As observers of the food and beverage industry cast their gaze toward the coming year, experts are nearly unanimous that the interest in the plant-based foods and beverages category – particularly plant-based proteins – will continue to grow in 2022.
“Consumers choose flexitarian or plant-based diets for many reasons, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that, especially in younger generations, sustainability is driving the popularity of plant-based foods,” Nestle USA chief marketing officer Alicia Enciso wrote in an article this month outlining the firm’s food and beverage trend predictions for 2022. Some 65% of American Gen-Z consumers recently surveyed by the food and beverage giant said they want to follow a “plant-forward” diet. More than half of respondents said they prefer to purchase products that are environmentally responsible.
One driver of the market is the fact that the majority of US consumers are now comfortable buying and eating these products. The International Food Information Council (IFIC) found in a recent survey that 65% of Americans ate plant-based meat alternatives during 2021, with two out of five respondents consuming the products daily or weekly. Those surveyed cited healthfulness, high quality of protein, and enjoying the flavor were their top drivers for consuming meat alternatives.
Agribusiness and food company Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) suggests that makers of plant-based proteins will continue to explore new sources of alternative protein over the coming year. “Consumers are interested in plant-based foods that support flexible, healthier, and more environmentally friendly lifestyles, and they’re also becoming more amenable to the growing number of unconventional options like protein made from air or fungi,” the firm wrote in its 2022 trends forecast, adding, “In 2022, consumers can expect to see a growing range of foods made using unique and unexpected protein sources, from pea and soy to revolutionary fermented and cell-based options.”
As major fast-food chains like McDonalds, KFC, and White Castle incorporate plant-based proteins into their menus, it is clear that food manufacturers have developed meat alternatives with flavors that are on par with their traditional counterparts. Now that the taste hurdles have been overcome, producers of plant-based foods may start to delve deeper into different formats and nutrition profiles.
“Brands can find ways to stay ahead of competition by elevating new alternative formats to other types of meat products in the way that Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat did with burgers,” opined Kate Vlietstra, global food and drink analyst for Mintel, in a blog post earlier this year.
“The next frontier is improving meat alternatives’ nutrition proposition,” said Vlietstra.
Though wellness may be top of mind for buyers of plant-based foods, food and beverage consumers in general have increasingly embraced comfort foods as the COVID-19 pandemic wears on. The Specialty Foods Association (SFA) suggests this trend will extend to the plant-based category in the coming year. “More plant-based options of nostalgic favorites are coming to market, making comfort food more accessible to those who follow alternative diets,” the organization observed.
How Will the Plant-Based Market Impact Equipment Needs in 2022?
“We've already experienced an increase in equipment purchasing interest for producing plant-based foods in 2021 so this will definitely impact the equipment market in 2022 and into the future. Whether a product is plant-based or of animal origin, the food industry is still looking at good manufacturing practices with a focus on hygienic equipment design, clean processing, and safe, ergonomic production, with as much automation as possible,” said Rene Medina, executive vice president of Gericke USA, a supplier of powder processing solutions to the food and beverage industry, including makers of plant-based foods.
“We've found a lot of plant-based recipes need gentle ingredient handling, and exacting amounts to achieve the right taste and texture so it's very important to use the right conveying, feeding, and mixing systems - and they need to be adjustable since there's a lot of trial and error happening now in product development."
Matcon, a provider of powder handling systems and material handling equipment to the food industry, has found that manufacturers of plant-based foods also have cleaning in mind when selecting equipment.
“These companies tell us that flexibility and cleanability are key factors in selecting equipment that meets the needs of this expanding market. At Matcon, we are well positioned to support this industry as they continue to increase their market share through a decoupled system,” Shambrae Starr, regional sales manager for Matcon, told Powder & Bulk Solids. “The Matcon Cone Valve and IBC tumble blender allow this industry the flexibility with quick product changeovers and the ease of off-line cleaning while never compromising on quality, consistent blends and maximum throughput.”
Food manufacturers need to focus on innovation in the plant-based space in 2022 to stand out among the growing crowd, whether improving the nutritional attributes of their offerings, developing plant-based versions of comforting classics, or tapping into new and novel alternative protein sources.