Monday, March 4, 2024

Plant-based foods get a drubbing from researchers

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Financially and nutritionally less than sound, say pair of studies.
A researcher pulled the financial statements of 100 plant-based meat brands in NZ and other countries and concluded that ‘not one was showing any sign of making a profit, even after five or more years in business’.
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This article was one of Farmers Weekly’s most read in 2022

Plant-based beverages cost a lot but don’t pack the nutritional punch of cow’s milk, a new study has found.

And in more bad news for the alternative protein sector, another study out last week says plant-based meat brands are making basic strategy mistakes leading to companies failing.

The milk study, published in the Frontiers in Nutrition journal last month, assessed the nutritional profiles of a range of plant-based beverages, such as soy, oat, coconut, almond and rice drinks, and compared them to standard bovine milk.  

Researchers collected 103 plant-based products from supermarkets in Palmerston North, New Zealand. 

The drinks were found to have much lower quantities of the 20 nutrients measured, such as calcium and protein, and were significantly more costly than cow’s milk.  

The study was carried out by Riddet Institute scientists from Massey University in Palmerston North. 

One of the study’s authors, Riddet Institute Professor of Nutritional Sciences Warren McNabb, said plant-based beverages are often marketed as alternatives to ruminant milks such as cow’s milk, and consumers may easily believe they are nutritionally interchangeable. 

He said the new research demonstrated they are not the same and in fact it is “nutritionally risky” for consumers with high nutrient demands – like pregnant women and young children – to replace cow’s milk with plant-based products. 

“Milk as a food supplies 49% of the world’s calcium,” McNabb said. 

“It’s one of the most important things about milk.”

The protein content of cow’s milk is in the range of 3.3g-3.9g per 100g, and McNabb said only soy drink has a comparable content, with all other plant-based beverages containing less than 1.1g protein per 100 ml on average. 

Most plant products are ultra-processed and fortified with calcium and minerals, with additives like sugar, fats, hydrogenated oils, hydrolysed proteins, flavours and thickeners. 

Oat and almond beverages contain as little as the equivalent of half a cup of oats or six almonds in 250g of product.

McNabb said the argument for the alternatives being more environmentally sustainable also does not stack up when considered in the light of how much product would need to be consumed to achieve the same nutritional benefits as conventional milk.

With some plant-based beverages you would need to have 18 servings to get the same amount of protein, for example, as a single serving of milk. This comes at a much higher cost to the environment – and the wallet. 

But McNabb said plant-based beverages do supply some nutrients that milk does not, such as fibre.

“Our final conclusion was the plant-based beverages and bovine milk were not nutritionally similar in any way. They are completely different foods. If you want to use alternatives, do so, but do not consume them with the belief that they are nutritionally similar substitutes for cow’s milk.”

In the meantime, Julian Mellentin, author of a new report, “Failures – and what you can learn from them”, published by New Nutrition Business,  said there are about 10 common causes of failure in the business of nutrition and health and “many plant meat makers have made most of them”.

He researched the financials of a sample of 100 plant-based meat brands in Europe, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

“Not one was showing any sign of making a profit, even after five or more years in business,” Mellentin said. 

“And those with the fastest-growing sales also had the fastest-growing losses.”

He said they all shared several of the most common strategy mistakes.

These included forgetting that taste and texture matter most, jumping straight to mass production and over-estimating the size of the opportunity.

“Many brands thought they would get straight-line growth. This came from the belief – and it was belief, not evidence-based – that ever more people would become meat reducers. The reality is not simple,” Mellentin said. 

In fact, research shows that growth in the numbers of meat reducers has slowed dramatically. 

The lessons from the plant-based meat segment can be applied to any category. 

“We have just been through a decade in which hundreds of brands have come to market – often based on badly thought-out business models, and often made possible by the exuberance of investors who fell for the ‘build sales and profits will follow’ way of thinking imported from Silicon Valley,” Mellentin said. 

“As economic challenges bite deeper over the next three to five years, the willingness to understand and learn from failures will become a super-power for food industry executives.”

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