Unilever-Enough partnership to expand plant-based meat innovation with Abunda mycoprotein
27 May 2021 --- Unilever is partnering with food-tech company Enough (formerly 3F BIO) to bolster its plant-based strategy by tapping into technology that uses a zero-waste fermentation process to grow a high-quality protein.
Natural fungi are fed with renewable feedstock, such as wheat and corn, to produce Abunda mycoprotein, a complete food ingredient containing all essential amino acids and high in dietary fiber.
Pegged as a “game-changing” protein, Abunda is a natural fit for Unilever’s fast-growing meat-alternative brand, The Vegetarian Butcher, which saw a 70 percent growth last year, uses a diverse blend of plant-based proteins to create meat-like tastes and textures for its wide-ranging portfolio.
Speaking with FoodIngredientsFirst, Carla Hilhorst, EVP of R&D, Foods and Refreshment, Unilever, explains the key consumer trends and market dynamics driving the company’s continued plant-based push and how this latest partnership with Enough is a significant part of this strategy.
“As one of the world’s largest food companies, we have a critical role to play in helping to transform the global food system. It’s not up to us to decide for people what they want to eat, but it is up to us to make healthier and plant-based options accessible to all,” says Hilhorst.
“We chose Abunda because it has a clean, neutral taste, is highly nutritious (high in protein, fiber and zinc, low in fat and free of cholesterol), and is produced using a highly efficient, zero-waste process.”
Initially, Abunda will be applied to Unilever’s existing meat products under The Vegetarian Butcher brand, but Hilhorst explains the potential to use the technology to innovate new products.
“The Vegetarian Butcher has always explored different proteins as one of the pioneers in the plant-based meat space. There is beauty in blending proteins, and ultimately you need to use the combined properties of many ingredients to create the complex taste and textures our Vegetarian Butcher products are famous for. Abunda will play an important role in the texture of the brand's future products.”
“We also see potential in other areas where sustainable protein is important, such as non-dairy ice cream or healthy snacking,” Hilhorst reveals.
Alt-meat in fast food
Earlier this year, Unilever’s plant-based brand also expanded its partnership with fast food giant Burger King to launch the Plant-Based Whopper in Latin America, the Caribbean and China. It also produces Plant-Based Nuggets and the Vegan Royale.
The Vegetarian Butcher – which Unilever acquired in 2018 – has a growing portfolio of products targeting meat lovers and flexitarians, vegetarians and vegans alike. It also recently launched a vegan Raw Burger, delivering a beef burger’s taste and juicy tenderness cooked rare.
Plant-based innovations are part of Unilever’s strategic focus to develop its portfolio into high-growth spaces and contribute toward its annual global sales target of €1 billion (US$1.2 billion) from plant-based meat and dairy alternatives by 2025 to 2027.
The aim is to roll out The Vegetarian Butcher brand and ramp up vegan alternatives from brands including Hellmann’s, Magnum and Wall’s.
The target forms part of Unilever’s “Future Foods” ambition, launched globally with two key objectives: to help people transition toward healthier diets and to help reduce the environmental impact of the global food chain.
“As part of this ambition, we set ourselves an annual global sales target of €1 billion [US$1.2 billion] from plant-based meat and dairy alternatives by 2025 to 2027. Plant-based innovations such as the use of Abunda will directly contribute to this mission by providing a more environmentally sustainable alternative to animal-derived proteins in the form of delicious, nutritious meat-free products,” Hilhorst continues.
“It is widely recognized that the current global food system is inequitable and inefficient. One billion people around the world are hungry, while two billion are obese or overweight. One-third of all food produced is thrown away. And animal agriculture is the second-largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions after fossil fuels and a leading cause of deforestation, water and air pollution and biodiversity loss.”
When Unilever launched “Future Foods,” it said that €1 billion (US$1.2 billion) annual sales from plant-based meat and dairy alternatives would be a fivefold sales growth.
“It is early days yet, but we are making good progress toward delivering and seeing positive consumer responses,” Hilhorst adds.
“In addition to novel plant protein sources, we are exploring a range of other sustainable proteins, including mycoproteins from other fungal species and proteins from other microorganisms such as microalgae.”
The global meat-free sector is experiencing explosive growth as consumers worldwide become more conscious of the impact of animal products on their health and the planet. Animal welfare, the environmental footprint of food, nutrition, and the search for alternative proteins are all significant points driving NPD in alt-meat and dairy.
Estimates forecast the global meat-free sector will hit US$290 billion in 2051.
The alternative protein segment has developed enormously from the disruptor status highlighted by Innova Market Insights in its Top Trends for 2017 into 2020’s “Plant-Based Revolution” and this year‘ ’s Plant-Forward trend.
The accelerated demand for new plant-based formats and more sophisticated alternatives is forecasted for upcoming successful launches.
“Producing vast quantities of healthy and sustainable protein is one of the most urgent global priorities. There’s a rapid transition in the food industry, and we are excited with this collaboration with Unilever and The Vegetarian Butcher, which truly supports our aim to create impact and scale,” says Andrew Beasley, commercial director of Enough.
In 2019, Unilever also made an €85 million (US$103 million) investment in “The Hive,” a foods innovation center at Wageningen University in the Netherlands to support research into plant-based ingredients and meat alternatives, efficient crops, sustainable food packaging and nutritious food.
Unilever has also partnered with biotech company Algenuity to explore the use of microalgae, another highly nutritious and sustainable protein powerhouse, into a wealth of products such as mayonnaise, soups, sauces and meat alternatives.
By Gaynor Selby
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