Extracting the eco-premium
Consumer choice is changing and New Zealand is well placed to meet future demand for new plant-based foods.
Producing plant-based foods in bulk is not where New Zealand should go according to Dr Jocelyn Eason, Plant & Food’s general manager science – food innovation.
Instead the food industry should create new hero plant-based foods for export customers.
“It’s all about choice with healthy, nutritious meals made from plants,” she told the ProteinTech Conference in Auckland recently.
In her presentation, What does the future hold? she said customers were changing and wanted to choose plantbased proteins. There was also a drive for personalised food that would fit nutritional and health drivers, which brought with it new ways to expand markets.She urged the audience to look to a more nuanced view of the future rather than just focusing on recent vegeterian innovation such as the Impossible Burger and Sunfed Chicken.
“What if the west was to move east?” she asked.
In China there was a strong culture of both meat and plants making up part of all meals and it was rare to find vegeterians or vegans. Around 60 percent of protein came from plant sources while in Western diets it accounted for about 40 percent.
“And we need to recognise the human element,” she said.
“People eat food, not protein.”
This meant that not only taste but also touch, sight, sound and smell were important. Eason quoted Plant and Food’s science group leader consumer and product insights, Dr Roger Harker, who said earlier this year it was inevitable that consumers would eat more plant protein in the future, but he believed they would adopt plant protein in an authentic way that allowed it to be recognised as plant protein rather than mock meat.
“There’s an opportunity for food science to create and modify plant protein to deliver greater diversity of texture, taste and flavour,” he said.
Nuturitional science could also create and modify plant protein-based foods in a way that provided better overall nutrition.
“There will be a large group of consumers who will respond very positively to the plant protein-based foods that deliver sensory and nutritional value,” he said.
“There has been little if any research to identify what the specific needs of these consumers will be.”
An online survey of 2000 people carried out across tier one and two cities in China a year ago showed fish and seafood were considered healthy meat proteins while dairy products contributed calcium and immunity-boosting properties. Pork was the most commonly consumed meat but consumption was declining due to its perceived high calories, saturated fat and cholesterol. Beef was the meat of choice when dining out as it was considered to be of premium quality.
Many respondents said they intended to eat more fruit and vegetables as they provided the greatest source of vitamins and minerals but little protein so needed to be eaten with protein-rich accompaniments. Bean curd and legumes were seen as having positive health credentials but fewer people intended to eat more of them as they didn’t feel they had a positive sensory experience or the link with immunity that animal-based proteins did.
Eason then looked at what NZ needed to do to be successful.
“The opportunity is in manufacturing more diverse protein foods, including high value plant protein foods, and sourcing
ingredient streams from sustainable and diversified primary production systems,” she said.
NZ needed to be mindful of every part of the value chain, with customer insights and market pull important at every stage.
“Consumers really care whether their food is processed or genetically modified and how it tastes,” she said.
Plant variety rights offered an intellectual property rights opportunity for NZ as genetics could be optimised in the areas of nutrient quality covering protein, starch, fibre, vitamins and minerals and phytochemicals. Plants could be improved through harvest index, production system and 100 percent utilisation. And climatic suitability would see plants matched to temperature, light, wind, water, nutrients and pests and disease they could face.
Technology innovations with new production methods to farm within the impacts of climate change would ensure NZ’s future primary production was environmentally sustainable. An eco-premium could be captured as credentials and assurances that signalled authenticity and food safety were strong purchase motivators. Evidence-based production was needed to capture this eco-premium so lower production footprints for plant proteins could be verified and complex trade-offs addressed and this farming also needed to be carried out within the impacts of climate change.
Producing more diverse protein foods would require working together in the areas of food composition, science and engineering. Novel protein chemistry would be needed to deliver food protein structures, along with sensory science, processes and technologies and manufacturing infrastructure. Pilot scale infrastructure and technical skills would be required for scaling up of plant protein extraction and manufacturing processing needed to be available across the country.
“We have the ability to do it,” she said.
“We have the kit but sometimes we can’t access it or it’s in the wrong place.”
Key processing technologies, infrastructure and physicochemical knowledge would be widely applicable to a number of plants to achieve whole of plant utilisation.
Eason said isolation of proteins from plant sources was most economical when the whole plant was used. For example extracting protein from garden peas might result in glutenfree, food grade starch and insoluble fibre being able to be used as a prebiotic food ingredient or biomaterial for reinforcing bioplastics.
Plant-based protein foods could deliver more vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals but there were challenges as a complete essential amino acids (EAA) offering was required for selling outside of NZ which could limit the financial returns of plant protein ingredient streams.
“NZ ingredient streams should be focused on manufacturing premium NZ foods,” she said.
There could also be issues with anti-nutritional factors, allergens and taste considerations such as flavour and texture.
As a final step companies and research organisations could offer experience and expertise to develop premium offerings which would see existing channels built on or new ones established to take products to market. The products needed to be sensory, nutritional, authentic, healthy and safe and taken to market as branded consumer goods through vertically integrated cooperative or collaborative models.
Eason listed five hurdles to be overcome saying that achieving a diversified high protein food sector would require bioresource expanded to develop suitable plants and production which was climate proof, waste neutral and sustainable. Investment would be required to isolate the new plant-based proteins as well as for new processing infrastructure, for viability a total utilisation mindset was needed as part of the establishment of a sophisticated cooperative agrifood industry.
“NZ has an innovative exporting economy,” she said.
“We’re good at branded consumer goods.”
And while there were challenges such as many farms being quite small and running animals as well as growing crops, she said both end products could be used as ingredients in new foods which might be developed.
Bill Murphy, the founder and executive director of Enterprise Angels, which has over 200 investor members in the upper North Island, said in his closing remarks that NZ “just needed to get on with it”.
“There are few other countries affected so much so it’s very important to understand where the trends are going,” he said.
Investors had a huge role to play as there was growing investor discretion with half of total funds invested in NZ and Australia subject to a responsible investment strategy.
“Consumers really care whether their food is processed or genetically modified and how it tastes.”
Jocelyn Eason – peopleeat food, not protein.