We partnered with ENOUGH to explore mycoprotein, and with Algenuity – a microalgae biotech start-up – to support future innovations across its plant-based portfolio.
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Delicious plant-based foods are better for the health of people and the planet. We’ve put them at the heart of our strategy.
The benefits of plant-based foods
The demonstrates that if people eat more plant-based foods, emissions could be cut by up to 80%. Eating meat and dairy alternatives and vegetables is recognised as being better for the environment – and plant-based diets are not only better for the planet, they’re also good for human health.
The health benefits of a plant-based diet
In our Ask a Scientist video series, our Global Diet & Health Director, Julie Willems, explains why eating a plant-based diet is healthy.
“Firstly, it’s typically lower in calories and saturated fat and higher in fibre and unsaturated fats. Secondly, it can reduce the risk of disease. have shown that plant-based diets can prevent diseases by improving glycaemic control, and reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes and being overweight. There are also are generally associated with a reduced risk of developing cardiovascular diseases, overall cancer incidence and/or mortality.”
We’re convinced of the health benefits of adding more plant-based foods to our diets. We’ve been using our expertise and product knowledge for several years to increase consumer choice, by introducing more plant-based options and increasing sales of a diverse range of protein sources. And we’ve embedded plant-based thinking into .
More plant-based options for more people
Our portfolio of brands is well placed to help millions of people transition to a more plant-based diet. We believe in nutritious diets that include more variety, more seasonal foods, fruit and vegetables, legumes, wholegrains and healthy oils, less meat and more plant-based alternatives.
As well as creating delicious new plant-based recipes, we’re making it easier for people to find vegetarian options in the shops. Since 2021, 4,000 of our products have carried the European Vegetarian Union’s logo. And we’ve set a goal on plant-based foods as part of our strategy.
We’re committed to offering more products that enable plant-based diets, which was reflected in our €1 billion plant-based sales goal announced in November 2020. To better reflect our plant-based strategy and sustainability agenda, and increase sales of plant-based products, we have now broadened the scope of our original goal to include plant-based products in categories that have traditionally used animal-derived ingredients, such as bouillons.
€1.5bn of sales per annum by 2025 from plant-based products in categories whose products are traditionally using animal-derived ingredients.This is one of our Positive nutrition goals
It’s a stretching ambition, and we’re determined to reach it, by increasing our plant-based offer in The Vegetarian Butcher, our Hellmann’s dressings, and within our ice cream portfolios. In 2022, Unilever Nutrition and Ice Cream achieved €1.2 billion in sales from the plant-based products in scope.
In addition, our large global brands are taking the lead in encouraging people to switch to more plant-based diets: most notably, Knorr, our biggest brand in Nutrition accounting for more than €4.5 billion of turnover.
External recognition of our plant-based strategy
There are different reasons why consumers choose plant-based instead of animal products – for example animal welfare, the environment, novelty, availability, affordability and, of course, health. And the move towards plant-based foods is gathering pace. New research by ethical investor network shows that all companies assessed are investing in the development of plant-based products.
For the second year running, we were named by FAIRR as the leader in its 2022 benchmark of companies using protein diversification to drive growth and build climate-aligned portfolios.
It’s clear that plant-based alternatives offer huge commercial growth potential. And they offer a simple way of helping consumers transition to more sustainable diets.
Great tasting, non-dairy ice cream
In response to increasing demand, we’ve continued expanding our ice cream portfolio with non-dairy and vegan choices. We offer these options across our global Ben & Jerry’s, Magnum, Wall’s and Cornetto brands. For example, in ‘Veganuary’ 2023, Ben & Jerry’s introduced the Oatmeal Dream Pie Non-Dairy, with Gluten-Free Oatmeal Cookies & Marshmallow Swirls. We also offer water ices and fruit sorbets that are inherently non-dairy.
Our plant-based ice creams are helping to lower the carbon intensity of our value chains. In Sweden, for instance, we renovated our Big Pack family ice cream range, switching dairy milk for a plant-based (pea protein) alternative. The new recipe has a 37% lower carbon footprint than the original, and we’re now aiming for around 20% of all our ice cream products to be non-dairy by 2030.
Knorr – reinventing food for humanity through plant-based options
Bouillons and stocks also have a significant role to play in contributing towards our expanded €1.5 billion plant-based meat and dairy alternatives commitment. Our new Knorr BIO vegetable bouillon, for example, is vegan and ideal as a basis for soups, stews or for seasoning. It can help to refine numerous dishes, enabling cooks to cut out meat without compromising on flavour.
In addition to our plant-based commitment, Knorr is taking action to ‘reinvent food for humanity’. This is a big ambition, and we’ve broken it down into three major shifts that Knorr is driving – more variety in what people eat; more plants and less meat; and foods grown in sustainable, restorative and regenerative ways. We’re doing this through initiatives like Future 50 Foods and regenerative agriculture projects.
The Vegetarian Butcher – designed for meat lovers, made with plants
With its brand purpose, ‘sacrifice nothing’, is our leading ‘plant-based meat’ brand. The Vegetarian Butcher products are made from soy and wheat, and all its protein sources are plant-based and deliciously satisfying. They are present in both foodservice and retail, and are aimed at the increasing number of consumers who identify themselves as flexitarian. The Vegetarian Butcher grew high double-digit, capitalising on partnerships with quick service restaurants like Starbucks, Subway, Domino’s, and Burger King – where we were named Global Supplier of the Year.
It’s expanded to over 55 countries and provided Burger King’s first plant-based burger. This partnership has proved to be very successful. One in three Whoppers sold in Burger King in Belgium, for instance, are now plant-based, and in some central city restaurants, that figure rises to one in two.
The Vegetarian Butcher and Burger King also joined forces to successfully launch the Plant-Based Whopper, Junior Whopper, Chicken Royale and Nuggets, which have been introduced across most of Europe. In co-operation with The Vegetarian Butcher, the chain has also opened the world’s first pop-up plant-based Burger King restaurants in cities across Europe and Costa Rica. And in Austria, in an effort to normalise plant-based eating, the chain now offers burger-ordering customers the choice between ‘regular or meat-based’.
In 2022, we introduced a refrigerated range to European retailers, including the ‘Impeckable’ tender vegan fillet, as well as a frozen range in the UK. This includes the ‘Patty on the Back’, recreating the juicy tenderness of a beef burger cooked rare.
In Veganuary 2022, we launched the plant-based Tun’ah sandwich at Starbucks UK, and the Vegeroni pizza – with the taste and texture of pepperoni – at Domino’s in six European countries. We also introduced Vegan Nuggets at Burger King UK, making it the first UK fast-food chain to offer this option. And in Veganuary 2023, we launched the plant-based Beef Steak Slices with Subway in nine countries across Europe.
In supermarkets and food stores, we offer plant-based alternatives for different meal occasions, and our products can be found in the refrigerated, frozen and bakery aisles.
In 2022, The Vegetarian Butcher products won no less than six awards across Europe. And our Crispy Chickimicki Burger won gold in the German Vegetarian and Vegan Alternatives Product of the Year Award 2023.
Hellmann’s – same great taste, plant-based mayo
We’re expanding our delicious vegan options as part of our dressings portfolio. Our Hellmann’s Vegan Mayo is our plant-based alternative to our traditional Hellmann’s mayonnaise. We’ve removed the eggs, but not what consumers love about mayo – its great taste. In fact, BBC Good Food named Hellmann’s Vegan Garlic Mayo the best flavoured vegan mayo in 2023. Hellmann’s is the No.1 vegan mayonnaise in the UK, US, Canada, Germany, Spain, Sweden, Greece, Czech Republic and the Netherlands. The range is now available in 33 markets, including Australia and Argentina where Hellmann’s Vegan Mayo was launched in 2022.
In 2023, we introduced a variety of new choices. In Argentina, we launched two flavoured mayos that are vegan by design – Hellmann’s Smoked and Hellmann’s Garlic. In Europe, we launched the deliciously smoky Hellmann’s Vegan BBQ Sauce. In the UK and Nordic markets, we introduced four plant-based Hellmann’s varieties – the flavour-filled Cheese & Roasted Garlic, Sundried Tomato & Basil, Avocado & Lime, and Garlic & Herb. In Canada, our Hellmann’s Vegan Salad Dressings help to dress up so much more than salad. And we promote Hellmann’s Vegan Mayo alongside our traditional Hellmann’s Mayonnaise in our advertising.
In countries where our mayonnaises were not already available, we launched our new plant-based products from the start. In India, for example, we introduced our full Hellmann’s range as egg-free.
More plant-based ideas for professionals
Through our foodservice business, Unilever Food Solutions (UFS), offer plant-based options catering to all needs to help professional kitchens and catering partners like Sodexo respond to consumer preferences.
UFS North America is helping operators meet customer demand with our range of plant-based, vegetarian and vegan products, including vegan mayo, seasonings, soups and sauces. In fact, in the US and Canada, just under half of our UFS portfolio is plant-based. We offer recipe inspiration on our websites in the and , which include plant-based, vegetarian and vegan dishes.
In 2022, we introduced Carte D’Or Professional’s vegan dessert range, including the top-selling Brownie and Chocolate Mousse desserts in Spain, Portugal, the UK, Romania and Bulgaria.
Ensuring the nutrition quality of plant-based foods
Through our Future Foods commitments, we promote plant-based foods and diverse diets for better health of people and the planet.
We’ve developed clear nutrition guidelines for our plant-based products to ensure we design nutrient-balanced plant-based options to meet consumer expectations. For example, we design plant-based ice creams that comply with our sugar and calorie commitments for packaged ice cream, and often have a better nutrient profile than their dairy equivalents. And product development of our vegan dressings and foods is guided by
Alongside new nutritious products and making improvements to older recipes, a conducted by our Unilever scientists suggested that “both the food and beverage industry and public health bodies have an important role to play in helping consumers transition to a more nutritionally adequate diet.”
The next generation of meat and dairy alternatives
At our Global R&D Centre in the UK, as well as Hive Foods Innovation Centre at Wageningen University campus, we’re working on formulating the next generation of meat and dairy alternatives and plant-based protein products. This means making plant-based foods not only with great taste, texture and nutrition, but also finding , such as a diverse range of protein sources in our products and recipes, that respect the planet.
Partnerships for diversified protein sources (1 of 3)
Unilever, The Vegetarian Butcher and have joined forces to find diversified protein sources, such as an innovative, flavour-neutral, mushroom-based protein for our plant-based meat products. It’s got all the protein and ‘meatiness’ of meat, but is made in a more environmentally friendly way, using 93% less water, 97% less feed, and producing 97% less CO₂ than beef.
We’ve also partnered with which has created a new type of microalgae. Algae as a source of sustainable nutrition is nothing new, as it’s packed full of protein, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals. However, microalgae have never really made it into the mainstream because of their bitter taste and smell. Algenuity’s microalgae not only tastes and looks good, it also performs well in cooking. We think this could be a gamechanger as a viable, vegan and climate-friendly protein alternative.
Soy delivers more protein per hectare than any other major crop, and a recent study concluded that processing soy slightly increases the protein’s nutritional quality.
Joint research on protein nutritional quality (2 of 3)
Soy is an important ingredient across our Foods portfolio, particularly for The Vegetarian Butcher and our ice cream ranges. Scientists from Unilever and Wageningen University & Research have discovered that, . This confirms it as a valuable source of protein in plant-based foods.
As Amelia Jarman, our Future Health and Wellness Science and Technology Director, explains: “Given the rising demand from environmentally conscious consumers looking to transition away from meat, but still looking for nutritious, high-quality food, this research is very exciting. It proves that meat-free alternatives actually do fulfil our bodies’ protein requirements.”
Unilever joined multidisciplinary partners in several consortiums to accelerate the transition to alternative dietary proteins.
Consortiums for plant-based innovation (3 of 3)
We’re working with Wageningen University & Research, and partners that span the entire vegetable protein chain, on the project. Together we’re working on the scientific basis to understand the structuring process of meat alternatives while including flavour components, fat and other ingredients. These findings will be used to further develop technology for making the next generation of meat alternatives. We’re also a part of , which is assessing meat alternatives for optimal nutritional value, digestibility, sensorial quality and long-term consumer acceptance.
In addition, we’ve initiated a public–private partnership, led by Wageningen University & Research, which will look at the health impact of currently available plant-based meats compared to animal meat. We know, for example, that many plant-based meat products have more fibre, less saturated fat and more salt than animal meat. But little is known about the long-term health effects and the impact on the gut microbiome of these products. We’re researching how to improve plant-based meat by evaluating its effects on human health, as well as developing design rules for healthier ingredients.
We’re also part of the EU-funded Horizon Research and Innovation Action called Giant Leaps. This consortium, with 34 multidisciplinary partners, aims to deliver the strategic innovations, methodologies, and open-access datasets to speed up the shift from animal-based diets to diversified proteins. And the research, with TNO and other partners at Lowlands in the Netherlands, is helping us to gain a better understanding of both present and future plant-forward eating behaviours.