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Planet and the Bottom Line: What’s the Future of Sustainability in Food and Beverage?

November 17, 20222 min
Lauren Daniels photo
Lauren Daniels Tastewise

Welcome to Tastewise Talks, a series of conversations between Tastewise CEO Alon Chen and insightful thought leaders in the food and beverage industry.

Tastewise Talks: Sustainability and Your Bottom Line with Taylor Sokol

On October 25th, 2022, Alon Chen, Tastewise CEO, and Taylor Sokol, strategic partnerships at Impossible Foods, sat down for a Tastewise Talk with Miriam Aniel, Head of Content and Research at Tastewise. They spoke about all things sustainability, from its role in the plant-based space, what it means for business bottom lines, the present and future of sustainable and plant based food choices, and more.

Tastewise is the AI platform food brands use to make smarter decisions for a healthy, sustainable, and delicious future. It gives sales, marketing, and insights teams the data they need to make an impact on the market by compiling global data sources, including home cooking analytics, social media, and millions of restaurants and their menu items to bring the freshest ingredients. Tastewise brings a unique perspective on plant-based foods through their own data and analytics.

Impossible Foods makes meat, dairy, and fish from plants. Their mission is to “make the global food system truly sustainable by eliminating the need to make food from animals.” In 2016 they launched their first product, the Impossible Burger Made From Plants. They use heme, the iron-containing molecule found in plants and animals, to make their products taste like meat.

The Status of Plant-Based Food Today

If food were a country, it would be the third largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Nearly half of all food we grow and produce ends up in landfills.

According to Alon Chen, food waste is number one for sustainability.

But it’s not easy to get consumers to buy into new products, even if their choices might have a significant impact on sustainability. It takes an emphasis on incentives and creative marketing to motivate consumers to make choices that are better for the environment.

Plant-based foods are leading the way in this industry, but there’s still progress to be made. Alon and Taylor spoke about how to get a business to be both environmentally sustainable while at the same time making sure it is financially sustainable.

According to our Tastewise Report on Alternative Proteins from 2021, US menus increased their mentions of plant-based meat by +1,320% since pre-pandemic and 9% of US restaurants already serve meat alternatives.

That means that plant-based products are catching on, but there’s still work to be done.

There are hopeful signs in different categories. Plant based alternatives are appearing on the market right now, but the real challenge is getting consumers to take them off the shelves and into the kitchen.

Watch the full conversation here!

Plant Based Foods On The Market Right Now

Plant-based seafood is a trending category to watch according to our report. The category is already worth 220 million US dollars. Why are people interested in plant-based seafood?

The primary consumer motivation is health-oriented, but interest in positive planetary effects is picking up steam.

Seafood isn’t the only plant-based industry showing signs of growth. In dairy, it’s already common to consume plant based products–think oat milk, cashew milk, and coconut milk. The list goes on.

Download the Alternative Proteins report here

The same is not true for plant-based meat, however. There’s still a lot of progress that can be made in that category, and that’s where companies like Impossible Foods come in. It’s not an overnight process. Eighteen percent of the dairy market is made up of plant-based dairy, but it took nearly two decades to get there. Not only that, lactose intolerance played a role in motivating people to switch their consumption habits. So far, there is no equivalent health problem that is so obvious or widespread for meat consumption.

While plant based meats don’t yet carry the same health connotations as plant based dairy, companies promoting plant-based protein need to push harder for education on the hormones and antibiotics and other negative health impacts from eating too much animal based meat.

When discussing why consumers were quicker to adopt plant based dairy into their diets, Taylor mentioned texture. It’s much easier to sell a product when you can much quicker get it to feel like the animal-based product. Plant-based milks are much closer in texture to their animal counterparts than plant-based meats are to their meat counterparts, and that’s slowed down the process for plant-based meat.

But Taylor sees a lot more potential in the plant-based protein arena. Gen Z makes many of their consumption behaviors based on brands and products that have some sort of sustainability initiative. The graph is moving in the right direction, but companies can make decisions to speed up the process.

Consumer Motivation

Alon and Taylor discussed how to increase motivation for buying plant based products. One important topic was the responsibility of the government to encourage sustainable purchasing choices. It shouldn’t only be on the consumer’s shoulders to change their behaviors. The meat industry is heavily subsidized in the United States, so animal-based protein is still less expensive than plant-based protein.

Incentives are a super power. It needs to be led by governments. They need to figure out a way to put significant incentives in front of consumers in order to get them to change their purchase behavior,” Sokol said.

But what can companies looking to sell plant-based products do? Taylor Sokol says it’s all about creating brand ambassadors and building affinity for the brand. He recommends finding individuals to help make your brand famous.

He has experience doing just that. When Impossible Foods released their first product, they partnered with Michelin star influential chefs and beta tested their products with them. That way, a famous chef who built a restaurant empire was saying their products were just as good if not better than animal-based protein. If Sokol were to launch a new product in the plant based industry, he would replicate that strategy.

But he also says that it can be a challenging conversation to have with restaurants. Many restaurants say, “I’m just saying the plant based meat product is vegetarian or vegan,” but Sokol found from the sales data that if a restaurant puts the brand in front, they’ll sell anywhere from 2 to 3 times more of that product. It’s a good decision for both the plant-based food company and the restaurant.

When those interests align, companies can make a lot of progress in marketing their product to a wider audience.

That kind of partnership can have a significant impact on visibility of a plant based product. In our Plant Based Protein Report, we saw that from May to July 2020, there was a +158% increase in menu mentions of vegan meat across the US, largely due to Starbucks’ June 2020 addition of the Impossible Breakfast Sandwich.

“When people walk into a restaurant and see something on the menu, their cost of trying the new product is about the dish. They don’t need to buy the new product, go home, and cook it. This is the way to get people to try things–to reduce the barrier for entry. Menu items have changed. We’ve seen that it used to be beverages and condiments and now menus have a lot of food brands on them,” Alon said, explaining why the restaurant strategy for marketing works–the barrier to entry is lower.

Now that other companies are catching on to partnering with restaurants and chefs, however, it may be oversaturated. Plant-based companies need to be creative coming up with new strategies for getting their product out to the world.

The Power of Health

Despite the increasing popularity of plant based products, sustainability actually was not one of the top customer motivations for purchasing plant based proteins. In general, people do not care enough about sustainability to change their purchase habits. The positioning of the product for the market needs to be more strategic.

Looking at the data, Alon noted, showed that health was five times more important than any other consumer motivation. Our Tastewise consumer motivation reporting shows that consumers were now paying more attention to distinct elements of health, such as immunity, weight loss, and gut health.

But there’s good news. Plant-based alternatives are often perceived to be healthier than anything else from animal based products.

Balancing Planetary Health with Product?

“First you have to start with health and that product has to compete on taste. The number one way to get people to eat something is if it tastes really good. There’s a difference between companies that market and create products specifically for vegans and vegetarians, and companies like Impossible Foods that are mission based and need to be more universally appealing. 90% of the consumers that try Impossible foods are meat eaters, flexitarian, or reductiotarian.” said Sokol.

The conclusion: Focus on taste and health. If you do that, the consumers will come.

The Future of Sustainability

According to Alon, AI is changing the way people eat and drink. It compels people to get on the same trend. From sourdough during the pandemic to feta cheese recipes on social media, it’s changing the way we consume.

From the food production angle, AI might also change the landscape. Today we’re dealing with questions about taking different cells of different proteins, blending them together and creating something new. AI is part of designing those solutions. What he’s also seen is that consumers need to be part of solutions as well.

Understanding consumer behavior is at the center of every business decision. You can’t ask what people think because they don’t know what to tell you, but if you look at real behavior, you can find out what a product means to them.

Data is our best sense.

Want to learn more about the intersection of food and beverage, consumer behavior, and sustainability? Read more here.

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