At the Institute of Food Technology’s (IFT) annual conference in June, plant-based ingredients were definitely the stars of the show. Nearly every company exhibiting offered samples showcasing their latest flavour or ingredient used in a plant-based food or beverage product.
The interest and growth in plant-based proteins, in particular, has been phenomenal over the past year, and if IFT 2019 was any indication, it won’t be slowing down anytime soon. Despite some critics grumbling that the plant-based revolution is “just a fad,” food and beverage companies and suppliers are banking that it’s a trend that’s here to stay. Significant investments have been made by companies who have traditionally focused on animal-based products, such as Maple Leaf Foods, in companies that manufacture plant-based protein alternatives. Cargill recently announced a $75-million investment in Minnesota-based Puris, a company that produces pea protein and is one of Beyond Meat’s suppliers — triple the amount it provided Puris last year in a joint venture.
It appears as though nearly everyone wants a piece of plant-based pie. This is particularly true for companies at the front line of meeting consumer tastes and wants — the quick-serve, or fast-food, restaurant. It’s been fascinating to watch in recent months how each major retail chain is handling the introduction of plant-based alternatives — if they choose to do it at all.
A&W was the first major chain in Canada to launch into this realm with the Beyond Meat burger in July 2018. Interest from consumers was so great that A&W had trouble meeting demand and sold out of the burgers quickly, but soon fixed its supply issue. Now the Beyond Meat burger is a menu staple and the company added Beyond Meat’s sausage patty to its menu six months later. Burger King, Tim Horton’s, and Subway (just to name a few) have followed suit, offering plant-based protein alternatives from Beyond Meat or Impossible Foods on their menus.
Plant-based “chicken” alternatives had been lacking until late August when Kentucky Fried Chicken announced it had been working with Beyond Meat on “fried chicken” alternatives and launching a pilot test in one Atlanta restaurant Aug. 27. Demand was so great that the restaurant ran out of the product in just five hours.
The A&W and KFC launches indicate that customer interest in protein alternatives is there — but is it curiosity, rather than a desire to reduce meat consumption, that is the primary driver?
This uncertainty is likely one of the reasons that other chains such as Arby’s and McDonald’s haven’t followed suit. Arby’s has taken a different stance altogether, proudly standing behind meat with the new advertising tagline “We have the meats.” I suspect McDonald’s will start offering plant-based alternatives once it can assure supply.
Interestingly, Chipotle has taken the stance that plant-based alternatives are “too processed,” and thus goes against the company’s principle of providing “food with integrity.”
We won’t know for several years the financial advantage of being an early adopter of the plant-based phenomenon, and how this sector will look in the future. Ultimately, long-term success of these products will be driven largely by how good they taste. To completely hook consumers on plant-based foods, processors have to ensure customer’s taste buds will crave their product. Without the flavour and mouth-feel, consumers will revert to their traditional proteins.