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Notwithstanding the economic downturn brought on by the pandemic, the plant-based protein industry proved resilient. Euromonitor reported that the plant-based meat market alone was worth US$800 million as at 2020. The market was driven not only by a growing demand in the food industry but also by technological advances in new sources of protein such as pea and chickpeas.

Valued at more than US$10.3 billion in 2020, the plant-based protein market is projected to reach US$15.6 billion by 2026 according to Globe Newswire, with a compounded annual growth rate (CAGR) of 7.2 per cent. Since 2016, venture capitalists (VCs) have injected US$4.2 billion into 363 known global investments within this space.

According to Crunchbase, just under US$2 billion was invested in venture backed startups in this vertical in 2020, mainly dominated by Impossible Foods at US$700 million. By March 2021, VCs had invested in 39 transactions worth US$602 million. 

This development is a result of targeted marketing towards the average consumer and not just catering to vegetarians, vegans, or flexitarians. A new breed of affluent, sustainability-conscious, and digital savvy consumer has opened massive market opportunities and investments alike. 

The earliest rendering of an imitation protein in the western world came about in 1889, by Dr John Harvey Kellogg, who created “Protose” – a wheat and peanut based meat alternative. Meanwhile, Loma Linda Foods which was founded in 1931 would go on to produce the first commercially available soy and wheat-based meat alternatives. 

Bullish signs began to emerge about 10 years ago when Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods were established in 2009 and 2011 respectively. Both had their missions aligned and that was to take on the behemoth of the meat industry – beef.

They kicked off their narrative with the simple crowd favourite food of burgers. 

Beyond Meat’s colossal IPO in May 2019 created a movement that heightened acceptance of this alternative, granting it the overused tagline of the “new normal” by 2021. Its shares soared 163 per cent on its first day of trading.

Currently, Beyond Meat accounts for roughly 21.9 per cent of the retail refrigerated meat market share in the US, with Impossible Foods trailing behind at 9.0 per cent. From a number’s standpoint alone, Beyond Meat is leading the pack with more US retailers (28,000 compared with Impossible: 20,000), restaurants (42,000 in the US vs. Impossible: 30,000) and international markets (more than 80 vs. Impossible: 5) as well. 

Awareness and growth of this market segment was further driven by the pandemic and supply-chain issues that hit the meat market over the past several years.

In the US, greater adoption by major chains like Starbucks, KFC, and Burger King help drive awareness and interest. Sales during the pandemic accelerated through take-outs, drive-thru’s, and delivery options. The pioneering technology that birthed land-based meat alternatives led to a propulsion of R&D delving into sea-based meat alternatives.

Loma Linda Foods started promotion Tuno – a fish imitation, which was packaged in cans like tuna, while New Wave Foods cultivated plant-based shellfish. The latter also released a plant-based shrimp made from soy protein and seaweed. Next on their plan is to emulate lobsters and crabs.  

The changing lifestyles and the surge in demand is a result of a heightened consciousness in how our food is cultivated and bred. This was largely spearheaded by the younger generation who are more environmentally concerned and apprehensive of our consumption habits.

Increasingly, people are realising that eating a plant-based diet is not only rich in nutrients and better for overall health but also goes a big way in reducing our carbon footprint. A United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation report accounts livestock for 14.5 per cent of yearly greenhouse gas emissions, with cattle responsible for 65 per cent of it.

Considering the end-to-end process of food production; including the land required, transportation and commercialising; animal-based food produces a larger carbon footprint. This presents both a health and environmental case for a plant-based diet. 

Meanwhile, the Cancer Council notes that consuming more than 700 grams of red meat a week increases the risk of bowel cancer by 1.18x.

A 10 per cent higher intake of meat was associated with a 2 per cent higher mortality rate and boosts the chance of cardiovascular death by 8 per cent. All these statistics illustrate the detrimental effects of being carnivorous and further reinforces the benefits of a plant-based diet.

Closer to home, plant-based proteins have thrived in Asia for centuries as it has a long-standing history in Greater China. Prior to this current wave of high-tech offerings hitting the mainstream, plant-based faux or mock meat had already been in circulation originating from Buddhist monasteries in China. The idea was to aid the transition into vegetarianism between the 10th and 13th century. 

Traditional faux meat producers were limited to the techniques that was available back in the day. Many also tried other methods to make their products to look and taste closer to dishes in the local’s palate. For instance, bean curd was smoked and marinated in sauce to mimic Chinese smoked duck, while tofu fillets were wrapped in seaweed to emulate the taste of fish.

As food technology evolved, Asia’s variation of plant-based proteins has as well. Hung Yang Food, a manufacturer of mock meat in Taiwan for two decades, now uses protein isolates from soy to cultivate their vegan jerky and “pork” floss.

Here we see a discrepancy between East and West. Instead of being solely a meat substitute, in Asia it is very much a separate cuisine by itself catering to the mainstream through culture and religion. 

Riding this trend are Michelin starred chefs. The Harwood Arms in London now offers a scotch “egg” wrapped in vegan bacon. It was one of the first to offer such an item thus breaking the stigma and taboo surrounding plant-based meats.

Another Michelin Starred chef launched Xilonen in January 2021. Justin Bazdarich opened the New York based restaurant focused on sustainability to serve Mexican plant-based dishes. It offers an almost completely vegan menu with dishes such as purple potato taco being a hit.

Even a restaurant as prolific as Chef Daniel Humm’s Manhattan-based, three Michelin starred Eleven Madison Park restaurant has jumped onto the bandwagon and recently reopened as a meatless establishment. Yet another prominent departure from the mainstream and another step forward towards sustainable dining. 

In general, people have always faced difficulties in enforcing change to their diet and committing to new eating habits. Here, chefs have a pivotal role in swaying the public’s interest towards a preference for plant-based alternatives.

Be it a novelty that fades or stay, plant-based proteins are here to stay. Of course it will never be real meat but it could be the better option for a brighter and more sustainable future.

This article is originally published on e27

RHL Ventures

Author RHL Ventures

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