Plant-based ingredients: a sustainable market opportunity

FEATURED SPEAKER Fi Conference 2019
There is growing consumer awareness about the social, environmental and health benefits of having a diverse and sustainable food supply chain. Minna Hakaoja, Senior Food Industry Consultant, ProVeg International, believes there is a clear opportunity for food makers to tap into this demand, and to become part of the global solution, by focusing more on plant-based ingredients. 

Minna Hakaoja

Could you tell me what you plan to highlight at the Fi Conference?
“The plant-based market is growing fast and is developing into a major food category that every food and beverage company is trying to capitalise on. We’ll be introducing ideas and practical advice on how companies can benefit from this growth, whether it is about the latest and most interesting ingredients solutions, market trends, consumer insights or even cooking shows.” 

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What innovations will you be focussing on?
“Our role in accelerating the growth of the plant-based food industry is to identify and introduce the most promising ingredients and raw materials that manufacturing companies can use, in order to produce more and better plant-based food products. A good way to get to know these solutions is to join our guided tour that takes place at the fair and is free of charge. We’ll be visiting interesting companies to learn more about their latest plant-based innovations.”

What do you hope to get out of the Fi Conference? 
“ProVeg international is a food awareness organisation that promotes the growth of the plant-based food industry. Engaging with all players in the food value chain, including the ingredients suppliers, is highly important part of our work. We want to both learn about new innovations and lead the conversation on how to develop more and better plant-based foods that can replace animal-derived foods.”  

What are some of the challenges facing your sector in terms of sourcing, supply chain?
“Currently, the supply chain is optimised to produce only certain plants, meat and dairy products. We want more diversity to create a more sustainable food system. Agricultural policies that encourage farmers to focus more on protein-rich crops for human consumption are needed urgently. Manufacturers wanting to produce plant-based protein products might face difficulties in finding reliable suppliers that can provide the ingredients and raw materials at a large scale. This dynamic partly explains the higher prices of new plant-based products which we would like to see changing in the future.”

From your own experience, what advice would you give start-ups looking to enter the plant-based product market? 
“I would suggest any company to identify a specific consumer need, and then design a product and a brand around that. The key is to understand the sub-segments of flexitarian and vegan consumers and to target them, instead of trying to develop a generic product for everyone. I would also pay attention to the raw materials and ingredients moving towards more natural, clean label solutions.”

How have consumer demands / tastes evolved over the past ten years or so?
“The biggest change related to plant-based foods is consumer expectations. Previously consumers were happy with lower quality products, as there were only a few options available. Now that the range of products has dramatically grown, consumers require better products, especially in terms of taste, texture and price. Products should also provide value beyond being vegan. In other words, it is not enough to only produce something plant-based. The product has to suit consumer’s lifestyle choices, be convenient and offer appealing brand experiences.” 

“Generally speaking, sustainability is becoming a more relevant factor not only for vegan but also mainstream consumers. People understand the impact of food production to the environment and want to promote a more sustainable food system by their own purchasing decisions.”  

How have you reacted to this – can you give examples?  
“We provide companies assistance with understanding the needs of consumers. We, for instance, conduct market research to learn what consumers think about the current products and how they would like to improve them. This information provides valuable information for R&D teams to further develop their products. Also, we encourage ingredient suppliers to come up with solutions that help manufacturers to tackle specific challenges in their production; e.g. by offering high-quality ingredients that can easily replace animal-based ingredients in current recipes without making any compromises in taste, texture or appearance. ProVeg has a wide database that lists such ingredients and we are constantly looking for new ones.”

What do you think makes ProVeg stand out from the crowd? How do you differentiate yourselves? 
“We don’t necessarily see other players as competitors. We are happy to see everyone step in and, in fact, we encourage organisations to do that. The demand for high quality vegan products is extremely high and it is still growing. There is room for all to join and we would like different actors to cooperate rather than compete.”

What are your predictions for the plant-derived ingredients market over the next 3-5 years?
“There will be more clean label solutions, prices will go down, and more and more companies will use plant-based ingredients, regardless whether they actively target vegan and flexitarian consumers or not. At the same time there will be new raw materials available and the basic challenges, such as off-taste, will have been solved.”

Minna Hakaoja will be speaking about the best ingredients for successful plant-based products on 4th December, at the Fi Conference 2019.