As the demand for plant-based food products is growing steadily, more and more food companies are looking for ways to add more plant-based products to their offering. What challenges do companies face in veganising their product range and how can they overcome them? We asked Martine van Haperen, product developer at ProVeg, who has helped many companies in this journey.
Martine van Haperen is nutritionist, consultant and product developer working with ProVeg. This international non-profit organisation helps companies, governments and consumers in the transition to a plant-based food system. Van Haperen helps companies in the food and restaurant industry to develop new plant-based products, or to veganise their existing products by making them meat-, egg- and dairy-free.
Why is it so important that food companies develop plant-based products?
“It’s no longer sustainable to eat the amount of animal products we are currently eating worldwide. Our personal health is one reason: processed meats are linked to severe health risks, and yet around 60% percent of the proteins in our diet come from animal sources. The second reason is the growing world population, which is estimated to be around 9.2 billion people by 2050. It’s impossible to feed all these people with animal-derived sources. And the third reason to focus on plant-based food is the impact on the environment: the livestock industry is responsible for 15% of greenhouse gases worldwide, making it a significant contributor to environmental problems.”
What challenges do food companies face when making their offer plant-based?
“First of all, there’s a lack of knowledge about the market. Who are those vega(n) or flexitarian consumers, what are their needs? To give an example: HEMA initially wanted to develop vegan banana bread. And surely, their vega(n) customers would have appreciated that, but it wouldn’t have been really distinctive. By veganising one of their signature apple pies, they really impressed their vegan customers. And most of the other customers didn’t even notice, as HEMA chose to promote the new offer via ProVeg, messaging to over 100.000 vegetarians, vegans and flexitarians instead of to their complete customer base.
That brings me to the second challenge: resistance from current customers. Many people still assume that plant-based food isn’t as tasty as animal-based food. You can overcome this resistance by creating really tasty plant-based products and to promote in a delicate way. There are plenty of marketing tactics that appeal to vegan customers, without turning off your traditional customer base.
The third, and perhaps the toughest challenge for most food companies to overcome, is the functionality of the ingredients that have to be removed or replaced. Companies want to know: how can we make this product plant-based while keeping its delicious taste and structure? Eggs and dairy have important functions in food and can’t be just left out of the recipe. And you can’t just pick one egg substitute for all the functions.”
How can food manufacturers overcome these challenges?
“Many companies think it will be hard for them to eliminate animal ingredients from their products. But I think almost every food manufacturer can do it. No matter if they’re driven by the wish to operate more sustainably, to increase animal welfare, to reach out to a new public, or to decrease production costs.
When it comes to functionality, there are substitutes available. Specialised egg replacers, for creating a glossy finish on pastry, leavening sponge cakes, emulsifying sauces, giving meat alternatives a satisfying bite and many other applications. There are also plant-based substitutes available for gluten, milk, butter and cheese. These substitutes can create the same taste of animal-derived products, but also provide the same functionality. And with our expertise in plant-based foods, we can help with new recipes for breads, cakes, sauces, meat substitutes and with the promotion of these products.
The most important thing in developing a plant-based product range, is following a good process that tackles all challenges. Don’t just develop a product, but think clearly about your goals, and also think about the marketing and communication in an early stage of the product.”
What would you advise industrial baking companies that want to go plant-based?
“First of all, it’s important to make very clear agreements about your wishes and requirements. Saying ‘we want to decrease our ecological footprint’ is not specific enough. Be sure to set clear goals: gluten-free, clean label, local, fair trade, specific wishes regarding nutritional values (minimum amount of proteins, maximum amount of sugar, etc.). If you have your requirements clear from the start, you will achieve the best results. And when doing this, make sure to take the market into account. What opportunities are there, which results are possible for you? We make calculations: if you eliminate or replace x eggs every year, you will save x percent on CO2-emissions.
Only after the requirements are completely clear, you should start the development phase. This phase consists of developing different recipes, leaving ingredients out in one, adding a substitute in another, and testing all recipes thoroughly. Then adapt the recipes a bit and test them again, until you find the perfect recipe. It’s really important to organise multiple trials and test moments during the development phase. Make it an iterative process, so you can adjust directly when needed.
You can outsource this process to ProVeg, but companies with their own research and development facilities can also choose to do this phase themselves. If your companies’ production methods are quite complex, we advise to do the product development in close cooperation with your facilities.
When you think you have created the perfect recipe, it’s time for the delivery phase, in which you test the product on a larger scale. If possible, test the revised recipe in your own production facilities to make sure the results are exactly what you had in mind. You can do this test internally, or with a consumer tasting panel.
Don’t forget: when the perfect recipe is developed, you aren’t ready yet. Make sure to market the new product in the right way. Adapt your communication to the needs of the target audience. Decide, with your company goals in mind, whether you want all your customers to know about this, or market your plant-based product like HEMA did it, by messaging a selection of vegetarians, vegans and flexitarians instead of their complete customer base.”
Are you thinking about veganising your product range? There are many more articles about plant-based food, trends and developments available on TasteTomorrow. Like this article about vegan indulgence.