By Kathy Kerr
The world needs more protein sources. Young consumers want to discover new foods. Technology and research into food production is advancing at a dizzying pace.
For professionals in crop production, research and processing gathered in Saskatoon May 29 to 31, now is the time to capitalize on surging global interest in plant protein.
About 300 industry players from North America and Europe attended the Plant Protein Ingredients Summit organized by the Netherlands-based Bridge2Food firm. The conference included presentations from agri-business leaders and cutting-edge researchers as well as ample opportunities for networking and deal-making.
Bill Greuel, CEO of summit partner Protein Industries Canada, outlined for European attendees just how rich Canada is in plant-protein crops.
“We’re sitting on 28-million hectares of arable land, 60-million-metric tonnes of annual crop production — 80 per cent of which is high-protein crops — and we produce on average 14-million-metric tonnes of protein,” said Greuel.
Having partners from Europe and the voices of manufacturers is needed so Canada produces not just crops, but products, high-protein fractions and the co-products important for the future, he said.
Representatives from industry juggernauts Nestle, Unilever and Roquette talked about their expanding interest in plant protein thanks to rising demand.
Plant-based foods are the fastest growing part of the Nestle portfolio, said Sean Westcott, head of the company’s product technology centre. Brands at food giant Unilever that have sustainability at their heart grew 46 per cent faster than the rest of the business, said Michel Mellema, science and technology program leader for Unilever.
And investors are taking notice. One of the most talked about examples during coffee breaks through the summit was cited by Sylvain Charlebois, professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.
While the long-awaited initial public offering of Uber stocks in May fizzled, the IPO for Beyond Meat was a stunning success, Charlebois pointed out. With an initial offering at $25 per share at the beginning of the month, the meat analog firm was trading at $104 at the end of the month.
With such great timing, the Saskatoon summit more than proved its worth to attendees.
Jerome Tauzin, head of the product group for pea and new proteins for French processing firm Roquette, has attended previous Bridge2Food summits in Europe.
Tauzin said he appreciated the “human size” of the Saskatoon event.
“You can meet and be close with a lot of interesting people. The second thing is the level of the audience. People who are deciding, people who can influence, are great value for networking…
You have people in the raw material space, people from institutions, academics and people in contract research organizations, B-to-C companies, B-to-B companies. It’s a very well-balanced panel of key potential partners in this plant-protein space,” said Tauzin.
Allison Ammeter, chair of the Plant Protein Alliance of Alberta, said market research information provided at the summit underscored for her that consumers aren’t looking at plant-based products because they’re vegan or vegetarian.
“They’re looking at them because they want to try something new and they’re nutritious and sometimes they’re economical. They’re something different and they want to try it,” said Ammeter. “More and more people aren’t worried about identifying as being one or another type of eater. They’re just trying different things.”
Carl Potts, executive director of Saskatchewan Pulse Growers, said the summit “gave us further understanding where the demand is going so we can devote our research dollars and development dollars to those same goals.”
Here are three key themes from the summit:
- The rise of plant protein-based meat substitutes
Beyond Meat vaulted into the Canadian retail market with pretty well simultaneous stocking of product in 3,000 supermarkets all on one day in April this year, said Charlebois. Despite a hefty $8 for two patties, the product is causing a buzz among consumers and among summit participants.
Meat analog researchers at the conference, including Beyond Meat’s chief innovation officer Dariush Ajami, admit the meat substitutes have a ways to go in terms of taste, texture and colour. But that research is accelerating.
Jurriaan Mes, a researcher at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, says in the future there could be 3-D printed plant protein steaks and sausages, which will look more like the animal version and could better deliver juiciness with varying gel textures at the outside and inside of the steak.
- Clean ingredients
Ingredient lists on products from the big multinational food giants are shrinking as firms respond to consumers who want fewer chemicals and an end to incomprehensible additives.
Nestle’s Westcott says today’s consumers are saying the industry took technology too far. “Ingredients we use have to be recognized and understood by the consumers.”
The same “clean-label trend” being seen in human food is also turning up in pet food, with customers demanding fewer ingredients in their companion animal food, said Lynne Weber, of the University of Saskatchewan.
- Diversification of protein sources
Beyond Meat’s Ajami said his firm, which uses pea protein in its product now, wants protein manufacturers to help provide access to new sources of protein.
Scientists at the summit outlined how the functionality of various crops is different, with some appropriate for use in dairy substitutes and some better suited to other applications.
“Maybe that’s an area we can do some things together. We grow hemp seed here, we grow quinoa, we grow flax, oats and various crops, so there’s a basis to do some good things,” said Keller.
The Saskatoon summit is being followed by the Plant Based Foods Summit June 3-5 in Calgary. It will target retail, food service, food brands and ingredient manufacturers. This is the first time Bridge2Food, a European food networking and conference firm, is bringing its popular global plant-protein summits to Canada.
Kathy Kerr, a former business and deputy editor at the Edmonton Journal, is a freelance journalist.