Consumers have become increasingly interested in observing a diet that is vegan, vegetarian, or meat-reduced. This trend has increased exponentially, particularly during the past few years. More consumers than ever before are gravitating toward plant-based protein sources to meet their daily protein requirements.

A recent Harris Poll discovered that there are at least 8 million adult vegetarians in the US alone, with about half of them following vegan diets. As North American consumers continue to shift the focus of their diets toward healthy living, plant-based proteins will only become more popular.

Protein from sources such as soy and pea continue to find new applications, while more novel innovations offer alternatives or complementary properties. With new research and technologies emerging daily, protein is being extracted from an increasing variety of unconventional sources, such as mushrooms, root vegetables, and algae. Most people in Western societies today consume protein from four to five different sources each day without realizing it.

While veganism and vegetarianism are undoubtedly growing in popularity, the largest market opportunity for plant-based proteins is among those who consider themselves to be “meat reducers.” Whether “flexitarians” enjoying a predominantly plant-based diet with the occasional meat meal thrown in, or environmentally aware consumers seeking to curb their meat intake for ecological reasons, they are desirous of cutting back on meat but accept its allure as far as flavor, texture, and aroma are concerned.

Among Americans, the top reason consumers purchase meat alternatives is because they occasionally prefer to have meat-free days. In 2015, at least 36% of the US population stated they were interested in reducing—if not eliminating altogether—meat and dairy consumption. The trend continued into 2016, when 55% of US residents surveyed said they planned to eat more plant-based foods in the coming year—36% of them “somewhat more,” and 19% “significantly more.”

The consumer shift in protein selection to plants is not limited to center-of-plate swaps in meals prepared at home. More than one quarter (26%) of consumers say they now eat animal protein alternatives at restaurants. And more than a third (37%) say they “always” or “sometimes” eat vegetarian meals when dining out.

More consumers are seeking delicious and convenient alternatives to processed meat as they become increasingly conscious of their dietary choices in terms of health and sustainability. Google searches for ‘vegan’ climbed almost 90% from 2016 to 2017, but 36% of Americans consume meat-alternatives. It’s not just vegans who are looking for meat-alternatives—mainstream consumers also are demanding “cleaner” food options.


Paradigm Shift

Many reasons factor into the decision to reduce or eliminate animal products, including health promotion, sustainability, animal welfare, and increased access to higher quality meat-free options.

Plant-based proteins appeal to those who are concerned with optimizing their personal health. Many Americans are looking for better overall nutrition and a healthier lifestyle; 61% of US consumers say they are trying to eat more healthfully.

According to Mintel, more than one quarter (28%) of those who use animal-free protein alternatives are trying to lose weight, and 66% of protein alternative consumers agree that these options are healthier than foods containing real meat.

Studies support this finding, showing that 45% of consumers consider heart health to be the most important feature of plant protein, while 40% think it to be weight management. 

The need for protein is up. Today, the population is living longer and staying more active. As the baby boomer market ages and experiences the muscle loss that naturally comes with age, the market must satisfy the need for increased protein in a daily diet to maintain muscle tone. This is seen in both an increased demand for nutritional powder blends and sports recovery formulas and in supplementation throughout an overall diet.

In addition, the trend toward gluten-free diets and the subsequent removal of certain grains from foods has resulted in a loss of the protein that those grains provided. This leaves a gap to be filled by creative substitutions.


The Eco Factor

Sustainability, animal welfare and environmental concerns further motivate consumers to reduce their meat consumption through “mindful eating.” Nutrition Business Journal shares that 23% of US consumers associate a vegan diet with animal welfare, 11% with environmental responsibility, and 8% with social responsibility.

A meat-free diet is no longer the purview of a niche segment of the population. Meat elimination and meat reduction create an opportunity for plant-based proteins to provide nutritional satisfaction for a broad spectrum of consumers. 

These shifts in consumer mindset could not come at a more important time. As the US government makes decisions related to our global environment, pulling out of initiatives such as the Paris Climate Accord, sustainability efforts have never more been in the hands of the individuals than they are now.

Our dietary choices have the singular largest influence on industries that generate greenhouse gases. This means the wellness and health of the planet tie back to simple meal-to-meal food choices. Meat reduction has an undeniably impressive effect on sustainability, and studies show that consumers are beginning to see that their food choices have an effect on both their own health and the health of the world.

Despite this, NPD Group found that one major barrier in the plant-based food industry is that most adults still say the best protein sources are animal-based. While this is an opportunity for education, Nutrition Insight’s “Special Report: 2017 Nutrition Trends” found that 20% of Americans view plant protein as a more healthful option than they did the previous year, compared with the 8% who see it as a less healthy option.

Yet, while the conversation about plant protein is definitely trending positively, there is another major challenge: taste.

Research indicates that consumers care primarily about flavor and that source of protein is “significantly less important.” Moreover, consumers typically want about 25g protein per serving. In fact, in a recent beverage preference study, six of the seven top scorers were formulated with blends of dairy and soy proteins.

Those six were the same ones identified as having the best taste. That suggests that plant proteins can replace a larger share of animal-based proteins if manufacturers can formulate products that achieve the right taste and texture. 


Longstanding Champions

Soy is still one of the most widely used plant proteins in meat and dairy analogs. Soy is often preferred, because it is a nutrient-dense food and a rich source of protein with disease-fighting properties.

Soybeans are the lowest-calorie food source for delivering large amounts of protein in the diet, and they contain very little fat. As a complete source of protein, soybeans contain all nine essential amino acids that humans require from food, and include a generous supply of vitamins and minerals.

Those micronutrients include calcium, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, potassium, zinc, and vitamins B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B9, and C. Soybeans also are a good source of fiber as well as omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Also, they are the only significant dietary source of isoflavones, one of five chemical classes of anticarcinogens found in soy.

Soy has gotten a bad rap in some popular press recently, but in reality, soy has been shown to reduce the risk of coronary heart disease, osteoporosis, and certain cancers, including breast and prostate cancers.

“When it comes to meat analogs, soy still wins,” says Arinn Ryan, Director of R&D for Alpha (Plant-Based) Foods. “New science has allowed soy protein to mimic the taste and texture of real meat in a way many other proteins have trouble replicating.”

“From a functionality standpoint, the integrity of soy protein’s structure is well maintained under various cooking scenarios, including extended periods of boiling,” she adds. “By contrast, other plant-based sources such as pea protein can easily turn instable in boiling water. This is one of the reasons we choose to utilize soy protein in Alpha’s products. We also know that a cup of cooked soybeans contains approximately 22g of protein, which is significantly more than the 16g of protein in a chicken breast. We can offer more protein in a more heart-healthy food.”

Beyond the structural integrity that soy provides in creating meat substitute products, soy also provides more of a meat-like taste than other plant-based protein options. While undesirable aromas and flavors are a common challenge with other plant-based protein options, soy does not face this issue.

This, along with a familiarity, may be why consumers continue to select soy products.

Nevertheless, pea protein is rapidly gaining popularity as an ingredient selection that has advantages over the more traditional (dairy) proteins like whey and casein. Pea protein has a hunger-fighting fiber along with necessary amino acids such as leucine, isoleucine, and valine.

Leucine is the same protein that is found in whey and milk. Peas have the potential to become an incredibly versatile protein, and the demand for pea protein has skyrocketed. Global Food Forums reported that peas will have the highest increase in protein supplement use in 2017. 

The increase is expected to reach just over 80%. According to Mintel, the number of products containing pea protein grew by 195% between 2013 and 2016. As the food industry looks to expand pea protein production, it must first figure out how to make the supply larger, more consistent, and more sustainable.

Pea protein has a good digestive tolerance, being low in carbohydrate-binding capacity. It is thus highly bioavailable, whereas other plant proteins, such as rice or wheat gluten have lower absorption factors. Due to a high level of arginine, pea protein can play an important role in muscle recovery systems.

Yellow pea protein is popular with manufacturers, but hitting the market recently is green pea protein. It is more neutral in flavor, yet slightly darker than the traditionally sourced yellow pea protein. This makes it ideal for darker and sweeter formulations such as chocolate bars or baked goods, or even meat analogs, although it currently costs more than yellow pea protein.


The Newcomers

As pea proteins have some limitations in terms of the complete amino acid profile, manufacturers may look to combinations of pea and rice proteins to obtain a full range of amino acids. Rice offers a higher nutritional value than pea protein, while pea protein is turned to often when developers seek to replicate meaty textures and flavors.

Ones to Watch

Ingredient technologists are deriving viable and cost-competitive vegan proteins from a wealth of new sources. Here’s a list of some of the top up-and-coming proteins currently on the market, just entering the market, or coming to market soon. Look for a more detailed update in the December 2017 issue of Prepared Foods magazine.

  • Algae protein
  • Broccoli protein
  • Carrot protein
  • Chick pea protein
  • Coconut protein
  • Corn protein
  • Duckweed protein
  • Fava bean protein
  • Mung bean protein
  • Mycoprotein
  • Potato protein
  • Pumpkin seed protein
  • Sunflower seed protein
  • Watermelon seed protein
  • Yeast protein.

Newer to the consumer market, rice protein has just crossed over to food products as it was recently designated Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) by the FDA. As ingredient manufacturers and finished product manufacturers combine technological innovation, the industry is sure to see increasingly varied applications for rice proteins. The ingredient lends itself well to such products as extrusions for protein crisps, meat analogs, and umami flavor enhancers.

Rice protein is one of the few plant protein isolates that can boast a protein concentration of 90% or higher. Consumers recognize the ingredient, and research has shown that 43% of consumers would be interested in trying brown rice protein. While it still is establishing its place among other plant-based competitors, it gets high marks for its clean flavor and hypoallergenicity.

A wealth of new-to-market proteins from other grains, seeds, and legumes also are making inroads in product development. While use and applications of protein from mushrooms, eggplant, and various seeds continue to increase, technologists have been finding ways to cost-effectively extract wholesome protein from plant sources such as carrots, potatoes and other root vegetables; broccoli; and leafy greens.

Algae is an interesting and rapidly growing protein source. It also provides a significant amount of fiber and healthful lipids. Experts expect huge increases in use over the next few years because its protein contains an impressive variety of amino acids, with some species possessing more than 60 different kinds. Global Food Forums predicted that algae will see a 60% increase once the numbers are tallied at the end of this year.

The growing trend toward using algae as a protein supplement comes from the fact that many consumers are looking for allergen-free alternatives to other plant-based products. In addition, protein from algae is a trans-fat and cholesterol-free lipid, rich in healthful omega oils. Moreover, it is a highly sustainable product that can be grown in clean, controlled environments with little waste.

The lipid, carbohydrate, and protein fractions of algae all are available in powder form. This makes it easy for product developers to create healthier products with satisfying tastes and textures. Algae offers additional options at the macro level of nutrition, and plays into the clean-label and whole food trends in that it is not a protein isolate, but a complete protein.

“Several algae companies that were originally biofuel-focused companies have pivoted towards the food and nutraceutical market in the last several years,” remarks Liz Specht, senior scientist for the Good Food Institute. “They now are moving from high-value oils, such as high-omega-3 cooking oils, and from animal feed toward food-grade protein for human consumption. Algae represent an enormous wealth of biological diversity and therefore a lot of novel proteins can be produced by various strains of algae, so there is a lot to explore for applicability to food.”

Algae converts what the world is good at growing–sugar and carbs–into protein, in a smaller growing space than that required for other sources of protein. With a high yield of protein and high levels of the amino acids arginine and glutamine, algae is particularly useful for performance nutrition, pre- and post-workout supplements, and recovery from illness.


Fungus Among Us

Mycoprotein, or protein from mushrooms, is attracting interest for use in a variety of applications. The most common source of mycoprotein currently in use is derived from the Fusarium venenatum fungus, which has been used for years in such products as Monde Nissin Corp.’s Quorn brand of meat substitutes. Recently, ingredient technologists have been looking at other mushroom sources for protein. The root system of shiitake mushrooms is one that’s gaining special notice.

Shiitakes and other mushrooms have continued to be explored as a protein source, pushing forward the next generation of plant-based proteins. Mycoprotein is known as a high-quality protein, as it offers all nine essential amino acids, along with 11 non-essential ones.

As a source of vitamin E, pantothenic acid, phosphorus, fiber, and lentinan 1-3,1-6 betaglucans, mycoprotein does provide a rare nutritional profile. Mycoprotein is a highly digestible and bioavailable protein, scoring a 1.00 on the Digestible Indispensable Amino Acid Score (DIASS).

Another advantage to mycoprotein is its contribution to a meat-like texture. The strands of the mushroom have a similar structure to the cells of an animal muscle. The flavor profile also mimics meat, with a slight savory umami taste, which gives mycoprotein a strong satiety aspect.

Interestingly, some manufacturers are feeding the mushrooms to be used for protein with pea protein and rice protein in order to attain the ideal protein value. This, along with a relative newness and the limitations of commercial quantity capabilities, are reasons why mycoprotein is one of the highest priced plant proteins on the market.