The conundrum of plant-based alternatives

Tuesday, 30 May, 2023

The conundrum of plant-based alternatives

The global plant-based food market is predicted to triple in size over the next decade, with plant-based food sales forecast to surge by over 12%. This increase in sales of highly manufactured meat and dairy product alternatives has raised concerns among some experts.

Dr Hazel Mactavish-West, Australian food scientist and founder of Seedlab Australia, believes many ‘plant-based’ alternatives are failing to deliver on taste, promise, price and nutrition.

“There are basic nutritional building blocks that as humans, our cells and bodies need and crave — vitamins, minerals, salts, protein, sugars, fibre, fats — the list goes on. The reality is that some highly manufactured meat and dairy alternative products are masquerading as real foods, and are not providing the nutrition our bodies require, the wow factor that our taste buds expect, and may not be worth the higher price point they command,” Mactavish-West said.

Many companies have switched from incorporating mushrooms, nuts, legumes and vegetables as ingredients in meat alternatives to highly scientific food technology processes that look and attempt to taste like meat and dairy through a blend of extracts, isolated food components and single chemical ingredients.

The plant-based food sector has recently seen the plateau of plant-based meat sales in the US predicted to soon play out in the Australian market, with UK meat brand Heck reducing its alternative range from 15 to two and v2food closing its Wodonga, Victoria plant.

In a 2022 study into sensory expectations around plant-based burgers and cheese alternatives by Kerry, the global R&D, consumer insight, food safety and manufacturing company found that 60% of Australian consumers began eating plant-based products because they are considered ‘healthier’ than the alternative, while 51% did so for environmental reasons.

“Outside of vegetarian and vegan communities, consumers are purchasing these products either for novelty reasons, because of enticing branding and packaging that positions the product as being ‘better-for-you’, because social media made them trendy, or because they were on special,” Mactavish-West said.

Initially, plant-based meat alternatives presented an opportunity to address nutritional, ethical and environmental issues in a unique and impactful way, by incorporating wholefoods including nuts, mushrooms, legumes and vegetables into these products.

Mactavish-West said the conundrum comes when alternatives for meat products are made from extracts, concentrates, isolates, thickeners, sugar, oils and dextrose with a percentage of mushroom, pea and rice protein and potato starch.

“Just because something has a slight resemblance to the look and texture of meat or cheese, it doesn’t mean it delivers the same nutrients that the human body needs.

“I believe we need to continue to support and encourage producers and food manufacturers to look for sustainably produced, nutritious ingredients including wholefoods that deliver holistically on taste, nutrition, economics and environmental responsibility,” Mactavish-West said.

Image caption: Dr Hazel Mactavish-West.

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