North America is home to a booming alternative proteins market which is bringing to our tables vegan burgers, veggie dogs, and plant-based versions of just about any meat or dairy product you can imagine. In the past fifteen years time, the science behind the development of these products has advanced significantly thanks to the persistence and amazing work of many talented food scientists. Today’s alternative protein products are exceeding our expectations more than ever before. If you haven’t tried plant-based proteins recently or at all, now may be the time to give them a try!

Why are plant-based proteins suddenly so popular?

Demand for these non-dairy cheeses, yogurts, milks, ice creams, and more is driven by a few things. Many consumers claim to be interested in the perceived health benefits of a plant-based diet as well as the lessened environmental impact compared to that of animal products. There are also the ethical concerns around animal welfare that are convincing some consumers to “go veg.” According to a 2016 Harris Poll, 37% of the population in the United States always or sometimes eats vegetarian meals when eating out. Millennials are leading the charge with 5% of U.S. adults ages 18-34 identifying as vegetarian (compared to 3% of all Americans). While some are making the switch to a completely plant-based diet, many are experimenting with subbing them in for traditional favorites in an effort to reduce their total meat consumption.

We might call them “new foods” or “novel proteins” but they’ve been around for a very long time.

Plant-based alternative proteins have been with us for a very long time. Soy proteins such as tofu, soy milk, tempeh, and miso have been a staple in many Asian cultures for over 2,000 years. Almond milk was common in the middle ages in both the Islamic world and Christendom. Almond milk is reported to have been preferred in medieval kitchens over cow’s milk because it could keep longer without spoiling which was very important in a world before refrigeration.

Fast forward to the 1970s when “natural foods” became popular

Around the 1970s, a few innovative manufacturers worked to satisfy a small demand for plant-based “vegetarian” or “vegan” meat analogs. While often tasty, these products could also be described as grainy, lumpy, and mushy. Some veggie burgers came in a can and were unappealing in their resemblance to canned pet food. Early plant-based cheeses had a waxy texture and wouldn’t easily melt except until exposed to much higher temperatures than you’d need to melt dairy cheeses. Regardless, these products still caught on with early adopters who were looking for vegetarian alternatives to favorite foods. However, it was a common perception that they were a far cry from “the real thing.” Texture, not just taste, was just as important to consumer acceptance. Consumers not only wanted tasty new plant-based products but they also want the familiar sensory experience they expected from traditional meat and dairy products.

How is texture analysis helping the alternative proteins market grow?

Thanks to the efforts of food scientists using texture analysis and instruments like our TA.XTPlus Texture Analyzer, plant-based food products now come much close to “the real thing” which has accelerated consumer acceptance and market growth. Take for example, Field Roast’s Chao brand sliced cheese slices. Made from coconut milk and 100% plant-based, these cheese slices melt and taste so much like dairy cheese slices that many people might not know the difference. Or Beyond Meat’s brand new “Beyond Burger.” Beyond Meat claims that the Beyond Burger is the first plant-based burger that “looks, cooks, and tastes just like a beef burger.” Both of these products are understated benchmarks in just how far the development of alternative protein products has come since the 1970s.

The alternative proteins market has been growing exponentially and is not yet showing any signs of slowing down. Even traditionally lower protein products such as yogurts now come in varieties that deliver a much greater protein punch. Products with higher protein concentrations are being swapped into recipes and diets to slightly shift the balance away from traditional animal protein sources.

Much of the growth in this market is from the hard work of small startups. Impossible Foods, Chobani, and Daiya are just a few of many recent startups that are taking their products nationwide. Large global companies such as Tyson Foods, Danone and Kellogg have also been leading the trend. Both startups and well established companies credit our texture analyzers as key to fast tracking their research and development so that they can bring tasty products that feel, cook, and look just like “the real thing” to market asap.

We’re so pleased to be working with many of the leading brands in the alternative proteins market. The smallest startups to well established manufacturers rely on our team for assistance with new product research and development. Want to find out more? Get in touch with our team and we’ll be happy to talk to you about how our instruments, the most accurate and differentiating on the market, can help you fast track your R&D to help bring your new food products to market ASAP!