KANSAS CITY — Ingredients consumers perceive as clean label or more environmentally friendly present opportunities for re-igniting sales in plant-based meat alternatives. Naturally sourced colors and preservatives, along with methylcellulose alternatives, are available.

The category has struggled recently. Data from SPINS and the Good Food Institute show US retail sales for plant-based foods coming in at $3.9 billion in 2017 and then surging for several years before moderating in 2022. Sales of plant-based foods in 2023, although at $8.1 billion, declined 2% from 2022. Within plant-based meat and seafood alternatives, the decline was worse at 12%.

A Deloitte consumer survey of plant-based meat alternatives showed unit volume fell by 17% in 2023 while dollar sales declined by 11%. Deloitte surveyed 2,000 US consumers and 100 US-based grocery retail executives. Among the consumers who said they buy plant-based meat alternatives, 65% said they believe it is more environmentally sustainable, and 61% said animal welfare was a factor in their purchasing decisions.

Reasons for purchasing plant-based meat alternatives depend on the consumer, said Megan Passman, global insight manager for Corbion, Lenexa, Kan.

“However, the big reason consumers get into plant-based meat alternatives in the first place, or at least have the will to try it once, is because they are keenly aware of the impact real meat has on the environment,” she said. “We know that cost, taste, texture and health are top factors of importance among consumers who choose plant-based meat alternatives over other protein sources.”

Consumers may consider alternative protein sources such as fava beans, peas, chickpeas and soybeans as more environmentally friendly, she said.

“Now that may not be completely true, but perception can be reality,” Passman said. “Many consumers of plant-based meat alternatives are comparing these products to their own perceptions about real meat. Opportunities exist for manufacturers of plant-based meat alternatives to be more transparent about their emissions and to educate consumers more effectively around their sustainability journey to win over the consumer’s dollar at retail.”

Consumers in the United States are buying alternatives for health and better-for-you reasons, said Austin Abessinio, direct-to-retail sales manager for Planteneers GmbH, Ahrensburg, Germany, a business of Stern-Wywiol Gruppe.

“The trend of clean labels exemplifies this as consumers are more concerned with how an ingredient is processed, rather than the environmental impact,” he said. “However, we must point out, it’s difficult for the average consumer to calculate environmental impact from the information on an ingredient statement.”

Changing color

Smell, taste, texture and color all matter to consumers, said Alice Lee, technical marketing manager for GNT USA, LLC, Dallas, NC.

“In red meat alternatives such as burgers and minced meat, some manufacturers aim to create products that can change from a bloody red appearance while raw to a ‘rare’, ‘medium’, or ‘well-done’ brown when heated,” she said. “It allows for a more authentic experience and can help to convince meat eaters in particular that plant-based alternatives are just like the real thing.”

GNT blends color concentrates from different fruits and vegetables, including beets, carrots, peppers, apples and chokeberries. Each has different hues and heat sensitivities.

“It’s also important to take into account the base color and pH level to find the right blend of fruit and vegetable colors for the application,” Lee said. “For example, beets deliver a pink shade and are heat-sensitive while peppers deliver an orange shade and are highly heat stable.

“Different types of carrot can also provide important functionality. Orange carrots contain carotenoid pigments that can provide a yellowish background while purple and black carrots contain anthocyanins and can provide a slight bluish hue at higher pH levels. This helps to mimic the color of raw red meat when blended with other vegetable-based colors.”

GNT’s plant-based Exberry color concentrates on a product’s ingredient list may be labeled in ways such as “fruit and vegetable juice for color,” “carrot juice for color” or “paprika (color).”

“When using plant-based colors, it’s essential to consider the technical parameters of the formulation, such as pH, processing temperatures and desired shelf life through storage conditions,” Lee said. “Many red meat alternatives are in the higher pH range, above five. This means when selecting reds, concentrates from radish or sweet potato generally provide the best performance for color stability in applications such as deli meat, pepperoni and hot dog analogues.

“Base color is another important factor. Some plant proteins bring strong yellow, greyish to brown undertones, and that can mean a higher color dosage is needed to achieve the desired intensity.”

Lee said color shades tend to be more orange or pink in plant-based seafood alternatives, including alternatives for salmon fillets and smoked salmon, canned tuna and tuna steaks, and prawns. Color may be added through paprika, beetroot and carrot concentrates. In plant-based chicken alternatives, Exberry shade vivid orange — OS, an oil-soluble paprika concentrate with a high color intensity, may be used to achieve a golden orange shade in a crust coating or breading system.

Methylcellulose alternatives

“Artificial colors, flavors and preservatives are the most frequently avoided ingredients in plant-based products,” said Kyle Burkovec, R&D technical manager for Planteneers. “Genetically modified ingredients naturally follow suit on the ‘no-fly’ list when formulating clean label alternatives.”

Other ingredients under scrutiny include modified starches and carrageenan.

“Although these are all derived from natural sources, there is some consumer uncertainty regarding the synthetic manufacturing processes these ingredients undergo,” Burkovec said.

Methylcellulose, since it provides texture attributes at different temperatures, is one of the most difficult ingredients to replace in plant-based meat alternatives, Abessinio said.

Methylcellulose alternatives are available.

Fiberstar, Inc., River Falls, Wis., offers Citri-Fi citrus fiber that provides high water-holding and emulsification properties, according to the company. The particle size of Citri-Fi TX creates a meatier appearance, taste and texture in meat alternatives.

Plantible Foods, Inc., San Diego, grows lemna, a leafy green aquatic plant, and then extracts Rubi Protein for use in baked foods, sports/adult nutrition products, and animal-free meat and dairy items. Growing lemna uses no arable land, according to the company. Last October Plantible Foods and ICL Food Specialties, St. Louis, launched the Rovitaris binding system powered by Rubi Protein.

“Plant-based protein formulators have been searching for a clean label, highly functional replacement for chemically derived binders, such as methylcellulose, for years,” Rado Sporka, vice president of the food specialties commercial business for ICL, said at the time. “In partnership with Plantible Foods, we were able to leverage our deep knowledge of proteins to create a market-leading binding solution that will allow plant-based food manufacturers to meet the needs of even the most demanding consumers.”

Preservatives not perceived as clean label include potassium sorbate, sodium benzoate, sodium diacetate and potassium diacetate, said Garrett McCoy, senior manager, research development and applications for Corbion.

Buffered vinegar and cultured sugar may be used in place of these ingredients. Corbion’s Verdad line of buffered vinegar and cultured sugar extend shelf life while the company’s Verdad Essence and Origin portfolios improve flavor and color throughout the shelf life of products, McCoy said.