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Plant-based and Vegan Ingredients Are Here to Stay

Plant-based Ingredients

The panel:

Nena Dockery, Scientific Affairs Manager, Stratum Nutrition, Carthage, MO, www.stratumnutrition.com

Non-GMO Project

Andrew Hebard, Founder and CEO of Natures Crops International, Winston-Salem, NC, www.naturescrops.com

Nancy Steely, Global Vice President of Research and Product Development Natural Alternatives International, Carlsbad, CA, www.nai-online.com

Alessio Tagliaferri, Global Business Director, Botanicals & NHN (Natural Health & Nutrition) Platform, ADM, Decatur, IL, www.adm.com

The market for plant-based and vegan products has been increasing every year. According to the Good Food Institute (GFI), the retail market for plant-based foods increased from $5.5 billion in 2019 to approximately $7.4 billion in 2021.

Other estimates are even more robust. In fact, a Business Research Company report pegged the 2021 vegan products market at $13.55 billion, with an estimate that it would grow to $14.45 billion in 2022 and $18.73 billion by 2026.

Grocery sales of plant-based foods marketed as replacements for animal products increased 6 percent between 2020 and 2021. Although this may be surprising, GFI indicates that 34 percent of meat-eating Millennials eat plant-based dinners four or more times a week, which could be possibly explained by the fact that “65 percent of Gen Z [consumers] find plant-based foods appealing.”

The global market for vegan foods in general is increasing at a rapid rate, with an estimated market size of approximately $23 billion in 2020 and projections to grow to about $61 billion in 2028.

Using the Impossible Burger as an example, manufacturers of plant-based meat alternatives can reduce land use by 96 percent, can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 89 percent, and can reduce water use by 87 percent compared to the production of conventional meat.

According to a report from the Transparent Label Campaign as reported by VegNews.com, two common supplement ingredients—magnesium stearate and gelatin—require 18 million cows, sheep and pigs each year.

In response to consumer demand—and, in some cases, as a result of corporate social responsibility goals—some finished product manufacturers choose plant-based capsules and other ingredients.

For example, instead of selecting dairy-based whey protein, they may choose to formulate with soy or pea protein, and they might choose to encapsulate with veggie caps instead of gelatin caps, and so forth.

Clearly, plant-based and vegan ingredients are important in today’s natural products marketplace. That’s why we’ve assembled a panel of industry experts to shed light on this mega-trend.

NIE: What is the state of the market for natural ingredients that are plant based and vegan? How big is the market?

Steely: Plant-based and vegan products are on trend, and this is partly for their health benefits versus animal-derived ingredients, but also due to rising consumer awareness of environmental factors related to production of plant vs. animal ingredients. Consumers may be trending toward more plant-based products, but the Good Food Institute cites that 98 percent of plant-based meat buyers in the U.S. also buy meat products. So, although the movement toward plant-based products is increasing, it is not entirely replacing animal-derived products. Food allergies and concerns about animal cruelty are also some reasons consumers identify for seeking more plant-based products.

Dockery: The reasons for consumers seeking out these products are as diverse as the product offerings in this category. Marketing, particularly by celebrities, is definitely a factor fueling the plant-based food trend; but the health benefit of plant-based diets is probably the main driving force, which is then reflected in the increased demand for plant-based dietary supplements. This trend has been particularly noticeable in the sports nutrition market.

But increasingly more individuals are opting for at least some plant-based food choices and supplements because of a concern for the environment or for the long-term sustainability of meat, poultry and fish-dominant diets.

Hebard: I’d like comment at a micro and observational level, looking more subjectively at the number of family, friends and colleagues who are adopting either vegetarian or flexitarian diets. Stand in line at a coffee shop or eat at a few different restaurants and see how many vegetarian options exist.

I would say plant-based and vegan preferences are now ubiquitous and are experiencing greater innovation and ingredient diversity than meat alternatives, and consumers are beyond the trend stage and are now making lifestyle decisions about plant-based nutrition.

However, the recently acknowledged revenue growth pullback in complex, highly processed plant-based meat products like Beyond Meat underscores that many mainstream consumers aren’t just looking to mimic burgers and sausages—they also care about easy-to-read labels, simple ingredients and sustainability, along with flavor, texture and nutrition.

Tagliaferri: Today’s consumers are increasingly conscientious. They’re putting a lot of thought behind their purchases, including seeking out clean-label cues, traceability and sustainability claims, as well as third-party certifications like kosher or Rainforest Alliance designations. Our research shows many consumers are influenced by simple, recognizable ingredients, such as herbs, spices, fruits or vegetables they grew up eating. Plus, 73 percent of global consumers say they have positive feelings about companies that are transparent about where and how products were made, raised or grown.

Furthermore, consumers are taking a more flexitarian approach to their diets, choosing to add more plant-based foods and beverages to their meals rather than limiting animal-based products. Many of these consumers are motivated by the nutritional and environmental attributes of plant-based products. Given these consumer perceptions, products viewed as being close to nature and those with health halos are popular choices for health-forward consumers.

NIE: Aside from (or perhaps including) being trendy, what are the primary values or health goals driving consumers to seek out supplements and natural products that feature plant-based and/or vegan ingredients?

Hebard: Ultimately I think it boils down to consumers wanting to be active stakeholders in, or advocates for, their personal wellness and overall planetary wellness. In this sense, personal wellness considers using nutrition to try and achieve a healthy and vibrant longevity, and planetary wellness considers making mindful choices that take into account the impact their nutrition choices have on the environment. These values don’t happen spontaneously. They are being driven by greater consumer awareness supported by science and improvements in the quality and diversity of high-quality consumer products.

When we survey our customers for Ahiflower plant-based omegas, improving their general health and not depleting the oceans of small oily fish always feature as their top motivators for switching to plant-based sources.

Dockery: Avoidance of chronic health conditions and the quest to stay young and healthy are some of the biggest reasons consumers are seeking out non-animal-based foods and supplements.

According to the Cleveland Clinic, a true plant-based (vegan) diet eliminates almost all foods that can lead to poor health outcomes, including processed foods and those that contain cholesterol or added sugar. Plant-based diets can help reduce cardiovascular risk factors, such as high blood pressure, cholesterol and triglycerides; and they can lower the risk for diabetes, digestive disease, colon and breast cancers and obesity.

NIE: What are the latest developments in this area, in terms of innovative ingredient types, taste profiles, applications, delivery forms and types of products?

Hebard: Raw material diversity for better taste, better performance and improved nutritional quality has increased significantly. For example, look at how soy once dominated the human plant-based protein market, and now how many alternative plant or cultured protein sources there are today. The same applies to the different grains and seeds that could now be considered readily available to formulate with. With Ahiflower, we are seeing strong interest in the use of powered products and gummies as delivery systems. For example, our most recent innovation is powdered Ahiflower which has 70 percent oil load and uses a non-corn acacia fiber carrier, with great sensory and shelf life.

These quality innovations are giving formulators a far more comprehensive toolkit from which to select highly functional and value-added ingredients, that in turn enable producing better functional foods.

Tagliaferri: Specific to the dietary supplements segment, product developers are innovating with fun and functional formats like stick packs, drops, clusters and fizzy waters. Shoppers are frequently looking for wellness products that offer a two or more-for-one benefit. In fact, 54 percent of global dietary supplement users prefer supplements that offer multiple benefits in one product. People want solutions that can provide physical and emotional support in the same offering, such as a dietary supplement that contains ingredients shown to support digestive health, immune function and support muscle growth in a single serving.

For example, probiotics are a solution linked to a variety of wellness attributes, from supporting skin health and mood to factors related to athletic performance and weight management. Our award-winning BPL1 (Bifidobacterium animalis subsp. lactis CECT 8145) strain is a probiotic with a heat-treated counterpart, BPL1 HT, that retains functionality through processing. Both BPL1 and BPL1 HT target aspects of metabolic health, which is an increasingly important need for consumers. The benefits of postbiotics as well as dietary fiber and plant proteins are all available to everyday athletes in the shape of RTD (ready-to-drink) recovery drinks or better-for-you baked snacks.

Such multifunctional formulas demonstrate the ongoing convergence of dietary supplements with foods and beverages. The added convenience is appealing to consumers proactively searching for products to help them reach their personal wellness goals. To support these goals, our MaxFlex blend of pea with rice proteins is designed to deliver targeted nutrition across applications, including high-protein beverages, meal replacement drinks and energy bars. MaxFlex brings taste, texture, protein diversity and quality, with a higher protein digestibility-corrected amino acid score (PDCAAS) than the two protein sources provide separately. A PDCAAS value indicates the quality of a protein based on both the amino acid requirements of humans and their ability to digest it. Our MaxFlex pea and rice blend has a PDCAAS of 0.95 and the highest possible score is 1.0.

NIE: How can manufacturers of finished products utilize these ingredients to meet consumer needs in a practical way?

Steely: Key for consumer acceptance of plant-based products is taste and texture, although manufacturers have been working diligently to address these concerns. Cost also plays a role, and as demand for plant-based products increases, cost of the ingredients themselves is increasing. One issue any manufacturer also needs to keep in mind is to balance the taste and texture needs of consumers with keeping the finished product “healthy” in meeting the consumer’s end goals in moving towards a plant-based product in particular: keeping an eye on sodium, cholesterol, saturated fats, etc., in the finished product.

Hebard: In our case with Ahiflower in the omega-3 nutrition category, Ahiflower’s superior plant-based stability and flavor/aroma profiles mean that manufacturers can feel confident boosting more advanced plant-based omegas into more food-friendly formats—think gummies, snack bars, dairy alternatives, protein drinks, emulsions—that have historically been hard to address with marine and algal omega-3 sources. This meets consumers’ and families’ desire for daily immune, brain, cardiovascular, skin and mobility support associated with omega-3s but in far more convenient food and drink forms that they’re already consuming.

Dockery: Manufacturers should be keenly aware of consumer desire for vegetarian and vegan products. Consumers who are vegan often have extremely strict stipulations regarding the absence of any animal products in food products they consume, including processing aids. And consumers who are flexitarian, ovo-lacto-vegetarian or pescatarian are often more concerned about the environmental impact of product production than other consumers. Manufacturers who use ingredient suppliers who specialize in plant-based ingredients and are sensitive to the environment and sustainability can market these benefits through the distributor to the end consumer.

NIE: How has the boom in vegan ingredients and dairy alternatives impacted your business, positively or negatively?

Hebard: Because we work directly with farmers, we have good insight into the crops they grow and the reasons they grow them. Due to the plant-based ingredient “boom,” they have a much broader selection of specialty crops to grow and market, which is a good thing for both farm profitability and biodiversity, but it does increase the competitive pressures faced by buyers.

So to secure sustainable, reliable and competitively priced crop-derived raw materials, buyers are increasingly entering into true partnership or value based agreements with growers. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has highlighted how dependent the world’s food supply is on international crop trade.

Businesses like ours that produce highly specialized crops, such as Ahiflower and meadowfoam, must remember to nurture and prioritize grower relationships. I believe one consequence of these factors will be that plant-derived ingredient prices will remain stronger and for a more extended period of time than they have been in previous years.

Dockery: Stratum Nutrition, a business of ESM Technologies, has been focused on sustainability and environmental impact since its inception. Though Stratum’s first two ingredients, NEM brand eggshell membrane and ESC brand eggshell calcium, are not vegan ingredients, they are ovo-vegetarian and produced sustainably from a waste stream product of egg-cracking facilities. This concern for the environment, in conjunction with Stratum’s goal of marketing research-supported nutritional ingredients, make Stratum a premier company interested in improving human health and well-being. The growth of the vegan ingredient market has dovetailed into Stratum’s own company goals and reinforced the importance of those principles.

As the vegan market has continued to grow, Stratum has prioritized the acquisition of additional ingredients that fall within the plant-based niche and has increased focus on expanding the current ingredient portfolio to include dairy-free versions of probiotic ingredients, such as BLIS K12 and BLIS M18.

NIE: What are some of the health advantages of plant-derived ingredients compared to non-plant-derived?

Steely: Plant-derived ingredients tend to be lower in sodium and saturated fat, while also providing fiber and nutrients. Those following more of a plant-based diet see benefits for cholesterol and blood-sugar levels, reduced risks of chronic disease conditions and positive impacts on weight management.

Dockery: In most cases, plant-derived ingredients are more nutrient-dense than their animal counterparts, and can provide a wider variety of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and other beneficial compounds. For some individuals new to a vegan lifestyle, consuming enough complete protein and a few key nutrients, such as vitamin B12, might be more difficult or require supplementation; but in general, plants can provide an abundance of nutrients that are critical to human health. It is true that there are vegan meat alternatives that are no more nutritious (or even less so) than their animal counterparts, but for the most part, plant-based diets are healthier, especially in certain areas, such as cardiovascular health.

NIE: For manufacturers, please provide one or two examples of plant-based or vegan ingredients (it can be as ingredients, capsules, processing aids, etc.) which your company is selling and what makes them different or better.

Hebard: We have just entered into a partnership with Algarithm, producers of sensory-stable algal DHA, to produce an entirely new omega-oil blend for both supplement and food ingredient usage. It combines the complete and balanced omegas from Ahiflower oil with DHA from algae for a genuinely sustainable, traceable and probably the most comprehensive omega offering to the food, beverage and supplement industries. These new blends (Ahiflower 80DHA and Ahiflower150DHA) represent the only vegan omega source; the partnership offers such a broad array of omegas with such great sensory properties.

Dockery: One of Stratum’s best examples of a plant-based alternative to a familiar animal-sourced ingredient is the multi-omega Ahiflower seed oil (and powder). Though there are several omega fatty acids that are critical for human health, this segment of the industry has been dominated by omega-3s and specifically by the end-products of omega-3 metabolism, EPA and DHA. These long-chain fatty acids can be made in the body from the essential omega-3 fatty acid, ALA, but they are also naturally found in fatty fish, such as mackerel, salmon and sardines. The original population study that began the rise of omega-3 research was conducted in individuals who consumed a high fatty fish diet—and as a result, the research on omega-3s has been dominated by fish oil and its content of EPA and DHA. But there is much more to the story.

The original population study did not consider the current Western diet that is dominated by omega-6 oils. Consumption of omega-6 is also critical to health and linoleic acid (LA) is an essential fatty acid. However, the ratio of omega-6 consumption to omega-3 consumption should be around 4:1 to even 1:1 and the typical American’s ratio can be as high as 50:1. So, there is a need for more omega-3s.

Stratum also offers a wide range of plant-based ingredients including the antioxidant NatAxtin astaxanthin from the algae (Haematococcus pluvialis), Curcumin95, a 95 percent curcumin derived from the optimal natural turmeric source, Curcuma longa and dairy-free versions of two oral cavity-sourced probiotics, as I mentioned before, BLIS K12 and BLIS M18.

Steely: Plant-based protein shakes utilizing pea, rice, quinoa, soy, amaranth or any combination of these or other sources. Using combinations of these plant proteins can allow for different flavors (and ease in flavoring some sources vs others), and different cost ranges (more unique protein sources being more costly but being more interesting/appealing to consumers).

NIE: Where do you see the market for these ingredients headed over the next few years?

Tagliaferri: Functional alternative dairy offerings are a perfect format for added protein to help fuel consumers throughout the day. Spoonable yogurts and on-the-go formats, like RTD beverages, are among the top applications consumers would like to see positioned to support a healthy lifestyle. Plant-based dairy product launches with preferable characteristics like reduced sugar and sodium, fewer calories and high fiber are also likely to win with consumers.

Furthermore, kid-friendly formats are a growing need space, as more households take a proactive approach to holistic well-being. Plus, research finds younger generations, like Generation Z, are more likely to reach for supplements in chewable formats. Convenience and an enjoyable sensory experience are key to developing daily habits in consumers of all ages. From fruit-shaped and bright-colored citrus gummies to swirling rainbow yogurt drinks, health and wellness brands can have a lot of fun with kid-friendly options.

Many product categories can further attract consumer attention with a boost of plant-based protein, tantalizing flavors like dragonberry or tropical sunrise and other ingredients that support consumers’ active lifestyle aspirations.

Dockery: There is no doubt that there are multiple factors that are causing upheaval in the current global food supply. As more people become attuned to these issues as well as educated on the benefits of a plant-dominant diet, there will continue to be a strong demand for plant-based foods and supplements. The market will likely continue to expand and get more creative in ways to offer new and innovative options that have the taste and health-boosting benefits that consumers desire.

Steely: As consumers are becoming more focused on their personal health, as well as more environmentally aware of their food choices and its impact on the planet, the market for plant-based products is going to continue to increase.

NIE: What else would you like to add?

Steely: A critical area of concern is to be ever mindful of the expanding list of chemicals or residues from agricultural husbandry that may be considered objectionable under such statutory regimes as Proposition 65. Also, Foreign Supplier Verification must be part of the sourcing process under federal statute, as the FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) has been issuing warning letters to firms importing goods that have not been properly vetted under these requirements.

Hebard: The plant-based ingredient industry should not get complacent about the size and growth of the market. Being plant-based is still sometimes seen as the lowest common denominator for these ingredients, but I would argue that forward-looking businesses that really want to win in this space commit to regenerative production practices, full traceability, non-GMO (genetically modified organism), and other quality criteria such as glyphosate-free. Collectively, they are raising the bar for all suppliers. The consumer and our planet will be the beneficiaries of these industry leadership practices. NIE

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