What key topics will drive plant-based evolution in the year ahead? The Food Institute (FI) spoke with several industry analysts and thought leaders to outline major trends to watch in 2024 — and beyond.
Food System Transformation
Elysabeth Alfano, CEO of VegTech Invest, believes that plant-based foods and beverages will experience broader acceptance from governments, private capital, and industry leaders this year.
“As the only sector that can reach Net Zero by 2030 (according to Mahesh Roy of IIGCC investor network), food systems transformation through diversified proteins becomes a priority for companies trying to meet sustainability goals,” Alfano told FI. This acceptance is “an inevitability to address business and natural inefficiencies, food insecurity, climate change, and financial risk currently borne by governments, companies, and consumers.”
Drilling a bit deeper into trend specifics, Robyn Carter, Founder & CEO of Jump Rope Innovation, sees regenerative agriculture as a major area to watch.
“We are sure to see more products and brands with claims and storytelling around that,” said Carter, adding that traceability will also be a bigger priority along with “more transparency around the climate implications of making a plant-based choice.”
Institutional Foodservice Expansion
Growth opportunities outside of the restaurant space are key foodservice trends to watch, according to Jennifer Bartashus, Senior Analyst of Retail Staples & Packaged Food at Bloomberg Intelligence.
“Plant-based products are showing some resiliency with other foodservice outlets like schools, corporate campuses (cafeterias), and healthcare facilities,” Bartashus told FI. “The products offer nutritional benefits and are more neutral in environments where you have people with a broad range of eating preferences.”
This expansion also creates more runway for institutions to lean into food system transformation.
“Even smaller initiatives, such as shifting cafeterias to be two-thirds plant-based (as was the case at COP28), allows companies to say they are on the way to meeting goals without large spending to do so,” said Alfano.
New Horizons for Product Innovation
Bloomberg Intelligence is also watching for new offerings that happen to be plant-based but are not developed to merely replicate existing products.
“This can help the industry grow in a different way, appeal to consumers based on the product attributes, and provide more pricing flexibility because it isn’t being compared to a ‘conventional’ product,” said Bartashus.
Along with a continued focus on ingredients that are closer to actual plants, Carter believes technology will continue to improve the taste of plant-based analogs.
“AI is bringing new innovation here — making it easier for us to get closer and closer to plant-based alternatives that taste just like conventional products,” said Carter. “It will be interesting to see what this brings and how these innovations land with consumers.”
Fermentation and Cultivation
Chris DuBois, Executive Vice President and Protein Practice Leader at Circana, believes that 2024 will be a telling year for fermented meat — analogs that are created by blending plant-based proteins such as soy and peas with microbes like fungi in a controlled environment.
“Several brands were launched in 2023 and I think 2024 is the proving year to see if this plant-based meat technology can win consumers,” DuBois told FI. “There are a lot of big dollars supporting some of these brands, but this is a pivotal year to succeed and prove out the value proposition to consumers.”
DuBois is also tracking the potential of cultivated meat over the long-term.
“I think we’re still 10 years too early on consumer adoption and last year’s headlines are leaving enough space for the category to find its sweet spot. There’s a lot of good potential here, but costs are a long way from where they need to be, and we haven’t proven the product/market fit yet,” he concluded. “But it’s going to be exciting to watch this over the next decade.”