Plant-based meat aims to deliver the same experience as eating conventional meat but without many of the negative impacts associated with the animal agriculture industry.
Also known as vegan, faux, fake, or plant meat, it can match the appearance, taste, cooking method, and nutritional value of the meat-based product it seeks to replace. Plant-based meat is made from a variety of animal-free ingredients, including vegetable proteins, plant oils, and vegan binding agents.
Ingredients derived from fungi and algae, while not biologically classified as plant ingredients, are also commonly used in the production of plant-based meats and are therefore included in our definition.
There are also crossovers with other pillars of the alt meat industry. For example, the products of processes such as precision fermentation and lab-grown meat can be combined with additional plant-based ingredients to form “hybrid” plant-based meat alternatives.
To replicate meat-based products, industry players must overcome multiple technical challenges. These present opportunities for innovation along the entire three step process of plant-based meat production:
Animal meat is chiefly comprised of muscle tissue, something that plants don’t possess. Nevertheless, muscle tissue can be deconstructed into proteins, fats, vitamins, minerals, and water, all of which nature can provide.
For example, many conventional crops, such as soy and wheat, contain the primary raw materials used for plant-based meat production: plant proteins. Alternatively, if nature can’t provide, biological, mechanical, or chemical processes can be used to produce an analog.
Suitable crops are chosen based on their taste; protein, fat, and fiber content; ease of ingredient isolation, and solubility. What’s more, different plant proteins possess various functional properties that influence the sensory and nutritional qualities of the end product.
While many plant-based meats can be made using whole ingredients, such as beans and mushrooms, others require more purified and concentrated components. In this case, crops need to be processed to isolate the raw material of interest, including proteins, fats, and fibers.
Due to the ever-increasing diversity of plant sources used, there is a growing need for novel ingredient processing methodologies; some crops may require unique methods of milling and fractionation.
Another challenge to tackle is the arrangement of the fundamental plant-based elements to emulate the distinctive texture of meat. Larger cuts of meat, such as plant-based chicken breasts and steak, are much more challenging to replicate than plant-based mince meat and hamburgers.
To achieve the desired muscle-like texture that delivers a realistic mouthfeel, numerous manufacturing processes can be employed. For example, kneading, stretching, folding, layering, shear cell processing, 3D printing, slicing, and high moisture extrusion can each produce unique shapes and textures.
Many of these techniques can also influence the functional and nutritional properties of the end plant-based meat product. It’s subsequently important to carefully plan and test combinations of plant proteins and other ingredients to ensure they perform as desired during specific production methods.
The media attention regarding certain existing players might give the sense that the field of plant-based meat has peaked, yet this prognosis is seriously misguided. Many plant-based meat brands are experiencing significant growth, such as Impossible’s 70% surge in retail sales in 2022. And, according to Nestlé, global industry sales are set to grow by approximately 20% per annum across the next five years.
What’s more, innovations continue to promise new and exciting possibilities for the end products, from expanding the offering of raw materials to producing ingredients with better functional qualities and ultimately developing game-changing products that are tastier and healthier.
Some of the future plant-based meat opportunities include:
The majority of plant-based food categories are growing faster than their animal-based counterparts, with plant milk taking the lead as the most popular plant-based product among omnivores. Yogurts and creamers aren’t too far behind and egg alternatives experienced the fastest market growth, although it remains the least developed category.
Plant-based seafood is another area experiencing fast growth. Since more than 3 billion people in the world eat seafood as one of their main sources of animal protein, there is a significant market opportunity for this category.