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Industry Interviews: The Future of Protein is Plant-Based 🌿🥩

The next generation of protein is here, and it’s made from plants. 🥗

Sound like a bold statement? The numbers are telling:

  • Total retail dollar sales for plant-based foods have increased 29% since 2018.
  • Plant-based meat sales grew 18% in 2019.
  • Plant-based milks lead the pack with $2 billion in sales (and 686% growth for just oat milk) in 2019.

Consumers across the dietary spectrum — from hardcore meat lovers 🥩 to vegans 🌿 — are seeking tasty new alternatives that promise better health outcomes, a lower environmental impact and less reliance on factory farming.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shone a laser light on many of these concerns, bringing long-standing vulnerabilities and shortcomings in the global food supply chain to the public’s attention.

Enter alt protein. 🧪🔭

Innovative entrepreneurs around the world are growing, fermenting, 3D printing and cooking up meat alternatives using plant-based ingredients to redefine how alt protein looks — and tastes.

But you don’t have to take my word for it. I rounded up a few industry insiders to share their opinions, and the insights are fascinating. 💡💡

Meet the Industry Insiders:

plant-based industry insiders tony martens, lavindra de silva, and karthiga ratnum

Tony Martens: Co-founder of Plantible Foods, producers of the proprietary Rubi protein, a clean, sustainable plant-based protein ingredient derived from lemna (duckweed). 🌿 Originally from Amsterdam (the Netherlands!), with a background in commodity supply chain management.

Lavindra de Silva: Sales innovator and advisor to disruptive startups and companies looking to rapidly expand into new markets. Extensive background in sales leadership in the U.S., Sri Lanka and India. Undergrad degree in Economics & Geography with graduate work in Geography.

Karthiga Ratnum: Virtual CMO | Marketing Engagement | Sales Strategy | Transformative Content Producer | Category Marketer — Laser-focused on converting customer engagement and experience into tangible revenue with a track record of achieving multi-million-dollar sales targets, rapidly growing sales pipelines, and creating recurring revenue streams from multiple channels.

Together, Lavindra & Karthiga host Pandemic Punditry, where they deliver unique insights from some of the biggest names (and key up-and-coming brands) in the plant-based and alt-protein industries.

The Industry Insights 🔍

In your opinion, what's the most interesting/exciting development in alt protein right now?

Lavindra: “One interesting thing is that there seems to be a lot of activity around alt protein in the Indian market. … maybe that people are realizing what a big market India might be for plant-based and even cell-based food in the future. There are some companies that are in ‘stealth mode’ right now that are going to come out in India in very interesting areas.

“If I was to pick something really exciting happening in the space, it would be the coming together of cell-based and plant-based stuff, these hybrid meats where people are using both plants and cell-based to sort of blend it together.”

Karthiga: “I’m not a meat eater. But for me, personally, I really miss scrambled eggs on toast.  So that liquid egg replacer, for me is super awesome — if you can get it tasting exactly like that and looking exactly like that, that’s super exciting for me.”

Tony: “What excites me is that every product, everything that you do is so highly tangible … you can go to a grocery store or you can go online if somebody launched a new product and just try it [and get the experience] of these food products. … and by eating it, it will have an effect on your body, your health, your mental health.”

What’s the current consumer sentiment around moving away from meat?

Tony: “I think the sentiment is quite positive. There’s just still a long way to go. … I think what's going to determine the success of plant-based foods, whether it's plant-based meat or dairy, is going to be the quality of the product.”

Lavindra: “There’s sort of an assumption in the west that India is a land of vegetarians, but that’s not backed up by the data … the reverse is true. 29% is the [average] number of vegetarians in India. Some states are more; some states only have 1.3%. … as India becomes more affluent, you’re going to have more meat eating, and that’s really why we need to have a plant-based revolution.”

How about currently available alt proteins? 🍖

Lavindra: “I’ve shared these alt proteins with friends … who have never eaten [them]. I get two reactions: ‘Wow, that tastes just like meat!’ and the second is, ‘Okay, it’s about 80% there.’ … A lot of people have said, ‘I have no problem. I could eat this instead of [meat].’

“…It’s nothing like tempeh or soy nuggets. This is no longer that, where you’re supposed to think you’re eating meat, but it doesn’t really taste like it. … If they can get the feel and the experience of meat, I think that’s enough.”

Karthiga: “I prefer my vegetarian burger [over options like the Beyond Burger]. For me, I don’t miss the taste of chicken or fish because I was a vegetarian for so long before I became a vegan. It doesn’t taste the same for me [as for people who eat meat]. … But I think there are lots of people here who would change their philosophy if the animal wasn’t killed.”

Tony: “I think what the problem is … people, first of all, don't really know how to distinguish between processed foods — processed foods in general have a very negative connotation, whereas actually it really depends on the process … and the ingredients used in that process. … transparency is going to be key to persuade consumers. So showing them how everything is made, but also educating them on how other things are made.

“If you grow an animal, if you buy a piece of steak in the grocery aisle, you never have to disclose what you fed the animal. It's just ‘cow.’ Whereas the cow might've had medicine and it had et cetera, you don't know. … but when you buy, [a plant-based protein product], you have to list every single element that goes into it. … Is that a fair comparison?”

How do consumers view up-and-coming protein sources?

Lavindra: “India can’t afford to feed everybody meat, even if they wanted. Sustainably, it will not to be able to do that. … Indian companies need to step up and start getting into the plant-based game because we have a ready market. Make a big, major brand here. I think it’s on the way to happening … sooner rather than later.

“There’s nothing that India doesn’t grow or can’t grow. … It has the biodiversity to pretty much make anything available that’s available anywhere else in the world. In terms of raw material, you don’t have to look anywhere else. And even on the tech side, … all of this stuff is here. So, it’s a matter of putting it together. I think there’s a huge opportunity here.”

Tony, what inspired you to get into alt protein?

Tony: “I think we should redefine the term ‘alt protein’ and call it ‘next-generation protein,’ because that’s basically what’s happening. In the end, if you look at the current food supply chain, [plant- or animal-based], they’re both really unsustainable when it comes to feeding the future generations.

“[Animal agriculture is] incredibly resource-intensive with respect to the amount of nutrients you get from it. At the same time, there are large emissions of methane contributing to global climate change. … the plants that we grow today for food consumption, they're incredibly prone to climate change as well, because they're only seeded and harvested once a year.

“… In order to accelerate the shift and to create a more robust and sustainable food supply chain, it starts with redefining the way we grow crops, what kind of crops we grow, and then also what kind of ingredients we want to extract or use in new product formulations.”

“…right now you have this food revolution … It is primarily about the protein, because if you look at the animal-based products, the protein is often the ingredient that not only gives the nutrition, but also creates the texture of the respective products.

“And we're now trying to replace those animal-based proteins with plant-based protein ingredients, which just happen to be available in bulk and which don't have the same functional characteristics as their animal-based counterpart. … Either their taste is off, their nutrition is off, their clean label is off or their texture is off.

“So realizing that, we started to develop a production process that will allow us to produce more sustainable, but perhaps more importantly, higher-quality plant-based ingredients, starting with a protein. … [Plantible has] developed a protein ingredient that can actually replace eggs or dairy without compromising on taste, nutrition or texture.”

Lavindra and Karthiga, you've been in touch with founders, innovators and investors in the plant-based industry. 🌿
What are the prevailing attitudes there regarding alt protein and the future of food?

Lavindra: “[Entrepreneurs and company heads] are really passionate about the business of creating alternatives, and they are focused on things like sustainability. … They know [animal agriculture is] an inefficient process. I haven’t talked to anyone who’s just doing this because it’s the coolest thing to do and it seems like a lot of people are throwing money at it. … It’s driven by pioneers who are passionate about the subject.”

How does Plantible fit into the alt protein space right now?

Tony: “We're not even launched yet, but we're working towards the launch. I think we're just trying our best and trying to help and support the industry as a whole.

“The meat industry for example, … they're all joining forces. And I think that's also how we should see the plant-based food space, where everybody's trying to add value in order to work towards a higher and larger goal. We at Plantible are just trying to support companies that are trying develop the next generation of plant-based foods.”

What makes Plantible’s protein different?

Tony: “What sets our ingredient apart from pea or soy is our proprietary process allows us basically to produce a neutral tasting, off-white and odorless protein ingredient that has similar functional characteristics [to eggs and dairy] … like foaming, water, solubility, emulsification. You can take our protein powder, mix it in water and fry it in a pan, and you have a scrambled ‘egg’ or an omelet.

“Similarly, we've been able to create a yogurt with only four or five ingredients without the additional flavoring agents or emulsifiers or stabilizing agents, significantly reducing your ingredient label and … reducing the costs dramatically.

“I don't think anybody actually has studied what the health effects are of people eating a lot of methylcellulose or gums or other hydrocolloids, which are now increasingly being used in these plant-based foods, which shouldn't be the case. … we're just trying to reduce the reliance on those ingredients so that you can just have a clean label that says, you know, water, [Plantible’s] Rubi protein, maybe some sugar or maybe some salt or maybe some fats.”

Do you see Plantible as a key player in the alt protein movement?

Tony: “I think we're far from it, but we're working as hard as we can to become one down the road. … we're just very fortunate that we have a very dedicated and motivated team. I think every startup relies on the fact that they have people in their team that are as motivated and perhaps as crazy as the founders. So we're very fortunate that we've been able to find people that are willing to join our journey and work as hard as we do.

“First you need to focus on creating a product that is just delicious and that people enjoy eating. … And then the next step is … how can we make it healthier? How can we make it more accessible and affordable to consumers and customers? How can we optimize the whole product formulation without sacrificing the taste and texture that we were initially able to create?”

What do you see as the major barriers to adoption for a scalable, affordable alt protein source?

Lavindra: “The reason I think [something like] Beyond probably wouldn’t work as well in India is because most Indians don’t eat beef burgers; they eat lamb burgers. … Now, if there was a plant-based or cell-based version and it still had the same connotation of a treat and matches the same price point, that would be something that then starts to get consumed and people won’t actually look for [an animal] to kill to satisfy that aspiration.

Karthiga: “It’s the memories that you’re going to have a problem with. Memories trigger our sensory responses.”

Lavindra: “I think people will find a preference [on the plant-based spectrum]. If you want people to get off the addiction to meat … I think you need to have these things that mimic what people are used to eating. People will not give up meat if there’s no substitute that tastes or smells exactly like the real thing. If that’s there, the excuses go away.”

Karthiga: “[One of the people we interviewed] said, ‘We’ve got to put an emerging market lens on it when we look at it. Take it to the grassroots, look at what they’re eating and see how you can replicate that.’ I think that, essentially, is going to be the key. … How do you give them the same level of prestige [associated with meat eating] when they eat an alt-protein or a cell-based food? And how do you make it taste like what they’re used to eating?”

Lavindra: “I think, in food, it’s always taste. If it doesn’t taste like what it’s supposed to be, it doesn’t matter how cheap it is, how available it is, how well-packaged it is: People will buy it once, but they won’t buy it twice.”

Karthiga: “Sometimes it’s also shelf life. I find when we buy some of the fresher almond milks and soy milks, they only last two or three days — the really fresh ones without any added preservatives — and that’s sometimes not enough time for us to finish it.”

Tony: “…taste and nutrition and price. I think sustainability is nice … but I think it will always come in third … after price and taste. The reason being is that you only have a very small group of people that either can afford premium products or that are willing to sacrifice their palates to save the world.

“Food overall is just such a conservative and cultural thing and people aren't yet there to change their diets in order to feel better. … If you look at the mainstream grocery aisles, it’s all driven towards taste.”

“I think in order to actually make a dent in this movement, you need to come up with products that are tastier or as tasty and as nutritious or even more nutritional, and perhaps more importantly, more affordable and thus accessible for the mainstream consumer. … I honestly hope that we'll be able to create a food supply chain that's more accessible [and] affordable to consumers and aids in their health and wellness.”

What would you say are the biggest challenges for the food system going forward? Do you think alt protein has the ability to address some of this?

Lavindra: “[India has] a huge population of farmers. One of the poorest sections of society are Indian farmers. … But if you could get them making the soy protein, the pea protein … to supply these plant-based meat companies, it gives them an income stream that could lead them out of poverty.”

Karthiga: “It becomes a question of: How often can we get these [plant-based] burgers, where do we get these burgers, how accessible are these burgers, are they more costly…it’s all of those questions.”

Tony: “I think climate change is going to be a huge disruptor, but … I don't think people fully realize how vulnerable our current food supply chain is to climate change, let alone the geopolitical forces that are currently coming into play, where the majority of these mainstream food sources are coming from very select areas in the world. … And I don't think that people realize that, either.

“What's going to be really important in the food supply chain is first of all, [to] create something that is climate change proof or climate change robust. So adjusting our food supply chains, switching to novel sources, new production methods that harness crops that are more robust or production methods that are also more robust to climate change.

“Secondly … I think that's going to be very important that we find ways to democratize the food supply chain … and create production systems around the world, allowing each region more or less to become food independent because it's such a necessity of life.”

Huge thanks to Tony, Lavindra and Karthiga for their insights into the new generation of protein alternatives! 🍔🌿

Where do you stand on alt protein? Are you excited? Wary? Already a fan? Add your voice to the conversation! 👇🏻👇🏻

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