Making Vegan Mainstream
Vegan is more than vogue. Once considered a niche market cornered by a handful of early innovators, vegan foods are crowding the mainstream—from restaurant menus to supermarkets—and are poised for explosive growth. Global retail sales of plant-based food alternatives could reach US$162 billion by 2030, according to a 2021 Bloomberg Intelligence report. Such a surge would make vegan products 7.7 percent of the global protein market—a staggering 450 percent jump from 2020.
Myriad factors are driving demand, including people looking to lead healthier lifestyles and increased buying power among Millennials and Gen Z. But an even bigger catalyst for consumers and companies is vegan’s potential to reduce the environmental impact of food production. With animal agriculture contributing 14.5 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, vegan products can shrink the carbon footprint of the food industry.
There’s even an annual global Veganuary movement that promotes the social impact of eating vegan and challenges people to kick off each year by ditching meat and dairy products for a month. This year, the campaign attracted participants from 228 countries, including India, where 65 percent of people plan to eat more plant-based foods in 2022, according to a YouGov survey. Also ranking high in the survey were the United States and the U.K., where 15,000 restaurants have added vegan items to their menus.
All of this provides an impetus for project teams to prioritize plant-based protein products and to launch a wave of new initiatives. As part of a pledge to make 50 percent of its menu meat-free by 2030, Burger King in January became the first fast food chain in the U.K. to offer vegan nuggets. Also in the quick-serve category, KFC partnered the same month with Beyond Meat to unveil the first vegan alternative to its signature fried chicken at 4,000 U.S. locations.
But the goal of satisfying a retail appetite for animal-free alternatives to meat, milk and eggs requires rigor. Here’s how project leaders are navigating innovation challenges, serving up test-kitchen iterations and scaling recipes to meet the meatless demand.
Organizations in the vegan foods industry aren’t just hoping to enter the marketplace, but to truly disrupt it. So, their project teams need to mix cutting-edge technology and next-level food science to develop new products consumers will crave.
For Chile’s NotCo, that means creating the ultimate hybrid teams: Human culinary chefs and R&D specialists work with the company’s molecular science-focused AI chef, Giuseppe. Giuseppe’s database includes 20,000 plants upon which it draws to create recipes for the company’s line of vegan milks, ice creams, mayonnaise and meat.
"Giuseppe can help our team determine which plants combined give the best texture, sensory experience and nutrients, compared to the animal-based reference product that we’re trying to match,"says Giulia Braghieri, head of growth and expansion, NotCo.
For example, Guiseppe suggested combining pineapple and cabbage to create a milky taste, says Braghieri, who is based in New York City but splits her time at NotCo’s lab in São Paulo.
While the AI chef can generate multiple recipes for a single product, it’s up to humans on the team to ensure this man-helps-machine collaboration also mitigates risk and yields practical results. When the team worked on the first prototypes of NotMilk, Giuseppe devised a recipe that tasted a lot like the real thing. But, because it had incorporated dill, the milk was green, Braghieri says.
"That's when the team of culinary chefs came back to Giuseppe with feedback for it to run another iteration and said, ‘Really interesting ingredients and taste, but milk needs to be white. So, let's take a look at your database and see what is making it green and change it for something else.’"
The machine-learning capabilities deliver a big payoff: Giuseppe has helped NotCo reduce its product lead times significantly. For instance, NotMayo, the first product that NotCo launched globally, took 10-15 months to develop, while a follow-up product, NotBurger, took just 2-4 months.
Bleeding-edge tech isn’t the only tool vegan food teams are using to gain an advantage. Switzerland’s Planted is relying on process innovation to replicate food textures—so consumers can experience the sinewy mouthfeel of meat that’s familiar to them. To achieve this, team uses a process that combines protein structuring and biotechnology, then it applies proprietary technology to design and structure alternative proteins. While the product development teams currently use pea, sunflower and oat proteins for their projects, the hope is that this extrusion technology can one day be used with virtually any type of plant-based raw material.
"That’s important from a health and animal welfare perspective, as well as from an environmental perspective,"says Judith Wemmer, PhD, head of product development, Planted, Zürich. "Biodiversity and diversity of ingredients are super crucial in our opinion."
Teams also need to ensure the integrity of ingredients. For Good Catch, which produces plant-based seafood, developing strong supplier relations helps teams meet vegan food requirements—and it can even spur innovation.
"We have a dedicated R&D team that works directly with our suppliers for ingredients to ensure they meet not just vegan standards, but our high QA standards as well,"says Chad Sarno, co-founder and chief culinary officer, Good Catch, Austin, Texas, USA. "These relationships also enable our technical team to assess new plant proteins coming to market prior to wider availability."
Serving up vegan test products helps teams gather customer feedback that they can analyze to tweak new products or cancel projects outright. And teams are launching creative taste tests to ensure they get honest responses from customers.
For instance, Planted uses food trucks to distribute samples that capture on-the-ground, direct consumer feedback. And when Planted worked with one of the most famous schnitzel houses in Austria to devise its own meatless schnitzel, the team offered pilot sales on its website. By garnering customer feedback via a QR code, the team ultimately changed the size, texture and breading of the schnitzel before the product’s wider launch.
"We had an insane response rate,"says Wemmer. "I think 85 percent of all buyers actually replied to our survey. This shows that we have a great community that actually likes to share their experience with our products."
The iterative process continues after products get to stores. After NotCo partnered with Burger King Chile to launch the Rebel Whopper with meatless patties in 2020, the team continued to make subtle changes to the recipe to incorporate customer feedback and to match the fast food giant’s nutritional requirements.
"It has always 's always been very perfectionist-driven on both ends, with taste always coming first,"says Braghieri. "We never stop asking ourselves: How can we do this better?"
When Chipotle delivered its second meatless product to market, a spicy chorizo developed in-house, the company started with a test run in the U.S. cities of Denver and Indianapolis. Feedback from that August 2021 pilot helped Chipotle formulate its launch strategy in January 2022, says Nitin Malhotra, senior director, enterprise PMO, Chipotle, Newport Beach, California, USA.
"We learned that consumers who tried plant-based chorizo loved the deep, rich flavor and slight kick, but it was hard to get them to switch up their go-to Chipotle order,"Malhotra says. "For the national launch, we integrated in-restaurant sampling programs and a no-delivery-fee offer to drive awareness and adoption."
Scaling a Vegan Mindset
Customer satisfaction is only part of the challenge. Ultimately, market testing helps teams scale vegan food projects—and ensures teams can identify risks. For example, in 2019, Burger King came under fire for lacking dedicated cooking areas so vegan products weren’t contaminated by the grills used for meat-based products. Project leaders must continuously review requirements and ensure that products meet consumer expectations and industry requirements for integrity.
To ensure the work of project teams isn’t undone, retail employees also need to understand the strategic value of vegan foods. Chipotle, for instance, provides training for workers so they have a deep appreciation for the need to follow food and integrity standards, Malhotra says.
"In the restaurants, crew members undergo quarterly food handling and safety trainings and more,"he says.
That type of rigorous product oversight isn’t always possible for companies that supply vegan products to thousands of restaurants—many of which also offer meat products on their menus. Such is the case for Planted.
"We always recommend that restaurants make a dish fully plant-based when they use our products, but they're free to not do it,"says Wemmer. "That's certainly up to the chef, but what we do offer is culinary support."
That support takes the form of cooking classes for restaurant chefs as well as outreach efforts in culinary and gastronomy schools to teach students how to best use Planted’s products, including a cookbook. Educating users about plant-based foods is part of a larger buy-in strategy to pique consumer interest and expand palates, Wemmer says.
"This is where we want to be,"says Wemmer of the company’s meatless products being served on menus alongside traditional chicken, beef and pork offerings. "We want to have options for meat eaters that are even better in tasted and bite than the animal meat options."