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Women chef in industrial kitchen creating and serving a plant-based dish

Nourishing the future: innovations to grow the plant-based market

Going plant-based makes sense – for our health and the planet – and it’s a growing market. Find out how we’re using cutting-edge food technology to develop textures and flavours that meat- and dairy-lovers enjoy and put more plant-based options onto mainstream menus

At Unilever, we’re 100% set on seeing the plant-based foods market grow. As part of our Future Foods commitments, we aim to be selling €1 billion-worth of products using plant-based meat substitutes and dairy alternatives annually within the next six years.

It’s an ambitious goal, but not impossible. Sales of plant-based products are already skyrocketing. Last year alone, US shoppers spent more than US$7 billion on meat and dairy alternatives. By 2027, global revenues could reach ten times that figure.

As passionate as we are about the benefits of a plant-based diet, we also believe that no one should have to compromise by choosing this option. Our success therefore rests on delivering on taste, on nutrition and on sustainability.

Together with brand leadership and strategic partnerships, we see cutting-edge food research and technological innovation as pivotal to achieving these three outcomes.

Taste: synthesising the senses

Human sensory perception is incredibly sophisticated. From our first gulp of milk to our first bite of bread, our brains are registering the flavours, tastes and textures our palettes enjoy. It’s how we associate dairy products with creaminess, say, or meat dishes with succulence.

To the senses, some plant-based foods are harder to categorise – they can initially register as strange or unfamiliar – what food scientists refer to as ‘off-notes’.

To simulate the taste of dairy, for example in non-dairy ice cream, we build up a ‘flavour cocktail’: we add flavours that cancel out any ‘off-notes’ on your tongue. Strong flavours such as caramel and chocolate are the easiest to create, as they hide the characteristic beany flavours that come with plant protein.

Vanilla is the hardest, as it needs dairy to be perceived as a vanilla flavour. So we carefully select the right vanilla ingredient which works best with non-dairy ingredients. It’s all about choosing the right protein, adding the right flavours and formulating them in the right way.

Imagine biting into a Magnum ice cream. First, there’s the taste of chocolate, then vanilla ice cream, and finally the salted caramel or almond. Each layer stimulates the tastebuds separately, magnifying the overall taste. Test this for yourself by trying the Magnum Vegan.

Magnum Vegan ice cream on a white plate

Building up layers of chocolate and vanilla flavours in Magnum Vegan stimulates the tastebuds separately and magnifies the overall taste

Texture: mimicking the ‘meatiness’ of meat

Love it or hate it, cooked meat has a very particular texture as well as taste. Its juicy chewiness or succulent tenderness is the result of a chemical process that’s unique to animal proteins when cooked.

We looked for a machine which could replicate the muscles and animal structure that an animal grows in its lifetime, and which would essentially mimic the ‘meatiness’ of meat.

Meat consists of mostly protein, water and fat, organised in a specific way in the animal. Using a technology called extrusion, we found a way to apply pressure, high temperature and movement to a vegetable protein, such as bean flour, and restructure the plant protein into the same general structure of animal protein.

The end result is the hero of all our vegetarian meat, Textured Vegetable Protein (TVP). Not only does it have a similar texture and structure to meat, when cooked it also undergoes the ‘Maillard reaction’ which ensures The Vegetarian Butcher’s plant-based meats brown and sizzle in the same way that meat does.

Two patties of The Vegetarian Butcher’s Raw Burger developed to have a similar texture and structure to meat

Not only does The Vegetarian Butcher’s Raw Burger have the same texture and structure of meat, when it’s cooked it browns and sizzles like meat does

Shelf life: digital modelling

Store owners are keen for plant-based alternatives to have as long a shelf life as possible – and there are sustainability benefits as well, with a reduction in food waste. The challenge for us is to create a long shelf life without adding extra preservatives.

To arrive at a combination of ingredients that are safe and taste good for a long time, we’ve historically tested different options one by one, with each single test taking as much as the targeted shelf-life period.

By introducing predictive modelling and data science, however, we can now analyse factors such as the microbial growth rate in multiple ingredient combinations simultaneously – speeding up the research process enormously.

Nutrition: plant-based goodness

The concept of positive nutrition is central to our Future Foods vision. As well as committing to provide more than 200 billion servings with at least one of the five key micronutrients, we also have ambitious fortification goals.

Fortification is important because, while plant-based foods contribute to a healthy diet (think: low in calories, high in fibre, better fats and so on), some key vitamins and minerals are less prevalent in non-animal foods. Vitamin B12 is only present in animal proteins. Iron and zinc can sometimes be difficult to absorb from plant-based foods, but this can be mitigated by adding vitamin C.

We have decades of experience in food fortification, from Knorr adding iron and iodine to its bouillon cubes through to our fortified porridges under Maizena. Now we’re applying our knowledge to products like The Vegetarian Butcher’s Raw Burger, which we fortify with vitamin B12 and iron.

This experience ensures that the taste and stability of our fortified products are not affected and our bodies can fully benefit from the addition of these vital micronutrients.

Future ingredients: partnering for progress

Plants are a vastly more environmentally friendly way to achieve a healthy, balanced diet than animal-based protein. But we currently rely quite heavily on only a few plant-based sources. Diversifying our base of plant-based proteins is therefore a priority. Partnerships are critical in achieving this.

Take our tie-in with microalgae specialist Algenuity. Not only is its (micro) algae product rich in antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids, its water and land-use footprints are also very low.

Similarly, we recently established a development agreement with ENOUGH, a food-tech firm that produces a nutrient-rich protein called ABUNDA from fungi. The fungi are grown through a simple fermentation process based on renewable feedstock such as wheat or corn. Compared to meat production, it uses 93% less water and creates 97% fewer carbon dioxide emissions.

Three spoons holding the yellow, white and green variants of Algenuity’s microalgae rich protein powder

Algenuity’s microalgae plant-based protein is rich in nutrients, neutral in flavour and has a low water and land-use footprint

Nourishing the future

Other challenges lie ahead. We want to continue minimising the range of ingredients per product, for example, making our labels as ‘clean’ as possible. Perfecting the like-for-like texture of plant-based alternatives – such as with the muscle texture of meat – marks another ongoing brainteaser.

Plant-based food is here to stay – and grow. Not only can our brands help the market grow. By continuing to innovate, we can also ensure meat and dairy-free diets become the go-to option for taste, nutrition and planetary health.