By Douglas Woodruff, Vice President, NPD & Technology at JBT Diversified Food & Health
In recent years, many consumers have opted for a partial or completely plant-based diet and lifestyle for both the environmental and health benefits. In fact, plant-based diets have increased 300% among Americans in the last 15 years, and plant-based retail sales had an overall growth rate of 27% from 2019 to 2020. Plant-based alternatives ultimately require less energy, less water, and less land to manufacture, reducing overall carbon footprints. Consumers have realized these benefits and adopted plant-based alternatives in waves.
As the growth and demand for plant-based foods continues to rise, the technological solutions must grow and adapt accordingly. Global retail sales of plant-based food alternatives may reach $162 billion by 2030—up from $29.4 billion in 2020, according to Bloomberg Intelligence Research. If so, the projected plant-based food market would make up 7.7% of the global protein market.
Producers focused on plant-based alternatives have the opportunity to take advantage of this growing market by implementing the following strategies to support their operations and sustainability goals.
Adopt sustainable packaging
Plastic pollution is a growing issue worldwide, and consumers are increasing their calls for sustainable alternatives. More than half of U.S. consumers today are concerned about the environmental impact of packaging. Sustainable packaging alternatives, such as compostable, paper, or paperboard options, are key to reducing packaging waste, which has recently contributed to 30% of total waste in the United States.
Further, 931 million tons of food is wasted globally each year. Sustainable packaging solutions are also key to protecting and preserving products. For plant-based and clean-label foods, in particular, maintaining quality and stability is critical as they are often delicate and more susceptible to spoilage compared to other products.
Even with a large-scale transition, adopting sustainable packaging options does not have to be difficult and the payoffs are significant. Between 60 and 70% of consumers say they would be willing to pay more for brands that implement sustainable packaging alternatives. The benefits are worthwhile in the long run, both economically and environmentally.
Implement traceability technology
Consumers today are incredibly conscious of the ingredients within the products they consume, with an increasing preference for clean options. According to a recent study from BENEO, consumers focus more on product ingredients than the product brands themselves. As consumers continue to educate themselves on clean foods and beverages, producers who do not adapt will fall behind. Implementing traceability technologies can help ensure consumer confidence in the products they choose.
Traceability systems identify possible contamination in products and can help producers avoid the risk of contamination, resulting in less health risks and minimized food waste. Identifying risks as soon as possible in the production process can decrease the possibility of widespread waste for one or multiple product lines.
Traceability is key to ensuring the quality of fresh and perishable foods, which can be easily susceptible to spoilage and contamination. Implementing these systems in a plant-based production line safeguards the products’ quality, increasing yield and improving the experience for the end consumer.
Reduce overall consumption
The food production industry in the U.S. used 10.1 quadrillion BTU of energy in 2018, which accounted for 10% of the nation’s total energy consumption that year. The plant-based food and beverage sector must reduce overall water and energy consumption to achieve more sustainable operations.
Due to the specific nature of plant-based products, their production processes can be lengthier, which results in longer run times for machinery and technology. Producers must invest in technology that makes operations more sustainable, such as energy recovery systems and advanced automation and robotic systems – that can be used in product sealing, aseptic filling, and much more. Not only can this technology reduce the amount of energy and water use, but it also reduces overall labor requirements as well.
Plant-based food and beverage producers must properly research their technology options when selecting their equipment vendors and prioritize sustainability among those. Inadequate systems for their specific facility and plant-based production line will impact the product quality and potentially result in the need to replace technology sooner than expected.
As the plant-based market becomes increasingly competitive, sustainability must be a key consideration. Implementing methods to address sustainability within existing product lines or adapt new technology and solutions as you evolve will ultimately benefit your customers, the planet, and your business’ bottom line.
Douglas Woodruff is a Professional Engineer and has worked as an innovation leader in the food and packaging industries for almost 30 years in both North America and Europe. He currently leads the R&D program within JBT’s Diversified Food & Health Division.