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    With 100+ scientific presentations and hundreds of technical research papers available on demand, FIRST attendees have a plethora of scientific insights on a vast array of topics at their disposal on the FIRST platform. As is the case each year, many of the scientific sessions addressed the issues top of mind for industry professionals today. This year, those themes included the plant-based protein trend; sustainability from all aspects—genomics through packaging; consumers’ demand for functional foods; and the ongoing debate surrounding processed food perceptions. What follows are highlights from FIRST sessions in a couple of these hot topic areas.

    The Potential of Meat Alternatives

    When it comes to choosing an alternative meat product, consumers today have many more options in the grocery store than they did a decade or two ago. In fact, according to Michelle Lefebvre, visiting clinical instructor at Purdue University Northwest, more than 6,500 plant-based meat products have launched globally since 2015. And sales are following suit with 72% sales growth in plant-based meat in just the past two years. However, Michelle Adelman, managing director at Accite Holdings, cautions that despite the impressive sales growth, plant-based meat has a household penetration of just 18% and only makes up 1.4% of all meat sales. To understand if plant-based meat is here to stay, Adelman advises “following the money.” She says almost $2 billion was invested in alternative meat products in 2019 and nearly $24 billion has been invested since 1980.

    “I think it’s really important that we look at the category as a whole and the plant-based food movement as a whole to try to understand: are consumers actually adopting plant-based meat,” said Adelman in her presentation during the FIRST session “Blended Meat and Meat Analogues: Is the Market Ready?”


    Redefine Meat launched its first ever series of New-Meat products in Israel. The plant-based range includes a premium 6-oz hamburger. Photo courtesy of Redefine Meat


    Redefine Meat launched its first ever series of New-Meat products in Israel. The plant-based range includes a premium 6-oz hamburger. Photo courtesy of Redefine Meat

    Given that there’s a nearly 57% household penetration for plant-based food overall, the future for plant-based meat looks promising. In addition, the consumers most interested in meat analogue products skew younger, said Lefebvre. Gen Z consumers are most likely to buy these products, followed by millennials and Gen X. And the drivers for purchase are animal welfare, health, and environmental concerns. “Most consumers want to see that the products have clear ‘better for you’ or ‘better for the planet’ characteristics,” said Lefebvre.

    The concerns for health and planetary well-being are also driving the increase in Americans who consider themselves flexitarians, explained Kristie Leigh, senior manager, scientific affairs at Danone North America, during the session “The Global Demand for Protein and the Rise of Flexitarians.” In fact, more than a third (36%) of American adults consider themselves to be flexitarians. Leigh emphasized that the focus for flexitarian consumers is on limitation—not elimination.

    “The flexitarian eating pattern encourages variety rather than restriction and has no specific rules or consensus for how often someone following a flexitarian eating pattern should consume plant or animal products,” Leigh said.

    The common denominator for most consumers is the desire to make sure whatever dietary pattern they follow contains plenty of protein. According to Amanda Torgerson, research manager at Datassential, 82% of consumers feel protein is extremely or very important to maintaining a healthy, balanced, and nutritious diet.

    As fellow session speaker Keenan McRoberts, vice president of science and program strategy at the United Soybean Board, elucidated, by 2050, the global demand for protein will increase between 30% and 50% from today’s global protein consumption. “All sources of protein will need to be at the table to pull this off,” he said.

    Shifting Definitions of Health

    Consumer behavior changed in many ways during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of these behavior shifts are starting to move back to pre-pandemic norms, but some, according to Ali Webster, director of research and nutrition communications at the International Food Information Council (IFIC), will have staying power beyond the pandemic. “There’s been consistently a considerable number of people who are looking at a deeper level at the healthfulness of their own diets,” said Webster during her session at FIRST, “Consumer Behavior During COVID: Immediate and Lasting Effects in Grocery and Foodservice Trends.”

    In a survey IFIC conducted in December 2020, nearly one in three (32%) of consumers said their eating habits had become healthier over the past year. Additionally, 18% of people reported seeking out foods to strengthen their immune system, and 16% said they were looking for foods designed to promote health benefits.

    One category that has grabbed consumers’ interest in recent years is fermented foods and beverages. “If you take a look at the fermented food and beverage products out there, kombucha is the 800-pound gorilla in terms of discussion volume,” said Kirsten Recknagel, CEO of LRWMotiveQuest during the session “Taste and Health: Key Consumer Drivers Behind the Growth of Plant-Based Fermented Beverages.”


    This summer, Australian brand Remedy launched its kombucha live-cultured beverages in the United States. The lineup has four flavors: Ginger Lemon, Peach, Mixed Berry, and Raspberry Lemonade. Photo courtesy of Remedy


    This summer, Australian brand Remedy launched its kombucha live-cultured beverages in the United States. The lineup has four flavors: Ginger Lemon, Peach, Mixed Berry, and Raspberry Lemonade. Photo courtesy of Remedy

    “Consumers are speaking in terms of this category—fermented plant-based beverages—as being a highly functional food product or category,” Recknagel continued. “Most of these conversations actually reference a benefit that consumers want to have or perceive themselves to experience from plant-based fermented beverages.”

    According to Recknagel’s research, consumers are hungry for more information about fermented foods and beverages and the impact they have on health. “They want to believe, but they want more evidence to help them believe confidently,” explained Recknagel. This points to consumers’ desire to know and understand the healthfulness of food and beverages, including the listed ingredients.

    Ingredients on a kombucha label might easily be regarded as healthy ingredients given the health halo surrounding the product type, but what about other foods? Figuring out which ingredients are more healthful and natural sounding can get a little tricky, explained Mark Cornthwaite, industry marketing manager for meal solutions at IFF.

    During his session, “The Food ‘X’ Factor: How Ingredient Perceptions Allied to Consumer Sentiment Drive Product Development and R&D,” Cornthwaite delved into consumer preference data from 2017 and 2019 studies. Other than high-fructose corn syrup, which is widely regarded by consumers as artificial and unhealthy, most ingredients will provoke a wide range of reactions. For example, in Cornthwaite’s 2017 study, 60% of consumers perceived soy protein as “natural,” whereas 14% perceived it as “artificial,” and 26% were unsure.

    “Something that has a very simple name like a probiotic or soy protein instills confidence,” explained Cornthwaite. “Once we start to add something to it like a concentrate or texturant, or some word that suggests processing, we begin to lose some certainty and trust in it.”

    The top three reasons consumers seeking “healthy” food and beverage options decide to switch brands relate to their desire for ingredients that are more recognizable, more natural, and less artificial. The bottom line: Pay close attention to who your customers are and how they perceive ingredients.

    Read more detailed coverage about these sessions and other hot topic sessions by visiting FIRST attendees can access the complete on-demand library of insights from scientific sessions, panel discussions, and keynote presentations by visiting through Dec. 31, 2021.