Plant based: Finding the recipe for success

Posted: 5 April 2024 | | No comments yet

Here Anthony Warner discusses how the plant-based market is contending with economic pressures and Homepride’s adaptations in a premium-heavy sector.


By Anthony Warner, Development Chef

I am a development chef by trade, and I worked for many years developing recipes for large cooking sauce brands. For decades, the biggest selling cooking sauce in the UK was the Homepride tinned Curry Sauce, a product that made the company I worked for a huge amount of money. It was widely seen as old fashioned, inauthentic, cheap and poor quality, but consistently outperformed every other cooking sauce on the market.

The funny thing was, every other Indian cooking sauce brand wanted to think of itself as premium, and all of them ended up fighting over a small segment of the market, offering authentic flavours, premium indulgence, and a restaurant experience at home. Whereas Homepride quietly provided a simple, cheap, family friendly product that people could rely on, and went about its business largely unchallenged by other brands.

I saw a similar thing happen during the explosion of vegan meat brands between 2019 and 2021. Dozens of shiny new players, some backed by food giants, others by venture capitalists, all with exciting new products and big marketing spends. And seemingly all of them were fighting at the premium end of the market, looking for a piece of the big spending millennials, interested in ethical consumerism from a funky lifestyle brand.

Fast forward to 2023 and the on-rushing cost of living crisis was to plough straight into the super-premium plant-based market, leaving casualties strewn all over the tracks. Stretched consumers abandoned plant-based brands at the same time as costs were spiralling, putting many brands and manufacturers out of business. I cannot help thinking that if any of those brands had built themselves around offering consumers value, a cost-of-living crisis would have been their chance to shine. What we needed was a plant-based Homepride. What we got were a dozen wannabe Teslas.

On the surface, there seems to be very little reason why plant-based should not be offering better value than meat. After all, most of the ingredients in plant-based meat products are similar to the constituents of animal feed. Can it really be cheaper and more efficient to feed soya to a pig and make a sausage out of that pig’s meat, than to make a sausage directly out of soya?

Our latest report set out to explore the reasons behind the price premium that plant-based seems to command and found a complex picture. The issue is not entirely down to the high margin expectations of highly leveraged vegan start-ups. Although soya protein is indeed cheaper than meat, the cost of turning that protein into something delicious and functional is what makes plant-based command a price premium.

Our analysis shows that flavours, gelling agents, emulsifiers and colours add considerable costs. And perhaps even more significant, the complexity of plant-based formulations, with so many additional steps and processes, creates huge wastage and inefficiency. Making a beef burger involves little more than mixing some meat with a seasoning pack and forming into shapes, whereas a plant-based equivalent often requires four or five steps, all of which take time and produce waste.

Add to that the low volumes and short chilled shelf lives, and plant-based ends up being far more expensive to get on shelf. These inefficiencies left plant-based producers extremely vulnerable once the cost-of-living crisis started to bite, forcing them to cut already tight margins to chase volume, or have rates of sale drop so low that they risk being delisted. The fact that almost all of the new plant-based meat brands were premium options cannot have helped, as consumers were never likely to shop the fixture in search of value. It was a disaster that could have, and probably should have, been predicted.

Of course, the existence of a Homepride for plant-based meat is predicated on it being possible to offer value plant-based burgers and sausages that are high enough in quality. Even at the value end of a market, families demand delicious options and will turn their backs if brands don’t deliver. And although this challenge is difficult, our report shows that it is possible. There are various approaches at the ingredient level that can help manufacturers take significant costs out of formulations.

Optimising the use of flavourings is a key approach, as flavour can drive as much as 40 percent of the ingredient cost of many plant-based products. Switching to less processed protein concentrates, rather than expensive protein isolates is another way of taking out considerable cost and will also reduce the carbon impact of recipes. New methods of achieving meat-like structures are increasingly available, many of which are cleaner label and cheaper than conventional methylcellulose-based approaches. And finding ways of optimising the use of side streams from protein extraction is increasingly important, with the potential to dramatically bring down the cost of formulations.

Plant-based needs some concerted, incremental product development activity to bring down the cost of recipes, increasing profitability and most importantly, offering consumers some value options. If delicious plant-based burgers and nuggets are available that are comparable in price to meat, or preferably cheaper, then I have no doubt there would be considerable switching. Most consumers buy processed meat products in spite of the fact they are made from animals, not because of it. Provide something better that they can afford, and a lot of the barriers will come down.

Whilst many commenters consider the future of plant-based to be about precision fermentation and cellular agriculture, I think what it really needs is some boring, old-fashioned cost reduction. That might not generate as much investment cash as promising lab-grown meat by 2030, but it will probably have a much bigger impact on the food people eat.

About the author

Anthony Warner is a Development Chef and Food Science Writer, working at the intersection of academia and food manufacturing. He works with the New Food Innovation consulting group, supporting companies to make healthier, more sustainable food products. He has published the award winning Angry Chef trilogy of books exploring the health and sustainability of global food systems.

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