With plant-based food sales in Europe estimated at €3.6bn in 2020, delegates at a recent Teagasc conference got a timely update on Irish-based participation in this increasingly lucrative sector.
They heard that Germany has the highest plant-based sales, followed by the UK. The Nestlé company alone sold €780m of vegetarian or plant-based foods in 2021, according to speakers at the conference.
Plant-based fish alternatives are a big seller, with retail sales estimated at €1.9m in 2020 in Germany alone. Fish-like foods are made from plant sources such as soya, carrot, konjac root, and rice protein.
European plant-based drink sales in 2020 were estimated at €1.66bn. The best-selling products are based on oats, soya, and almond but new “milk” ingredients such as spelt, pea, beans, or lupins also show promise for food companies. Sales of cheese alternatives totalled €60m.
Sales of meat substitutes (mostly in the form of replicas of "sausages", "burger patties", and "cold cuts") are estimated at €1.4bn.
The conference heard from Bord Bia researchers on food choices and diets, and the role of protein and alternative proteins. Consumers were surveyed in Ireland, the UK, Germany, Sweden, the US, Italy, France, the Netherlands and China in November 2020.
It was found that 14% of adults looked for food and drink with added protein, and 17% sought out added vitamins or minerals. In surveys, 23% said the health benefits of food are more important than how it tastes, and 24% looked for food and drink with immune-boosting properties.
However, with the exception of Italy, European markets did not match these desires for food with added benefits to the same degree as the US and China markets.
It was found that consumption of fruit and vegetables was increasing significantly. Although poultry consumption levels continued to increase, eating red meat was on the decline overall (but increasing in China, and steady in the US, while falling in Western Europe, where Bord Bia research showed that shoppers were buying less beef but better quality beef).
These trends were in line with findings that the “association” with vegan and vegetarian lifestyles is increasing, but the proportion adhering to these lifestyles was low (only 2% in Ireland and the UK for vegan, but 8-9% had vegetarian lifestyles). 'Flexitarians' (those who have a primarily vegetarian diet but occasionally eat meat or fish) were estimated at 16% in Ireland and the UK.
For many consumers, fish was replacing some red meat. Consumption of meat-free alternatives also showed growth. There was increased consumption of both dairy and non-dairy (12%) milk and dairy products.
Affordability challenged many who had changed their diets; for example, 18% of those who abandoned vegan or vegetarian lifestyles claimed they did so because it was too expensive.
The producers, processors, food ingredient companies, researchers and other stakeholders at the Teagasc event in Ashtown, Dublin, heard from the Smart Protein project that the plant-based meat, plant-based fish, and plant-based cheese sectors show the best potential for exploitation.
The four-year Smart Protein project is funded by the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme. The plant breeders, agricultural networks, food ingredient producers, and product manufacturers from 22 countries participating in the project includes University College Cork. Teagasc, Glanbia, and Beotanics.
The €9m project looks at how to manufacture cost-effective (and resource-efficient) EU-produced plant proteins from sources such as chickpeas, lentils, quinoa, fava beans, yeast, fungi, and byproducts from the pasta, bread, and beer industries. Partial or full substitution of traditionally used proteins is one of the Smart Protein research areas, but the project looks at the food chain from the crop in the field up to the consumer.
Here in Ireland, the Government has funded for five years to 2025 the Unlocking Protein Resource Opportunities to Evolve Ireland's Nutrition (U-PROTEIN) project, with the objective of greater diversification and biotransformation of protein resources, to deliver sustainability, bio-circularity and quality nutrition.
Five universities (Galway, Queens, Maynooth, Limerick, and UCC) and five Teagasc centres are involved.
According to the U-PROTEIN presentation at the conference, exotic-sounding crops that could be grown here for protein include fava beans, lupin, oca, mashua, and yacon. Potential is seen also for exploiting seaweeds such as porphyria, ulva, and chondrus crispus (Irish moss).
There’s a 70%-plus protein extraction yield from fava beans, and some varieties are suitable for growing in Ireland. Lactic acid is one of the useful products that can be obtained from fava bean residual biomass.
Oca and Mashua are Andean tuber crops from South America with good protein profiles, for which growth conditions in Ireland are suitable. The yacon is also from the Andes, a species of perennial daisy traditionally grown for its tuberous roots.
The harvests from such crops might be put through biorefineries where microbes and enzymes can result in a range of products such as complex sugars, biofuels, bioactives with health benefits, or even fertiliser, along with proteins for sensory or food use which can end up in new foods. For example, pea protein in textured form is used as a substitute, such as meat substitution in a vegetarian burger.
Enterprise Ireland has surveyed Irish industry thinking on plant-based foods. Findings indicate that Irish-sourced raw materials would be seen as a key quality and marketing advantage. There was interest from some farmers in alternative crops, but the range of suitable crops for Ireland is seen as narrow. Nevertheless, the industry sees some opportunity to be a player on a global scale.