‘Plant-based downturn isn’t halting innovation’: Beneo talks 2024 alt protein strategy

We’ve heard time and time again that the plant-based meat sector is struggling, with pioneers suffering major revenue loss​ and eleventh-hour acquisitions saving smaller brands from bankruptcy.

Described as a ‘slowdown’, ‘shakedown’, or ‘S-Curve’, the plant-based meat trajectory has lost momentum. But reduced appetite for plant-based meat does not go hand-in-hand with reduced appetite for innovation, according to Germany-headquartered ingredients supplier Beneo, who is betting on semi-finished meat-free products and faba bean ingredients to reignite demand.

‘The plant-based market will turn around’

The ‘S-Curve’ descriptor refers to a mathematical graph showing progress over time. Just like an ‘S’ shape, progress starts off slowly then picks up momentum before slowing once more. The concept is often used to describe the recent slowdown of the plant-based meat market, yet plant-based meat is not the only sector to have followed a similar trajectory.

Examples of markets to have experienced similar trend cycles include other relatively young sectors, for example electric bicycles or electric vehicles, explained Bianca Lefevere, product manager, functional proteins, at ingredients supplier Beneo. “Lots of companies were [betting] on it, and a lot of innovative [developments] were happening. And then at some point, there was a decline.”

Often such dips are explained by teething problems, with suggestions that not all aspects of new propositions are yet completely optimised. In plant-based meat, ‘some remarks’ have targeted taste, Lefevere told FoodNavigator. But as the sector enters a consolidation phase​, Beneo contends that companies performing well on taste and texture are ‘still strong’. “I hope, in the end, [the market] will go up again.”

BENEO_Faba beans_©Gaston Cerliani_shutterstock

Beneo is doubling down on its faba bean portfolio and working to develop the market. ©Gaston Cerliani

The cost-of-living crisis may also be factor impacting the plant-based meat market. For shoppers tightening their purse strings amid rising inflationary pressures, plant-based meat products may not be perceived as the most cost-efficient options, suggested Fréderic Fernandes, product manager, functional proteins at Beneo. Indeed, plant-based meat products are on the whole ‘still more expensive’. “So consumers are steering away from these choices, and still voting with their wallet.”

But Fernandes, like his colleague Lefevere, is optimistic about the market’s future. The production manager predicts a ‘turning point’ where consumers will not only perceive plant proteins as more sustainable than their animal-based counterparts, but as also more cost-effective.

“We are still waiting for industry to come to this turning point…There are a lot of companies still in their early stages, and so are not very cost-efficient production-wise,” we were told. But Fernandes believes this turning point – when consumers will truly come to make more conscious purchasing decisions – is on the horizon.

Beneo doubles down on meat mimicry and faba bean

Looking to the year ahead, Beneo’s alternative protein strategy largely has two facets: faba bean ingredients and semi-finished plant-based meat products. The latter comes under the Beneo-owned Meatless branding, following the Beneo’s acquisition of the Dutch plant-based texturizing ingredients supplier in 2022​.  

In faba, Beneo is doubling down on its portfolio, and preparing to open a new facility​ dedicated to making protein concentrate, starch-rich flour and hulls from faba beans. Beneo expects the site to be operational in the beginning of 2025.

In the meantime, the company continues to develop the faba bean market, Fernandes explained, by focusing on ‘animal replacements’, rather than solely on ‘meat replacements’. Considered a versatile pulse, faba bean can be used in meat and dairy alternatives, in gluten-free bakery and cereals, and in feed it can serve as a source of vegetal protein for petfood and aquafeed.

In plant-based more generally, this year Beneo has ‘pinpointed’ its focus on applications it sees performing particularly well, for example alternative dairy products. Innovation in dairy-free cheese is ‘really picking up traction’, according to Fernandes, who added: “There are a lot of…proteins being experimented with in alternative cheese applications.

“Cheese is really the application where innovation is happening at the moment.”

The other alt protein focus area for Beneo ties directly to its Meatless brand. This year, division is expanding its portfolio of semi-finished products to include Beef Bites and Minced Meat.

The decision to focus on beef alternatives was influenced by FMCG Gurus research suggesting that 76% of meat substitute consumers in Europe see beef as an appealing type of meat substitute.  

“The Beef Bites be used for things like stir-fries and stews, and the Minced Meat is more for lasagne, marinades and sauces,” explained Lefevere. “There is a wide range of possibilities application-wise, and the biggest benefit of these products is their juiciness…It delivers the same juiciness you would have with beef.”

The new products are made from mycoprotein and pea protein and enhanced with colouring to provide an ‘authentic beef-like appearance’. Importantly, being ‘semi-finished’, means that from there, food producers can take the reins.

“Customers are already one step closer to the consumer,” explained Lefevere. Instead of providing the customer with ingredients, offering a semi-finished product means manufacturers need just add spices or a marinade and it’s ready to go. “It’s a very interesting direction we’re going in.”

Reigniting excitement with innovation

Beneo hopes its innovations will reignite excitement in the plant-based meat category.

The company has limited its number of ingredients and use of E-numbers in the Meatless branded semi-finished products, which Lefevere explained came from industry learnings. New consumers are more likely to be more conscious about what they’re buying, she explained, and Beneo understand that not just clean, but ‘clear’ labels, are important.

Ensuring high protein content was also a key focus, and the Meatless Beef Bites and Minced Meat products contain 14-15% protein. “We’re very happy that we succeeded in that, because that’s also something we’ve noticed consumers pay a lot of attention to.”

For Beneo, ‘innovation’ in this space may not even end up being purely plant-based. Aside from semi-finished products, the Meatless brand has also developed textured flakes to enhance ‘juiciness’ – even in hybrid plant- and meat-based products. When using the textured flakes in a hybrid burger, for example, the final product is ‘much more juicy’ than a 100% meat-based burger, we were told. “It also has a fattier mouthfeel than the 100% meat burger.”

BENEO_Stew_©Nina Firsova_shutterstock

The decision to focus on beef alternatives was influenced by FMCG Gurus research suggesting that 76% of meat substitute consumers in Europe see beef as an appealing type of meat substitute. Shutterstock©Nina Firsova

“People are still really looking for innovation in the plant-based industry,” reiterated Beneo’s Fernandes. Any potential market ‘delays’ aside, the product manager has ‘certainly’ not observed a delay in innovation.