigerated product that is low in both calories and carbohydrates. When hydrated and combined with other ingredients, konjac provides a texture that resembles shrimp. Fish and seafood alternatives made with konjac tend to differ nutritionally from their animal counterparts – less protein and more fiber – as well as from those with a plant protein as a main ingredient. The product ingredient list may include seaweed, algae, gums, and starches for flavor, texture, and gel-forming properties.  

Plant-based egg products currently on the market replicate either whole scrambled eggs or egg yolks. In addition to bean protein, they can contain nutritional yeast for protein, vitamins, and flavor; oils; flavors; and colors. 

OK for Omega-3s 

Many plant-based seafood and fish products are fortified with sources of omega-3 fatty acids. Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) omega-3 fatty acids have well-established roles in heart health, brain health, and brain development in young children. Omega-3 ingredients include and may appear on the ingredient list as algal oil, algae, fermented algae, or seaweed. Since omega-3s are most abundant in higher fat fish, their addition to alternatives to shrimp and white-flesh fish confers nutrition benefits not found in their animal counterparts. 

What’s Next? 

Precision fermentation and cellular cultivation are attracting start-up funding as next generation technologies for producing plant-based seafood and other alternatives. Precision fermentation currently is being used to generate specific protein and fat ingredients that could be incorporated into an alt-seafood products. Cultivated seafood alternatives will be grown from fish or seafood cells that are bathed in a nutrient-rich substrate in a bioreactor. Funding and development activity is most robust in Singapore, where the first products are expected to enter the marketplace sometime in 2023.  

We may be on the brink of a new protein landscape where consumers can choose easily among original, plant-based, and cultivated products in a way that balances action toward sustainability, nutrition, sensory pleasure, and budget.  

The Continuing Evolution of Plant-Based Milk Alternatives

There’s no denying that plant-based milk alternatives have a big presence. From dairy cases to artisanal coffee shops, customers can choose from a growing variety of replacements for cow’s milk. A recent report, the Good Food Institute 2021 U.S. Retail Market Insights, Plant-based Foods, notes that plant-based milk accounts for 16% of all dollar sales for milk in the US, with a 4% one-year dollar growth and a household penetration of 42%. North America is the third largest market globally for plant-based milk. Innova Market Insights reports that North America accounted for an 11% share of dairy alternative drinks launches between July 2021 and June 2022. Launch activity was more robust in Europe and Asia – each region contributed one-third of new dairy alternative drinks over the same 12-month period.

Several factors are driving innovation in North American dairy alternative drinks. In its analysis of the marketplace, Innova identifies varied factors around clean products (crafted using 100% natural, carbon neutral packaging), enhanced protein content, nutrient parity with cow’s milk, reduction of inherent and added sugar, and functional ingredients (ginger, green tea extract, other immune-boosters and antioxidants). Innovation is likely to continue as new companies enter the marketplace and all products compete for consumers.

Production methods

Production of dairy alternative milk, sometimes spelled “mylk” to differentiate it from traditional milk, involves several steps. The cell structure of the plant base – typically nuts, seeds, grains, or legumes – is disrupted through soaking and grinding, or other methods. The resultant base mixture requires heating to deactivate enzymes, filtering to remove unwanted material, and heating to destroy pathogens. What differentiates one brand from another is the chosen base or bases, ingredients that enhance sensory properties, masking agents to cover up any bean or pea flavor notes, and added nutrients.

Types of bases continue to expand

Years ago, soy was the dominant base in dairy milk alternatives. Consumer sentiment, particularly in the US, then turned away from soy as questions arose regarding genetic modification of soy beans and health implications of soy consumption. Despite the lack of scientific evidence to substantiate these concerns, US consumption of soy milk dropped. Today, almond is the number one base in plant-based milk and accounts for about 60% of product bases. Oat is a fast-growing number two base, even in Asia where soy products are readily embraced.

Many leading brands offer a portfolio of products with varied bases and flavors to appeal to a broad range of consumers. Danone’s Silk line includes soy, cashew, almond, and coconut milk products. Beverage products from Blue Diamond Growers, an agricultural cooperative for California almond growers, feature an almond milk base alone or combined with coconut milk or bananas. Elmhurst Milked produces a wide range of clean label nut milks, including almond milk, cashew milk, walnut milk, and hazelnut milk. Most are made from only the signature nut plus water. Other brands in the US include Ripple (pea protein), Seeds of Wellness (chia seeds), Good Karma (pea protein with flax oil), and Califia Farms (almond milk, oat milk with pea protein, almond plus coconut milk). Companies typically offer both unflavored and flavored varieties, and many produce thicker products for use in coffee beverages.

Seeking nutrition parity  

Plant bases for dairy alternative drinks do not match the nutrition profile of cow’s milk. That is why many products are fortified to better replicate key dairy nutrients. Because almonds and cashews are relatively low in protein – and their milks are even lower – almond milk and cashew milk brands that feature a protein claim have added a source of protein, typically pea protein. Pea protein-based Ripple adds enough protein to match the level in dairy milk; the brand’s products also are fortified with calcium and vitamin D. Hope & Sesame enhances its sesame protein base with either pea protein or chickpea protein. Dairy alternative bases also lack the key vitamins and minerals of dairy milk, so many brands fortify with the hallmark dairy milk nutrients calcium and vitamin D. Ripple, for example, adds calcium and vitamin D in amounts that exceed the nutrient content of an equivalent volume of cow’s milk. Several brands also add vitamin B12, which is found naturally in dairy milk but not in plant-based products, to serve as a source for vegans. Still, fortified soy milk currently is the only plant-based dairy alternative drink included in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and permitted in school meals programs as a nutritional equivalent to cow’s milk.

Products also may contain nutrients and ingredients not found in dairy milk, such as fiber, medium-chain triglyceride oil for followers of the ketogenic diet, omega-3 fatty acids, including alpha-linolenic acid, and functional ingredients.

One ingredient to watch for is animal-free whey protein. Cultivated through precision fermentation, animal-free whey protein offers high quality dairy protein that is identical to the whey protein found in cow’s milk. While not strictly plant-based, it offers an option for consumers looking for animal-free products.

Drinking to sustainability

The sustainability messaging found on dairy alternative packaging can appeal to consumers who shop with the environment in mind. Sustainable products are highly prominent in Europe, where approximately half of 2021 new food and beverage launches carried a sustainability-related claim, according to Innova Market Insights. This compares to 17% in Asia and 8% in North America, although the prevalence of claims is growing in both regions.

Consumer interest in sustainability is helping drive growth of plant-based dairy alternatives. As reported in a 2020 article in the Journal of Dairy Science on consumer perception of the sustainability of dairy products and plant-based alternatives, consumers who purchased plant-based dairy alternatives along with dairy products were more likely to say that sustainability is important, as compared to consumers of dairy only. Consumers who participated in the study defined sustainability as minimal carbon footprint and greenhouse gas emissions, few or no preservatives, animal happiness and welfare, and simple ingredients. Many plant-based dairy alternatives call out their sustainability credentials on their website. Common claims include reduced carbon footprint, lower water usage, less plastic used in packaging, restoration of land and water, and alignment with organizations committed to sustainability.

Coming next – products made with upcycled ingredients such as spent barley grain, proteins left over from starch and oil production, and “ugly” ingredients that combine nutrition with sustainability messages.