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What’s Trending In Plant-Based? Seafood Growth, Fast Food Availability, Ingredient Innovations and More.

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As the plant-based food sector settles into a groove after the 2019-2020 sector boom, the landscape of meat-free manufacturing has changed.

Once dominated by beef and chicken analogues, the plant-based industry is seemingly moving towards less conventional products, experimenting with advanced technology, and gaining more governmental support than ever before. The result will, hopefully, be a varied menu for global diners–including flexitarians and curious omnivores–that supports a shift towards a more sustainable food system.

Building on trends observed this year, 2024 and beyond look set to witness the following within the meat-free market.

Plant-based seafood will continue to boom

The fastest-growing plant-based food niche in 2022-2023 is alternative seafood. Current predictions state that the global market is expected to reach a value of $2.9 billion by 2025, representing a CAGR of 23.5% between 2020 and 2025.

Reasons for the boom in seafood analogues are varied but are thought to mainly pivot around growing ethical concerns about the impact of commercial fishing, health concerns stemming from fish consumption, and the consumer uptick in seafood-heavy regions, such as Asia.

In addition, plant-based seafood products are becoming more sophisticated than ever, allowing businesses to target a wider gamut of consumers. These include sashimi connoisseurs, who can now swap out unsustainable tuna and salmon for ultra-realistic fish-free alternatives that have been classified as sushi-grade.

Refined dairy analogues

Plant-based dairy has seen steady growth in recent years, with sales increasing by 19% between 2020-22 alone. Now, the sector could be gearing up for even bigger expansion thanks to a number of major players looking to advanced technology to create the most dairy-like products possible.

Focussed on replicating the taste, texture, and nutritional values of conventional dairy, outfits such as the US’ Perfect Day, Israel’s Imagindairy, and Mighty in the UK are using precision fermentation to progress their product lines. The process allows dairy-specific proteins and enzymes to be replicated without the use of animals. These can then be used to create more faithful reproductions of various dairy lines–including yogurt and cheese.

As the technology becomes more widely available and cost-effective, it is likely that more alternative dairy companies will invest, leading to a widespread and general improvement in the quality of plant-based products.

Increased plant-based fast-food options

The fast-food industry is expected to place a higher importance on sustainability initiatives, as consumers have made it known that such factors affect their buying habits. Alongside chains looking to switch their packaging options to less impactful alternatives, plant-based menu items are likely to increase in number and availability.

Global QSR leaders–including McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC–have already experimented with meat-free menu items, with most adding at least one to the permanent menu. However, as consumer demand for plant-based options increases, it stands to reason that more dishes will be added to a bigger selection of restaurants.

Such offerings will likely be the result of collaborations with plant-based meat manufacturers, including Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods, The Vegetarian Butcher, and more. Proprietary plant-based meats could be on the horizon as well, as they will allow brands to retain greater control over their recipes and end products. Taco Bell is already exploring this avenue in a bid to stand out from the QSR crowd.

Ingredient innovations 

Plant-based meat has evolved in recent years. Once dominated by soy-based products, the sector is now awash with more realistic options that utilize ingredients such as pea protein, wheat gluten, and jackfruit. In a bid to make ever-more juicy and satisfying bites, manufacturers continue to look for ingredients that will deliver the most realistic meat analogues, with two seemingly taking priority.

Mycelium–the complex root structure of mushrooms–is an up-and-coming star of the plant-based world. Sustainable, healthy and capable of mimicking the texture and taste of meat, manufacturers are excited about the possibilities. Moreover, consumers have already given mycelium products their nod of approval, with limited releases (where the ingredient has been declared safe for human consumption) selling out in record time.

Another focus appears to be the development of suitably umami and juicy plant-based fats to be used in alternative meat products. The Good Food Institute has already spoken out about the importance of fat development, in connection to the continued growth of the plant-based meat sector. Precision fermentation, bespoke emulsions, and fungi are all being experimented with.

Traction into new global markets

Asia, Europe, and the US have all witnessed growing consumer interest in plant-based products. However, the Middle East and Africa are expected to experience a surge in meat-free popularity.

Traditionally, both regions have been meat-centric but are now seeing the potential for explosive growth in the plant-based sector. It was reported last year that the United Arab Emirates has cottoned on to the alternative meat trend and as such, has sought to import popular products from around the world. This will likely continue and increase in the coming year as the Middle East has been shown to be necessarily influenced by global dietary trends, due to the region needing to import around 90% of its food. As plant-based eating becomes more mainstream in food-producing regions–such as the US and Europe–the availability of relevant products will increase and filter out into export trends.

Likewise, Africa is expected to more widely accept and experiment with plant-based products, as a route to food security. Driving the change in tastes are Gen Z and Millennial consumers, both of which are cited as being concerned about personal health and the climate, thereby looking to meat alternatives as a sustainable solution to both. It is likely that appetites will be satiated with both imported and domestically manufactured products, though there is ongoing litigation surrounding the labeling of plant-based items in South Africa specifically. This could impact the availability of lines and therefore, consumer awareness about them.

Government subsidies for plant-based producers

The meat and dairy industries have been subsidized by US and EU governments for decades. Current estimations state that the animal-based industries are in receipt of around 1,000 times more financial support than their plant-based counterparts. In turn, this is actively blocking what experts refer to as a crucial shift towards a more sustainable food system, if we are to avoid total climate catastrophe.

To meet net zero targets and fulfill COP pledges, governments around the world will likely need to start showing support for meat and dairy alternatives. Largely proven to produce far fewer emissions than animal-based counterparts in their production, plant-based foods are being touted as a valuable resource in the fight against climate change. As such, they need to be affordable and accessible for as many people as possible, making subsidies necessary. The political landscape also stands to support a shift.

With the US electing a new president in 2024 and the UK holding a general election in 2025, political pledges to support climate action are likely from most candidates and parties, to win support from increasingly environmentally-aware voter bases. This could facilitate greater subsidies for plant-based manufacturers.

Amy Buxton