For plant-based products, reaching price parity with animal-based products is drawing closer through economies of scale. For instance, Impossible Foods reduced its U.S. wholesale prices by an average of 15% in March, while Beyond Meat recently introduced a value pack at only $1.60 per burger.
Reaching "sensorial parity," achieving flavor, texture, and color parity between plant-based and animal-based products, remains an elusive goal that can only be reached through careful processing and formulation. Realizing this goal is the critical piece to further broaden the consumer appeal of plant-based products and will be necessary to generate any interest from lifetime nonvegetarians and those not already interested in flexitarian diets (i.e., interchangeably consuming animal-based and plant-based products). There are multiple emerging approaches that may help close the sensorial gap between animal meat products and plant-based protein products. Figure 1 shows a market map of the major approaches and most relevant players.
Figure 1: Market map of major players within emerging processing and formulation approaches. Note that this does not include widely commercialized solutions (e.g., enzymes) from larger companies.
There are significant differences in the impacts of these approaches, and no single approach can close the gap in terms of all sensorial endpoints (flavor, texture, and color being three major components to consider). The end goal of sensorial parity needs be used to determine the best fit on a product-by-product and attribute-by-attribute basis. Figure 2 shows the core applicability of each approach to these three key sensory attributes.
Figure 2: Core applicability of each processing and formulation approach to flavor, texture, and color.
A given technology can impact more than one sensorial aspect, and all of the approaches considered in this analysis impact at least product texture. The need for improvements in texture for plant-based meats has been a major driver of innovation in this space, owing in large part to the significant differences in texture between animal meats and unprocessed plant proteins. Despite that emphasis, it is imperative that plant-based products address all three aspects in efforts to reach sensorial parity with animal products, and the more discrete the technologies involved in a product's processing, the more complex – and therefore costly – a production process can become. For this reason, technologies addressing multiple sensorial aspects are ideal.
Fermentation-derived ingredients have the potential to positively impact all three sensory attributes considered here, and are therefore the most promising approach for companies to consider today in their efforts to achieve sensorial parity. Impossible Foods, with its fermentation-produced heme ingredient, is a hallmark example and has helped inspire the formation of companies to embrace similar approaches (as shown in Figure 1) and pursue roles as ingredient suppliers rather than being makers of finished food products. While the other approaches in this analysis should not be dismissed outright, few approaches in development today will be capable of competing in a meaningful way with fermentation in terms of versatility. Despite significant performance benefits, those interested must be cognizant of the potentially high costs of production for these ingredients, but just as in the broader plant-based space, this concern should diminish considerably with economies of scale.
Of additional interest is the potential power of convergence between fermentation-derived ingredients and digital design to enhance versatility even further. As examples, Shiru and Protera are using Ingredient Informatics principles to develop computational ingredient discovery platforms. These approaches remain untested and unproven in the context of plant-based products specifically, but similar ingredient discovery platforms have demonstrated their worth in other applications.
Processing technologies that focus on a single aspect – especially those that struggle with scalability issues – should be deprioritized given the previously described emphasis on scaling to reach price parity with animal products. For the time being, 3D printing and shear cell processing are two examples of processing approaches that demonstrate inadequate production throughput versus the gold standard of extrusion. Approaches like these will necessarily be restricted to low-volume/high-value applications and should not be top priorities for applications in scaling up production of plant-based protein products.
As is frequently the case, the best strategy is to start with the problem to identify a tech-driven solution: identify the sensory needs of your existing or future plant-based products, then work to identify technology approaches that can address those needs. We recommend considering fermentation-derived ingredients for most use cases given their typical versatility, but be careful to begin with your product's individual strengths and weaknesses before piloting any approach. The convergence between fermentation-derived ingredients and digital design also highlights that these approaches are not mutually exclusive; technologies that can function together to address multiple sensorial aspects will be just as powerful as single-tech approaches and should be given similar priority.