Alternative Food & Drink – Alternative dining goes mainstream

Sectors: Alternative Food & Drink

Above: Nimisha Raja, Founder and CEO of Nim’s Fruit Crisps. Credit: Nim’s Fruit Crisps

The alternative food and beverage sector is booming across the UK, pulled by technological development and pushed by widespread environmental concern.

Paul Gander

Above: Pri’s Puddings was born from a desire to indulge but with minimalist ingredients that you can actually recognise. Credit: Pri’s Puddings

Above and right: Meatless Farm works closely with its Canadian-based sister company, Lovingly Made Ingredients, which supplies textured vegetable protein. Credit: Meatless FarmAbove:

Most of us can probably think of examples of ‘alternative’ food and beverage (F&B) products, but defining the category can be rather more challenging.

If we take it to include plant-based protein, vegetarian and vegan foods, cell-based (lab-grown) protein, insect protein, dairy alternatives and other free-from products, then we can draw out some common themes.

In many cases, the starting point is food allergy and intolerance. This is typically linked to wider perceptions of healthier eating. Animal welfare is often a prime concern. But looming large over everything are ethical positions over the environment: global warming, greenhouse gas emissions, carbon footprint and other impacts such as water usage.

At Yorkshire-based Meatless Farm, UK and Ireland MD Michael Hunter calls sustainability “a serious challenge”. “The National Food Strategy has highlighted the food industry, in particular meat production, as a significant contributor to global emissions.”

Working with Canadian-based sister company and supplier of textured vegetable protein Lovingly Made Ingredients, Meatless Farm produces plant-based mince, burgers, sausages and more for retail and food service. “Our most recent NPD is the plant-based ‘chicken breast’, which at the time was the UK’s ‘first to market’,” he says. It includes 17g of pea protein in each piece.

So, are consumers tiring of the years of talk about vegan, plant-based and meat-free options? Not according to Meatless Farm’s latest survey. “Research from January 2022 showed that 43% of Britons plan to eat more plant-based foods and reduce meat consumption this year, in comparison with 9% in 2019,” says Michael.

Scaling up production

Meanwhile, plant-based milk alternatives have emerged as one of the strongest markets in this sector. This is not just a UK phenomenon, with Euromonitor International estimating the global retail value of plant-based milks to be just under $18bn in 2021.

The F&B sector overall may be renowned for the large number of small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) it embraces, but alt-F&B seems to generate an especially high number of investment-hungry start-ups.

One of these is Pri’s Puddings, a producer of vegan and gluten-free sweet baked goods. With only five ingredients in each product, ‘clean label’ is another key feature shared with many other alternative food brands.

Like Hunter, founder Priyanka Savjani sees demand for plant-based and vegan options remaining as strong as ever. “Consumers are becoming more aware of the issues around dairy and the meat industry,” she says. “Even though they may not go meat-free overnight, they are looking for more ethical, more sustainable alternatives.”

Her business had only been in existence for a matter of weeks when the pandemic hit in 2020. “From a retail perspective, it wasn’t good,” she says. “But we were agile, and quick to move to export and online. As a result, we now have a much more diversified revenue base.”

But the starting-point, of course, is always production. “We were based in my home-kitchen for only four weeks,” she explains. “We needed to scale up quickly.” Like others in this situation, the new business turned to third-party manufacturing to meet its objectives.

Starting a new business in the UK has become easier, especially during the pandemic,” Priyanka says. “There are more resources online. But the information on third-party manufacturing was quite well-hidden, and still is.”

In fact, the UK has a thriving contract beverage filling and food manufacturing sector, which already supports more F&B start-ups than in many other developed economies. But as she explains, making the right business connection still seems to come down largely to networking and word-of-mouth.

In a timely intervention, perhaps, the Food & Drink Federation (FDF) has announced the creation of the Food & Drink Innovation Gateway. This is described as “a simple online tool that will match firms in the sector with the expertise to support them in their technical challenges”. Expert partners on the project include the Manufacturing Technology Centre, the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre and the University of Lincoln.

Alternative proteins

Cell-based protein, also variously known as lab-grown, cultured or cultivated meat, rightly receives a great deal of media attention. After all, it offers shining credentials in animal welfare and protecting the environment. It also attracts a fair amount of funding, though probably more in mainland Europe and the US than in the UK.

But these investors are in it for the long haul. One co-founder of a start-up in this segment predicted that, while niche producers may use 3D printing to create structured meat products within three to eight years, systems for producing significant volumes of cell-based meat are still at least two decades away.

Not everyone is looking 20 years out. “Now the UK can manage its own food policy outside the EU, we could see the emergence of [a cell-based meat boom] in the next five to 10 years,” says Hunter. “This will throw up new challenges for both plant-based and [traditional] meat, and we are monitoring this closely.”

Like cell-based, the insect protein market will ultimately stand or fall on the level of consumer acceptance. In fact, Horizon Edible Insects is among those reporting that, under new post-Brexit Novel Food regulations, sales of edible insects are currently illegal in the UK.

That may change, with the benefits to the environment winning through here, as elsewhere, in the end. At consultancy Cambridge Food Science, director Roberta Re points to the UK’s leadership in net zero emissions targets, becoming the first major economy to pass such a target into law in 2019.

To reach net zero, the food and drink sector will require strong leadership and effective action, throughout the sector, in each part of the farm-to-fork supply chain,” she says. “To achieve net zero, manufacturing will require decarbonising heat processes, sourcing 100% renewable electricity and switching to sustainable refrigerants.”

But the largest source of emissions for the sector is in the production of raw ingredients. “The emissions associated with individual ingredients vary widely, but those with the highest emissions tend to be animal products,” says Roberta. “Once again, the industry is looking at reformulation options in the plant-based space.”

In a few years’ time, the current relatively clear delineation between ‘mainstream’ and ‘alternative’ F&B may not longer be quite so distinct. l

News in Brief

  1. Mighty Drinks, maker of a pea and oat alternative to cow’s milk, attracted £8m of funding at the end of last year, and has launched its M.LKOLOGY range in Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Morrisons.
  2. Gluten-free and dairy-free meat/meat-free brand Heck is adding carbon labelling to products this year: 1.2kg CO2 for 340g of chipolatas, and 0.24kg for 228g of vegan burgers, for example.
  3. Plant-based brand Cauldron, owned by Marlow Foods, labels its foods as carbon neutral and vegan, has transferred to 100% renewable energy for all its factories and says that 97% of its packaging is currently recyclable.
  4. Oxford University spinoff Ivy Farm Technologies aims to have lab-grown meat sausages available during 2023, with a carbon footprint 92% lower than traditional meat.
  5. Nim’s Fruit Crisps has landed its largest restaurant deal to date suppling a 140-strong estate of venues across the UK and Ireland. The UK’s only air-dried fruit and vegetable manufacturer, which received a Queen’s Award for Innovation in 2020, recently posted an 85% increase in sales after launching a new ingredients range and expanding its list of infusions and edible teas. After such a tough year, it’s great to have finished it with record sales and a 25-strong workforce that have gone above and beyond. We can’t stand still, however. Instead, we’ve already identified the next big phase of investment with a second drying and packing line about to be commissioned in the third quarter of 2022. This will more than double our capacity and give us the platform for the next stage of our growth,” says founder and CEO, Nimisha Raja. 
  6. Work is starting in 2022 on vertical farming specialist GrowUp Farms’ new site near Sandwich, Kent. The business earlier saw £100m of new funding from California-based Generate Capital. Fava bean, pea and potato Pop Squares claim to be high in protein and fibre, low in saturated fat and contain less than two grams of fat per serving.

“Consumers are becoming more aware of the issues around dairy and the meat industry”

“Now the UK can manage its own food policy outside the EU”

Below: Fava bean, pea and potato Pop Squares claim to be high in protein and fibre, low in saturated fat and contain less than two grams of fat per serving. Credit: Pri’s Puddings