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.

Precision Fermentation Alliance – Championing a Resilient and Sustainable Food System

Nine precision fermentation companies have united to form the Precision Fermentation Alliance (PFA). A new trade group to champion the process as a reliable and sustainable food system. The founding companies (Change Foods, The EVERY Co, Helaina, Imagindairy, Motif FoodWorks, New Culture, Onego Bio, Perfect Day, and Remilk) say it will be an industry voice and global association for the sector. 

Irina Gerry
Irina Gerry CMO at Change Foods and Vice Chair of the PFA.

Irina Gerry is Chief Marketing Officer at Change Foods and is Vice Chair of the PFA. She told Plant Based World Pulse that setting up an alliance was an obvious and necessary step: “We decided we need to join forces because we’re all commercialising similar applications of this technology. We have a lot of work to do presenting it to consumers, retailers, manufacturers, and regulators. We feel this is very much needed.”   

The idea of a joined-up approach is not new. The main precision fermentation companies have been discussing the need for a common nomenclature, description, and approach to regulation for several years. Irina Gerry explains: “We knew we needed to join forces. The only question was how quickly could we organise something. We have start-ups in different parts of the world with different worldviews, but ultimately, we are one industry and category. As sector leaders, we are engaged in a revolutionary development, and we need to be upfront and lead the conversation.”  

Precision fermentation offers a brand new consumer benefit – the experience and nutrition of animal products made without animals. The PFA recognises the need to communicate overtly, explain how it works, and answer questions. They also need to communicate to consumers with allergies, such as milk or egg proteins, about the potential for allergic reactions, given that the proteins made via precision fermentation are molecularly identical to those from animals. 

The PFA is envisaged as an accelerator that can help reduce barriers to market category entry. Irina Gerry explains: “A lot of developments are happening. Many companies, whether start-ups, large companies, or ingredient manufacturers, want to commercialise this technology, but we need regulatory pathways, investment, and a common language. Failing to sort those could slow down progress to market and consumer adoption. The PFA can prepare the road and give companies a smoother path, so they don’t have to tackle everything independently.”  

The PFA has identified three key pillars with work streams for these key priority areas. The first of these is marketing and communications. Irina Gerry says: “We need the basics: What do you call it? How do we label it? We need to be clear and upfront with consumers about what it is and isn’t.  Retailers need to know where it goes in the store. Manufacturers need to know what to tell consumers. It is a massive undertaking, starting with the basics of what we call it and how we position the category to the industry and consumers.”  

The second pillar is regulatory. Irina Gerry continues: “Food is regulated, so we must follow the requirements within each market. We want to ensure that companies commercialising these ingredients follow the regulations and that the regulators understand the technology. So we need to engage with regulators in different territories and ensure that we are as cohesive as possible.”  

The third pillar is advocacy and policy – engaging with policymakers and government institutions to reinforce the technology’s environmental benefits.  Irina Gerry adds:   “When you think about the huge transformation we need in our food system, many governments see it as a major contributor to climate change. One of the ways to address the problem is to scale this technology which is much more sustainable. But we’re competing with animal agriculture, that’s very well developed. There’s almost no infrastructure for precision fermentation. It hasn’t been used at the scale that we need it to be. So there is a tremendous role for government institutions in building infrastructure and for us in promoting policies. Individual companies can only do so much. The PFA can be a unified voice to help bring this forward with policymakers.”  

The PFA is actively recruiting new members. They are finalising their membership structure with tiers for different types of organisations, including companies and NGOs. Irina Gerry concludes: “We absolutely want to collaborate with companies across the food ecosystem, including plant-based brands. Some might end up using ingredients made via precision fermentation to boost nutritional value or functionality. Impossible Burger is a perfect example of such fusion. It is a predominantly plant-based product that uses heme made via precision fermentation to give it a meaty flavour and colour. Today, I would not characterize products made with precision fermentation proteins as plant-based, given the allergen considerations and consumer understanding of what plant-based means. They’re not the same as plant-based because they contain molecularly identical animal proteins or fats. But they’re made without animals. So it’s a new category.” 

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.  

Precision Fermentation Scales Up in the Middle East

The scope of precision fermentation to radically improve dairy alternatives has been given a boost by the announcement of a new casein manufacturing plant in the Middle East. The facility, in Abu Dhabi, UAE, will produce an animal-free version of the milk protein, which is a crucial component of cheese-making. It is the first factory of its kind and a chance to dramatically scale up animal-free casein production and move towards cheese that is bio-identical to its animal-derived counterpart. The location of the plant means it will be able to access a distribution hub for rapidly growing markets in the Middle East and Asia-Pacific regions.  

Partnering for Change 

The project is a partnership between US/Australian vegan start-up Change Foods and commercial facilities provider Kezad Group. The companies are supported by the UAE Ministry of Economy under the NextGen FDI initiative. Dr Thani bin Ahmed Al Zeyoudi, the UAE Minister of State for Foreign Trade welcomed the deal and the innovative start-up. He said: “Change Foods is an outstanding example of the kind of emerging food technology investments the UAE wishes to make in shaping a sustainable, secure and affordable food system that can serve growing local and regional demand,” 

The factory is currently being designed and built and casein production is likely to begin in early 2024. The company’s CEO is David Bucca – a former aerospace entrepreneur who is on a mission to recreate dairy without animals. He says that in a few years consumers will be able to buy cheese made with a precision fermentation process and it will be indistinguishable from the animal-based version; “With precision fermentation we use microorganisms and ferment them with sugar to create ingredients that are bioidentical to those in dairy. We can then combine them with plant-based fats to formulate many different products. This makes food that is far more sustainable, requires far less land and creates less pollution and carbon, and provides people with a cheese that is much more authentic than some of today’s alternatives.” 

Mass Market Appeal 

The company has made prototypes in the lab and is now addressing the challenge of scaling up and reducing costs, to make products that are commercially viable. Interest in the work, and the prospect of a game-changing improvement to animal-free cheese, is very high. One of Change Foods’ strategic industry partners is Upfield, who own Violife, the largest plant-based cheese brand. David Bucca says: “We are very excited to be partnering with them because we can help solve problems that are limiting uptake, such as making the hard cheese function better. Our technology will make animal-free cheese more appealing to a broader mass market of consumers who are looking for the flavour, texture and meltiness they are used to.” 

 Change Foods is also partnering with Sigma Foods, a Mexican multinational food company. There has been a lot of interest from retailers. David Bucca adds: “Retailers want to bring on board the most innovative products that will appeal to the broadest demographic and market segment. Everyone is very interested in this space and that technology that will solve the problems of the current offerings.”    

Improved Eating Experience 

The market share held by plant-based cheese is still small. Currently of all cheeses bought in the US only between 3% and 5% are plant-based. David Bucca says one reason for this is that many products don’t measure up to the eating experience that people expect from cheese: “In the rush to get to market some products have sacrificed the research and development of performance, and that has limited uptake. Some current plant-based cheeses have an off flavour which is difficult to mask, or they have an unpleasant texture or mouthfeel. One of the biggest gripes reported by consumers is clagginess, especially when its melted, and that it leaves a residue in mouth. That’s largely driven by starches and hydrocolloids in plant-based ingredients. Another issue is that people expect cheese to be nutritious, but most alternatives contain very little protein. Precision fermentation will fix that problem. We can make casein protein that will integrate successfully, make the cheese work better and add back the nutrition that current alternatives lack. We can include up to 22% protein, which is what a typical mozzarella contains. So not only will the resulting cheese taste and feel the same as dairy, but it will also have the same nutritional profile.” 

Government Subsidies 

David Bucca, Founder & CEO, Change Foods

Scaling up precision fermentation in the new facility will enable animal-free cheese to taste and work like its non-plant-based equivalent. It will also help bring down the cost of alternative dairy production. Both will result in better consumer satisfaction. Support from the UAE government, in the form of subsidies to help finance that project, has been crucial in enabling scaling up. David Bucca explains: “As a start-up we would have found it very difficult without this support. The cohesive approach of the UAE government has been very refreshing. The Ministries of Economy, Climate and Environment, and Industry and Advanced Technology are all aligned to the same priorities. They are very focused on food security, given that the UAE imports around 90% of their food. The country currently imports dairy cows from Uruguay. Now they can recreate dairy with less resource intensity.” 

David Bucca would like to see other governments taking a lead in supporting the growth of precision fermentation. “The Netherlands and Denmark are investing in precision fermentation and cell-based meats, but it is a drop in the ocean. We’re competing with animal agriculture which has huge government support, so we need similar government support to accelerate the rise of alternatives. Also, for emerging technologies like precision fermentation we need a regulatory framework, to make it easy to regulate the products and bring them to market. That’s where governments can play a huge role.”  

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Plant Based World Pulse is a go-to resource for the plant-based industry. Offering high-value insights, educational content, and the latest information year-round, it compliments the annual industry events Plant Based World Expo North America in New York City and Plant Based World Expo Europe in London.