3 key trends to meet new expectations for alternative proteins in 2023


Consumers continue to have a strong appetite for alternative proteins, with the global plant-based food market projected to grow to $103.56 billion by 2027, according to ResearchAndMarkets.com. Yet despite its historical surge and continued expectations, it’s clear that some segments of the plant-based meat category have cooled, largely because of dissatisfaction with existing options. Fortunately, there are ways brands can overcome existing hurdles to feed this lucrative market. 

Here are three trends driving consumer motivation in the alternative protein space that can help brands succeed in this here-to-stay segment.

1. Plant-based eating goes mainstream — but expectations are high.

Plant-based meats no longer face relegation to only “Meatless Monday” or “Veganuary.” While a mere 9% of Americans say they consider themselves vegan or vegetarian, 40% of consumers say they intend to purchase alternative protein products in 2023, finds Datassential’s 2023 Food Trends. But consumers won’t make sacrifices to do so: Research from Ajinomoto Health & Nutrition and Edelman Data and Intelligence shows that plant-based products can’t compromise on elements such as taste, texture and price point. 

In fact, the research finds that while taste remains the number one factor driving plant-based meat alternative brand selection, texture follows closely behind, with 38% ranking texture as one of their top priorities for product selection. Conversely, texture also served as the third biggest negative issue they cited regarding meat alternatives, with nearly one-quarter of consumers finding that plant-based alternatives fail to emulate the texture of meat. 

What that means for food manufacturers

Clearly, consumers aren’t willing to compromise, so food manufacturers must consider how to formulate products that accommodate these expectations. Ajinomoto Health & Nutrition’s extensive roster of ingredients and additives can provide the solution, allowing brands to deliver in all three areas: taste, texture and nutrition.

The answer lies in ensuring products contain both umami and kokumi, says Sarah Corwin, Senior Principal Scientist, Plant-Based & Ingredient Innovation for Ajinomoto Health & Nutrition. Umami, often described as a meaty, savory flavor, is one of the five basic tastes – alongside sweet, sour, bitter and salty — and literally means “essence of deliciousness” in Japanese. Kokumi isn’t a taste, per se, but rather a multifaceted sensory phenomenon that embodies the richness and complexity of meat’s mouthfeel, a quality often lacking in plant-based alternatives. By putting these qualities at the forefront of product development, brands can create products that will satisfy today’s consumers. 

2. Consumers want more diverse food options. 

Consumers are becoming increasingly adventurous, leaning into a food culture that leads to more experimentation and creative eating habits. From social media to cooking shows, they have more avenues than ever to seek inspiration. And their imaginative palates spur them to try new food items; the 2022 Today’s Specialty Food Consumer Research from the Specialty Food Association found that 76% of consumers reported purchasing specialty foods — the highest percentage ever. 

That includes looking for new alternative protein options where you might not expect them. “Right now, the plant-based meat market is flooded with burgers and nuggets, so I expect brands will continue to diversify out from there into areas like seafood and dairy and egg alternatives,” points out Corwin, adding they must also provide a nutritional parity with animal sources. Additionally, there is a growing market for alternative protein blends; for example, formulating burgers with ground beef as well as plant-based ingredients, which cuts down on costs and improves nutrition, while meeting the needs of a growing segment of hybrid meat-eaters. 

What that means for food manufacturers

Food manufacturers need to experiment with new, innovative products to gain market share and drive consumer demand. Corwin finds that the current market offers few options that check all the boxes. But Ajinomoto Health & Nutrition’s wide-ranging product portfolio can help. 

“There are two different drivers in food development: science and revenue. Here at Ajinomoto Health & Nutrition, we are ’science first,’ which means if I think of something new, I have all the resources I need to move forward with it,” Corwin describes, contrasting that with food manufacturers that may be more marketing-driven, which has precipitated the surge of duplicative products.

Ajinomoto Health & Nutrition presently makes impressive strides in categories that include dairy and egg alternatives, along with seafood  from fish sticks to lobster to shrimp. “Our proprietary ACTIVA® line of enzyme products allows us to add texture without using the starches and gums other plant-based seafood products use, which reduces their protein content,” Corwin explains. “Our clients are delighted with the ability to provide a tasty seafood item that also delivers nutritionally.” 

3. Consumers value sustainability. 

Environmental attributes top the priority list for most consumers. The 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer special report on Trust and Climate Change found that 77% of respondents worried about climate change. This overarching concern leads to scrutiny of the environmental impact of food choices and eating behaviors. The 2022 Food and Health Survey from the International Food Information Council found that 39% of respondents said environmental sustainability impacts their food decision-making process, up from 27% in 2019. This factor may serve even more importance to younger consumers, as nearly three-quarters of Gen Z agree they feel more concerned about their food’s environmental impact. 

For this reason and more, many consumers embrace a new way of climate-conscious eating, experimenting with new diet options such as “climatarians,” who make low-carbon food choices, or “reducetarians,” who focus on eating less meat, dairy and eggs. 

What that means for food manufacturers:

Plant-based foods further appeal to consumers because of the benefits they offer related to sustainability and animal welfare, two historic drivers behind the consumption of alternative protein products. “The truth is our planet simply cannot sustain the current level of meat consumption, which is leading consumers to look for tasty alternatives,” Corwin acknowledges.

Yet, brands need to ensure their products meet the taste bar. Consulting firm Kearney found that while four in five consumers say they have an awareness of the environmental impacts of food, 37% say one of the obstacles to making more eco-friendly eating choices involves thinking that “environmentally friendly” foods don’t taste good. 

Ajinomoto Health & Nutrition can help food manufacturers develop offerings that will allow consumers to indulge their desire for sustainability without ceding taste, texture or nutrition, the three founding pillars of Ajinomoto Health & Nutrition.

“Our team is here to help spark inspiration that allows food manufacturers to innovate and cater to consumers’ modern appetites by delivering the products they crave,” Corwin affirms. 

For more information on how Ajinomoto Health & Nutrition’s ingredients can help your team formulate products that will drive sales and revenue, download our guide today.

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About the Author

Jervie David Montejar
A food lover who wants to try every delicious dishes around him and spread the news to everyone to try it as well. Finding the latest trends about food and restaurants around Cebu and the rest of the world :) "Life is uncertain. Eat dessert first." -Ernestine Ulmer
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