Unilever jump-started its expansion into the plant-based meat analog space by acquiring Dutch company The Vegetarian Butcher in 2018. Since then, it has taken an aggressive approach to growing its footprint in the plant-based meat space. In fact, in 2020, the company announced its "Future Foods" growth plan, setting an ambitious target of $1 billion for plant-based sales, including meat analogs, within the next five to seven years. The company has been focusing on internal R&D for product formulation as well as partnering with other emerging alternative protein startups. Over the past year, Unilever has partnered with other alternative protein developers, including Algenuity for its microalgae proteins and Enough for its mycoproteins.
USE CASE AND BUSINESS IMPACT
After acquiring The Vegetarian Butcher, Unilever struck a deal with Burger King in 2019 for the rollout of the Rebel Whopper, initially in Europe, followed by other geographies like Latin America, expanding its footprint in the food service and retail sectors. Through its more recent partnership with Algenuity, Unilever's R&D team will explore the use of microalgae proteins, specifically those derived from Chlorella. Algenuity is capable of producing variants that are less intense in green color, resulting in a more stable and balanced taste profile. Unilever's partnership with Enough will help develop more structured meat analog products formulated with the latter's mycoprotein ingredients and address the unmet challenge of attaining sensorial parity for meat analogs.
Unilever's strategy for alternative proteins resonates with the need to invest in diversified protein sources. While the company is looking to grow its plant protein-based business in the near term, it is also exploring possibilities for incorporating other protein sources into its portfolio, ranging from microalgae to mycoproteins. The future of alternative proteins will not just be plant-based but a delicately balanced mix of sources. Companies should focus on near-term opportunities for immediate growth while balancing other rapidly evolving sources like fermentation-derived proteins and cell-based meat through partnerships or investments.