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Developing plant-based alternatives for around half a century has given the Japan-based Fuji Oil Group a depth of expertise few can rival. The launch this month of the Group’s Global Innovation Center in the Netherlands will enable more food businesses to tap into this reservoir of knowledge, and help the Group to identify the consumer trends currently shaping the global protein transition.
Established in 1950 in Japan, the Fuji Oil Group has an impressive history of developing plant-based alternatives. The company today supplies the global food industry with ingredients through 33 subsidiaries located in 14 countries worldwide.
"Our initial focus was on developing technologies to fully utilise palm oil, which was a relatively new raw material in Japan at that time,” explains Dr Liz Kamei, Director of Open Innovation & External Partnerships at Fuji Europe Africa. “Our aim was to respond to the aspiration of Japanese consumers for Western-style dairy products – which were expensive – by providing dairy alternatives such as margarines and soy-based creams."
Fuji Oil Group saw the potential of using its oils and fats know-how to move into industrial chocolate, where some of the cocoa butter is replaced by other vegetable fats to give different functionalities or melting points. The company also started to look at soy as an extension of its oils and fats business, and soon realised that the protein could be used as a viable meat and dairy alternative.
"By the 1960s we were producing soy protein concentrates and textured proteins, and by combining expertise gained from our fats business we moved into emulsified and fermented foods,” says Kamei. “I think a key strength is this ability to combine expertise in both oils & fats and proteins. In truth, we’ve been active in the plant-based arena for the best part of 50 years."
Focus on Europe
Progress never stops, and the Group established Fuji Europe Africa BV three years ago, to support new plant-based businesses in Europe. “Europe is a hotbed of innovation for plant-based foods,” explains Kamei. “We also know that trends and initiatives that start in Europe eventually spread to other regions. There is a ripple effect. So being part of the European plant-based foods ecosystem and market means ensuring that we stay at the cutting edge of innovation for our home markets too.”
Another key aim has been to globalise the company’s R&D structure. “Being mostly based in Japan meant that we were mostly focused on that market,” says Kamei. “Having a base in Europe means having access to the research work being done here.”
An important milestone towards this objective was achieved in early August 2021, with the official announcement of Fuji Oil’s Global Innovation Center at the Wageningen University Campus in the Netherlands. “We wanted to be able to identify partners that can help us build up our capabilities, and perhaps introduce us to new sustainable technologies,” says Kamei. “On the other side, we have the scale to support other innovative new technologies, and a home base in the Asian market that might be of interest to other companies. Ultimately, the Center is a way of supporting the protein transition, helping to make society as a whole more sustainable.”
Building on innovation
Since Fuji Europe Africa was established three years ago, a number of collaborative initiatives have been launched. The Group is an active member of the PlantPROMISE consortium managed by Wageningen University, which is focused on high moisture extrusion for meat alternatives. “We are also members of a NIZO-led consortium that aims to produce a cheese alternative with a high level of plant protein,” adds Kamei. “There are also a number of confidential initiatives under way.”
Kamei and her colleagues expect that with an established presence in Europe – bolstered by the recently launched Global Innovation Center – the Fuji Oil Group will be able to play a more influential role in the global plant-based foods market. The investment in the Center underlines Europe’s importance, not only in terms of global market share, but in driving societal and regulatory changes that have global impact.
“We have been combining plant protein and oils & fats to create solutions for meat and dairy alternatives for many years,” notes Kamei. “We are open to discussions with partners looking to co-create solutions, or companies with innovative technologies complementary to our experience.”