The Evolution of Plant-Based Substitutes

plant based subs

Plant-based alternatives have carved out a major space in the food and beverage market. What used to be oddities only found in specialty shops have grown into household standards regularly found in even the smallest grocery stores.  

There are many reasons consumers may seek plant-based alternatives to dairy and meat products. For some, the main push to avoid animal-based products comes from a concern for the planet. Others find the meat and dairy industries morally reprehensible for their treatment of animals. While there are plenty of people who prefer eating a plant-based diet for these noble reasons, they aren’t the only ones driving the impressive growth in the plant-based meat and dairy alternatives market.

Since an estimated 68% of the global population are lactose intolerant to some degree, the need or preference for plant-based milk has drawn many consumers to remove dairy from their lives without taking on a fully vegetarian or vegan diet. Further interest in health and wellness has also sparked consumers who do not define themselves strictly as vegetarians or vegans to explore plant-based meat alternatives as a way to gain the associated health benefits of a more plant-centred diet.

Plant-Based Milk

The benefits of plant-based milk apply to the drinker as well as the planet. Plant-based milk is lower in fat and calories than dairy milk with no residual hormones from the animal and still provides a large number of vitamins and minerals, some that dairy milk doesn’t even have like vitamin D. They also need fewer resources like land and water to produce and there are fewer emissions from the process. 

The first records of soy-based milk are from the 14th century in China. The soya milk, called Dou Jian grew in popularity until, by the 17th century, it became a staple of Chinese cooking. When soya milk made its way to the U.S. it was shortened to soy milk and was soon gaining attention in a number of journals in the late 1890s.

Almond milk was a common ingredient in Egypt during the Middle Ages with the first record dating back to the 13th century. In the 14th century, almond milk made its way to England where it was utilized as a substitute for dairy milk during the fastings of Lent. It also found its way to the U.S. in the 19th century where it was quickly picked up by the traditionally vegetarian and vegan communities of Seventh-Day Adventists. 

Oat milk is the newest of the big three plant milks, developed in 1994 by Rickard and Bjorn Oeste, two brothers who wanted to create plant-based milk for people who were lactose intolerant and had nut allergies. Their invention would soon grow into one of the top names in the oat milk game as Oatly. 

Not everyone has loved the advancements of non-dairy alternatives, especially the dairy industry. When Bob Rich, an American entrepreneur, created a whipped topping from soy in 1945, 42 separate lawsuits were filed against him by members of the dairy industry. Luckily for Rich and for the future of dairy alternatives, he won every single case setting an indelible legal precedent that legitimized the plant-based industry in the United States. 

With the comparative ease of production and the added intolerance to dairy faced by a significant portion of the population, plant-based milks have seen much greater success in these formative years of the new plant-based age over plant-based meat alternatives. The challenges in the non-dairy dairy market are more centralized to milkless cheese alternatives, but the technology in the field is improving every day and the options on the shelf these days aren’t half as bad as their predecessors.

Plant-Based Meats

Speaking of grand improvements, plant-based substitutes for animal protein have come a long way from the vegetable sausages and meatless turkeys of the 19th century. But the history of plant-based meat alternatives reaches back much farther than that.

Plant-based proteins have been used as meat substitutions for hundreds of years. The first record of tofu dates all the way back to the year 965 in China. Yuba and other alternatives to an animal protein like wheat gluten are first referenced in the 16th century with tempeh making its historic debut in 1815. 

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, companies like Kellogg’s and Madison Foods began creating commercially available meat alternatives with little mainstream success. After WWII, however, the meatless alternatives race was revitalized by techniques from the auto industry, of all places, utilizing processes for making textile fibres to weave a more realistic meat-like texture with soy protein fibres 

In the following decades, General Mills created Bac*O's, Worthington Foods launched Morningstar Farms, and Turtle Foods introduced the world to the Tofurkey. These early advances paid off at the end of the 20th century and the start of the 21st century when Kellogg bought out Worthington Foods and Kraft bought Boca Burger bringing the plant-based meat alternatives game into the big leagues. 

Since then, advancements in technology, and new ideas for protein sources, flavoring, coloring, and texture techniques have surged. With such large investments in meat alternatives, many companies have also stepped up their marketing and partnerships to get more people to try meatless alternatives like Burger King’s deal with Impossible Foods to serve Impossible Whoppers.

The Future of Plant-Based Alternatives

The massive success of plant-based dairy has delivered a major blow to the traditional dairy industry, one from which it might never truly recover, and plant-based meats are becoming more and more appealing every day. The plant-based food market is projected to reach $162 billion by 2030 based on current trends including a 54 percent increase in grocery store sales from 2018-2021. 

While advancements continue in the more traditional methods of creating plant-based alternatives for meat and dairy products, the big new thing at the forefront of the industry, and several heated debates over its implications, is cultured meat. This is the type of meat referenced when talking about 3D-printed-eats. 

Cultured meat takes stem cells from a living animal such as a cow, pig, or chicken, and grows them under synthetic conditions similar to those in the body that would naturally spark the growth of these cells. In as little as two weeks, the process can grow enough tissue to create a cultured cut of meat that is really, truly meat. 

The main issues that consumers have with cultured meat are that it is still actually meat and not truly a meat alternative and that it is perceived to be highly synthetic in nature. Some are okay with the process as it doesn’t require the slaughter of animals to produce, but others argue that the harvesting of the stem cells needed to initiate the process of developing cultured meat is still an ethical violation of the donor animal and the fact that the process still requires the livestock to exist for the purpose of providing those initial stem cells, it’s not really any better than traditional meat production. 

On the other end of the spectrum, the intersecting trends of health, wellness, natural, and environmentally friendly are leading plant-based products to examine the sustainability of their products and bring higher-quality ingredients to products with cleaner labels. Either way, plant-based products are here to stay and there really is no limit to what we can expect to see from this market in the future.

Nail the Flavor Profile of Your Next Plant-Based Product with Renaissance Flavors

If you’re looking to create a plant-based product or convert an already successful product into a vegan-friendly option, getting the flavor right is everything. Since you’re working with ingredients that have different levels of flavor-impacting aspects like fats, oils, and sugars, it’s best to trust the flavor development of trained experts like the ones at Renaissance Flavors. 

Experience the difference of working with a dedicated team of industry-leading professionals focused on creating the perfect flavor profile for your product, your brand, and your consumer.

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