Oh, how the tide has turned. It wasn’t too long ago that we were talking about how Unilever, the parent company of Hellmann’s, tried to sue plant-based start-up Hampton Creek over the legal definition of “mayonnaise,” in light of the growing success of their premier product, Just Mayo. If you don’t recall the outcome, it ended with Unilever quickly dropping the lawsuit. Not long after that, Hellmann’s released their own version of vegan mayonnaise. Not only that, Unilever also owns Ben & Jerry’s, which just recently expanded its line of vegan ice cream. And the news just keeps getting better, because Unilever has just invested in Plant Meat Matters, a food development project spearheaded by researchers at Wageningen University in the Netherlands.
While Plant Meat Matters started small as a collaboration between Wageningen University and Dutch food manufacturer, The Vegetarian Butcher, it has since gained the support of eight large companies, Unilever included. The project will be following in the footsteps of companies like Impossible Foods, the makers of “the burger that bleeds,” by attempting to create plant-based steak that is identical to meat. By using what is called, “shear-cell technology,” researchers hope to develop a product that mimics the taste and texture of steak. Not only does the Plant Meat Matters project hope to make their plant-based steak available to chefs and restaurateurs across the globe, they also want it to be available to home cooks by 2019.
It’s no surprise that a corporate giant such as Unilever would want to be a part of this project. The plant-based food sector has topped $5 billion in annual sales, according to SPINS, the leading retail sales data company for the natural and specialty products industry. The plant-based meat sector, in particular, reached $606 million in sales in 2016, with refrigerated meat alternatives experiencing a growth of 15.9 percent. Plant-based protein is bigger than ever and companies are taking notice. Recently, the CEO of Tyson Foods, Inc, the world’s largest meat processor, admitted that plant-based protein is the future. Their five percent ownership in Beyond Meat, as well as their $150 million venture capital fund dedicated to developing “breakthrough technology” in the plant-based food space, is only a further testament to their dedication.
Plant Meat Matters will be publishing most of their research as they make breakthroughs in food technology. According to Professor Atze Jan Van der Goot, professor of protein structuring and sustainability at Wageningen University and leader of the research team, this is to “give companies a head start compared to [those] that do not participate in the consortium … we aim for the technology to be used in route to contribute to a more sustainable diet worldwide.” Given the broad and varied health (personal and public) and environmental concerns associated with animal agriculture, this technology has the potential to foster the roots of a truly sustainable food system. And we have to commend their selflessness in ushering in the future of food!
Image source: The Vegetarian Butcher/Facebook