By Katherine Durrell, Nutrition Insight
27 May 2020 — Marine ingredients are emerging as a key sector within the plant-based market, with algae and water lentils both providing essential nutrients to consumers who are increasingly turning away from animal-derived foods. However, the rise of the term “plant-based” – often at the expense of vegan or vegetarian claims – has created some confusion about what exactly it entails. This is elucidated by key industry players, who speak to NutritionInsight about the future of this fast-moving space.
“A few years ago, plant-based was still a niche market. Now, with concerns about health and environmental impact, plant-based products are mainstream. Although the number of people who identify themselves as vegetarian or vegan isn’t that high, many consumers identify as flexitarians and include plant-based options in their diets,” says Andie Long, Marketing & Sales Manager at AstaReal.
However, Outi Armstrong, Head of Global Marketing Communications, Human Nutrition and Health at DSM, flags that it is crucial that industry “gets the terminology right” to distinguish between popular buzzwords including vegan, plant-based, organic and clean eating.
“Food manufacturers also need support to make sure any product claims are adequately substantiated. At DSM, we define ‘plant-based’ as a product that consists of ingredients derived only from a land or marine-based plant or otherwise suitable for a plant-based diet. The ‘functional’ compound found within the original plant must be retained in a meaningful amount after processing. Plant-based sources include anything from vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, seeds and legumes – to trending ingredients like tree bark, mushrooms and algae,” Armstrong continues.
For Fiona Sweeney, Strategic Marketing Director of Europe and Russia at Kerry, the three main types of consumers within the plant-based category are flexitarians, vegetarians and vegans. “It is important to understand each of their needs as this will impact how they perceive different products. Offerings labeled as ‘plant-based’ will appeal to the larger flexitarian consumer base. While there is no set definition of plant-based products, it is understood by consumers to mean a diet consisting mostly of vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, whole grains and beans. It doesn’t necessarily exclude animal products, and consumers that identify with eating a plant-based diet may fall anywhere along the spectrum from a flexitarian to a vegan,” she explains.
Vaughn DuBow, Marketing Manager of Americas CHI at Lonza, also notes that a plant-based product may still include non-plant-based chemicals, processing elements or other ingredients. “More often than not, plant-based products are both vegan and vegetarian-friendly, but it is important for discerning consumers to fully research all of the ingredients contained within a product to determine if it fits within their personal needs or not.”
Marine-derived ingredients can be a vegan alterative to nutrients commonly derived from fish.Marine ingredients take hold
According to Innova Market Insights, the use of marine oils in F&B launches increased globally, featuring a 41 percent year-over-year growth when comparing 2019 and 2018 launches. While various fish-derived products still make up the lion’s share of marine oils on the market, algae products now represent 7 percent of launches.
According to Armstrong of DSM, algal ingredients are not new in the nutritional space, but renewed interest has increased their profile and demand. Consumers are becoming more familiar with algae and its affiliation with health and wellness, nutrition, environmental sustainability, biotechnology, and the future. An algal or plant-based source can drive increased interest in a brand and attract attention from new users, she explains.
“Marine ingredients, especially algal-based ingredients, are a natural fit for consumers who are increasingly health-minded and focused on protecting the environment. We have seen significantly more interest in higher protein and plant-based diets on a global basis. According to Innova Market Insights, algae are anticipated to become a mainstream of diets globally,” explains Miguel Martinho, Marketing Manager in Europe of Kemin Human Nutrition and Health.
Armstrong further notes that overfishing and other environmental factors are also driving a shift away from fish. “Therefore, it is imperative to identify viable and sustainable omega 3 alternatives like our product, called life’s OMEGA, which is the first plant-based alternative to traditional fish oil. It is a pure, potent and natural source of both DHA and EPA, and can play an important role in normal human growth and development.”
Providing essential nutrients
Also addressing this shift away from animal-derived foods, Kemin offers BetaVia Complete, which is a sustainably produced algae from a proprietary strain of Euglena gracilis. “The nutrient-rich algae fermentate contains greater than 50 percent 1,3 beta-glucans, along with protein, a mix of fatty acids, vitamins, minerals and carotenoids. These support healthy living by priming the immune system, protecting against oxidative stress, supporting respiratory tract health and contributing to digestive tract health,” continues Martinho.
Long of AstaReal chimes in that algae typically contain all the essential nutrients required for human health and wellbeing. “In addition to being a renewable source of protein, algae offers other high-value compounds for human nutrition, including astaxanthin, beta-carotene and omega 3 fatty acids such as EPA and DHA. When it comes to supplements, algal omega 3s score high as a vegetarian alternative to those derived from krill or fish oil. There are even algae-based vegan collagen boosters on the market.”
Cecilia Wittbjer, Vice President of Marketing at ParabelShe continues that astaxanthin, the natural antioxidant derived from Haematococcus pluvialis algae, has carved out a special market for itself in the algal ingredients space. “While neutralizing free radicals is very important for the body, consumers are looking for more specific health benefits – for example, in terms of eye health, immune defense, skin beauty, athletic performance and cognitive function. People can get support for all of these issues and more in just one astaxanthin-based supplement,” says Long.
Meanwhile, water lentils have also been the subject of great interest. Cecilia Wittbjer, Vice President of Marketing at Parabel, explains that the discovery of plant-based vitamin B12 in its water lentils and Lentein plant protein became a hot topic among consumers.
“A YouTuber promoting a vegan lifestyle received over 140,000 comments – good and bad – on the subject. A few years ago, one myth was that plant protein didn’t contain all amino acids – and that has been dispelled. Now there is a plant that contains vitamin B12, which up until now was thought only to be in animals. This fact unsettles a lot of people.”
She explains that when Lentein launched six years ago, the majority of interest came from within the supplement industry. However, the following years saw a great increase in product launches, leading Parabel to also produce ingredients that would work equally well for the food and beverage industry.
Plant-based foods set to dominate
The coming years are set to hold massive innovations and developments for the plant-based sector. DuBow of Lonza notes that already, plant-based products have evolved far beyond many people’s wildest expectations. “It’s hard for many younger people to think about a time in which a soy “burger” was considered a suitable replacement for a burger at their favorite fast food establishment.”
“Similarly in the nutrition space, for anyone who tried out a plant-based protein powder in the year 2000 compared to what we now have available in 2020, the difference is night and day. Plant-based products within the nutrition space are able to taste absolutely identical to animal-based options while simultaneously offering consumers less undesirable components such as cholesterol and saturated fat,” he adds.
Looking ahead, DuBow expects that while there will always be those who prefer animal-based products, the plant-based crowd is growing in size on a daily basis, and it will be up to companies to figure out how to best attract that market. “Plant-based options for capsules, ingredients and other food-based nutrition items could soon be the majority while animal-based items will slowly but surely fall out of favor within most portions of the world.”
Long also notes that global circumstances are creating an increased urgency in developing plant-based nutritionals. “In the face of growing shortages and pressure on our resources, and the increasing demand for proteins, carbohydrates and other valuable ingredients – especially those that are vegetarian, sustainable, environmentally friendly and organic – it’s likely that microalgae will play a significant role in the diet of populations in the future,” she explains.
Finally, Sweeney of Kerry expects to see a demand for greater choice across all categories and in different meals throughout the day. The company also is anticipating a focus on nutritionally optimized products with high protein quality and the emergence of fortified plant-based products.