More consumers indicate they’re trying to eat more plant-based foods; that’s pushing alternative proteins into a mainstream phenomenon, according to “OutsideVoice,” a consumer-insights platform developed by Archer Daniels Midland. And makers of alternative-meat products are working to increase production and efficiency with technologies such as protein fermentation.

Impossible Foods was established in 201; the company’s team spent the next five years researching the use of heme from plants to recreate the taste of animal meat, said David Lee, chief financial officer at Impossible Foods. Heme is an iron-containing molecule in blood.

The company discovered that leghemoglobin, a hemoprotein found in legumes, created the best-tasting product. Its original “Impossible Burger” was comprised of soy leghemoglobin and soy protein.

The heme in the company’s products is made using a yeast genetically engineered with the gene for soy leghemoglobin. The company grows yeast via fermentation. From the yeast it isolates the soy leghemoglobin, which is then mixed with other ingredients.

Impossible Foods continued to work to improve the burger. In 2019 it launched Impossible Burger 2.0, a blend of soybean and potato proteins. It contained 36 percent less sodium and 43 percent less saturated fat than the original Impossible Burger, but still provided “craveability,” Lee said.

But compare it to the same serving size of 80-percent-lean ground beef with 20 percent fat. Impossible Burger 2.0 has about 80 percent more sodium and 6 percent more saturated fat, said Danielle Beck, senior executive director of government affairs at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.

“Despite being fortified and greatly processed in an attempt to achieve equivalency to real beef, many imitation products fall short in terms of nutritional equivalence,” she said. “Consumers should know the health ‘halo’ surrounding plant-based meat is far from justifiable. That’s why the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association is working hard to continue educating consumers about the benefits of beef.”

The association also is advocating for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to prioritize enforcement of existing regulations when it comes to imitation-food-product labeling, she said.

Angie Krieger, vice-president of domestic marketing at the National Pork Board, said, “Consumers want choice; we understand and appreciate that. In an era where consumers want greater transparency and clarity on food labeling, pork is a strong competitor.”

Animal proteins in meat are complete proteins; they provide all the essential amino acids a body needs, she said.

“Plant-based-protein products are typically ‘highly processed,’ which means they’ve been heavily altered and contain additives,” she said. “If you’re looking for a protein for a recipe or even a burger, compare the labels on animal proteins such as ground pork or beef versus a plant-based product. Which product has the shorter ingredient list? Which has fewer additives?”

More protein potential sought

Beyond Meat, which was established in 2009, refined a mixture of soybean and pea proteins to simulate chicken. The company introduced in 2012 frozen “chicken” strips made from soy powder, carrot fibers and other ingredients. Two years later it introduced the “Beyond Burger,” a combination of proteins from peas, rice, mung beans and other ingredients. The company in 2017 introduced “Beyond Sausage.”

“We think there a lot of other protein sources, depending on availability and scale,” said Chuck Muth, chief growth officer for Beyond Meat. “We’ll continue to explore other protein options.”

The company’s products are currently sold in a variety of national chains such as KFC, Pizza Hut and Starbucks.

“We’re in 84 countries with 112 outlets around the world,” Muth said. “The United States and Canada are our core markets but we see growth opportunities in Europe and China. We’re investing in manufacturing facilities in Holland and China by the end of the year.”

Market size considerable

Sarah Little, vice-president of communications at the North American Meat Institute, said, “Global demand for protein is growing and has driven many companies such as Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat to take a page out of traditional meat’s playbook. Both kinds of companies want to sell products to meet the demand for protein. The growing demand helps explain why several of the Meat Institute’s members have developed plant-based-protein lines of their own; there is market share to be had.”

The global protein-ingredients market – comprised of animal and plant proteins – is estimated to have a value of $52.5 billion in 2020, according to marketsandmarkets. The market-analysis firm predicts that by 2025 the market will reach about $71 billion.

And the market for protein supplements – protein powers and protein bars – is expected to reach about $33 billion by 2027, according to Grand View Research Inc. The animal-protein market in 2019 accounted for a market share of about 68 percent of revenues. Grand View Research attributed that to the popularity of whey-protein supplements. It forecasts the plant-based-protein segment to grow at an annual rate of about 9 percent from now until 2027, reaching more than $11 billion in 2027.

“Our space is the meat industry,” Lee said. “The reality is that for decades large food companies were seeking to better the industry. They just didn’t have the focus we have – technology. We think that’s our edge. If we have the very best technology to continually improve every product … if we have a great brand that’s transparent to the meat eater, those two assets will allow the consumer to choose."

Little said, “While Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger market their products using altruism, they’re still businesses looking to sell a product.”

Impossible Foods, she said, has partnered with traditional meat companies to manufacture its plant-based product.

Lee said, “Our mission demands we continue to push – not just in sourcing ingredients, but also the method of production to scale. We use industrial fermentation, another form of innovation. Because the global market is so large we’ll need to deliver using every form of innovation.”

Beyond Meat’s objective is to continuously improve the taste and quality of its products, and to make them healthier and more nutritious, Muth said. The company will continue to work to reduce production costs. It’s working to price products less than the price of animal meat.

“The issue today is scale; we’re still building out processing,” he said. “But in time we should be less expensive than animal meat.”

Mimicking of taste, texture improving

David Welch, director of science and technology for The Good Food Institute, said in the past five years plant-based-protein companies have improved taste and texture with regard to mimicking animal meat.

“They’ve just scratched the surface of what’s possible,” he said. “I think we’ll see more novelty ingredients to produce flavor, appearance and aroma.”

Meati Foods has developed a process for growing mycelium, a threadlike structure produced by fungi. That structure is formed and shaped to mimic steak as well as other meat and poultry cuts.

Companies may add more functional ingredients such as fats and oils derived from fermentation processes to closely mimic animal fats. More than 40 companies are currently working on fermentation of recombinant-protein ingredients or protein biomass, Welch said.

“I think we’ll see some hybrid products – containing the best plant sources and inputs from either protein biomass via fermentation or recombinant-protein ingredients," he said.

The market for plant-based “meats” and fermentation technology were topics of discussion during a recent webinar hosted by FoodNavigator-USA.

Visit impossiblefoods.com and beyondmeat.com and meati.com and gfi.org and foodnavigator-usa.com for more information. 

Lynn Grooms writes about the diversity of agriculture, including the industry’s newest ideas, research and technologies as a staff reporter for Agri-View based in Wisconsin.