Plant-based alternatives are booming

In social media, the hashtags jump out at you: #meatfree, #vegetarian, and #govegan are some of the most popular searches on Instagram, Twitter and Co. If you are interested in healthy and sustainable food and are involved in the relevant interest groups, a brief look at online networks will show you that meat alternatives made from vegetables are on-trend.


Influencers like “plantbasedben” or Tabitha Brown “iamtabithabrown” have well over 100,000 followers on Instagram. Tabitha Brown’s video in which she eats the vegan version of a bacon, lettuce, tomato, and avocado sandwich with tempeh (a protein-rich soy food) went viral in 2018. It has been viewed 3.6 million times on Facebook. Tabitha’s response to her first vegan sandwich is illustrative of the change currently sweeping through the consumer landscape: “I take a look around and things look different. My life has changed right before my eyes.” Start-ups offering alternatives to animal proteins are booming. Following the example of the American pioneers Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, they are experimenting with the food of the future.

The Chilean start-up, The Not Company, for example, is concentrating on vegan equivalents of egg and dairy products. Their most famous product, NotMayo, soon made it across the continent’s border. Oatly, the Swedish oat milk producer, has managed to more than quadruple net sales from 20 million in 2012 to 88.5 million in 2018 and is currently struggling with delivery problems due to the high demand. 

We see ourselves as the clear market leader in wet textrudates. we are the only ones who can provide the entire process chain.

Christoph Naef, Head of Human Nutrition at Bühler

Sales figures soar

It’s no good trying to play it down – vegetable protein substitutes have made it onto the shelves of the big retailers around the world. “A lot of people are trying to live more sustainably. They are rethinking their lifestyle,” explains Christoph Naef, Head of Human Nutrition at Bühler. And that includes lowering their meat consumption. Innova Market Insights named “The Plant Kingdom” as the second biggest trend of the year in 2019. In the United States, the plant-based milk and meat substitute market increased by 20 percent to USD 3.3 billion in 2018, according to the Nielsen market research institute. However, this does not mean that the number of vegetarians and vegans has increased rapidly. According to a study by the NPD Group, 90 percent of people who eat plant-based protein substitutes eat meat as well. This new, growing consumer group calls themselves “flexitarians”. Flexitarians eat meat, but just occasionally, and they try to support more sustainable food production through their eating habits.

However, the sales figures should still be treated with caution, says Christoph Naef. “Data is often collected only on a regional basis and therefore relates only to this specific market. However, we assume that in the next 5 to 10 years, around 10 to 25 percent of the meat market will be replaced by alternative and sustainable products.” 


With its extrusion technology, Bühler has the lead in wet extrusion. With its extrusion technology, Bühler has the lead in wet extrusion. With its extrusion technology, Bühler has the lead in wet extrusion.


The change in the consumer landscape is also being felt by Hiltl, a vegetarian restaurant chain and family business from Zurich, Switzerland, that has made a name for itself worldwide as the oldest vegetarian restaurant. “We are no longer just talking about a trend – it’s a movement,” explains Milo Stegmann, Hiltl’s Operational Marketing Manager. “For some years now, we have had the clear impression that people are becoming more conscious of their diet and are therefore giving up meat more often.” And it is precisely because consumers do this for ethical and ecological reasons, not because they don’t like meat, that Hiltl’s vegetable meat substitutes are so popular. 

“Our customers don’t have to give up their tartar, cordon bleu, or meatloaf,” says Stegmann. “We offer a plant-based alternative that tastes great.” In response to growing demand, Hiltl opened the first vegetarian “butcher shop” in Zurich six years ago. “We always try to add new, innovative products to the Vegimetzg (veggie butcher) range.” 

Hiltl’s bestsellers are tatar, cordon bleu, their vegan burger, and the shredded “plant-chicken” from the Swiss start-up, Planted. As a technology supplier, Bühler has a hand in most of these innovative products. For example, the vegetable chicken supplied by Planted is made with Bühler extruder technology.


Plant-based meat substitudes are very popular. A chef from Hiltl prepares a curry made with planted.chicken. Plant-based meat substitudes are very popular. A chef from Hiltl prepares a curry made with planted.chicken. Plant-based meat substitudes are very popular. A chef from Hiltl prepares a curry made with planted.chicken.

At the forefront of development

The current consumer movement is the breakthrough that Bühler has long awaited. “Dry extrudates from plant proteins have been around for about 40 years. Originally, they were produced primarily for so-called meat extenders. Sausages or dumplings containing more soy than meat are now available in many countries,” says Naef. The turning point came with wet extrudates. Here again, Bühler is at the forefront of development. “We have been working intensively on the development of wet extrudates for about 10 years,” he says. “This has enabled us to position ourselves as a technology leader from the start when the market was ready for vegetable meat substitutes.” Stegmann at Hiltl agrees that a decisive step has been made in terms of technology in recent years. “Vegetable alternatives to meat have improved considerably thanks to the refined technologies, and, above all, to the new and predominantly natural ingredients that are more readily available.”


Vegetable alternatives to meat have improved considerably thanks to the refined technologies, and, above all, to new and natural ingredients.

Milo Stegmann, Operational Marketing Manager at Hiltl, Zurich

Unbeatable expertise and efficiency

Customer inquiries have been arriving in quick succession for about two years at Bühler because it provides the benefit of differentiated process expertise and a high level of system efficiency. “We see ourselves as the clear market leader in wet extrudates. After all, we are the only ones who can provide the entire process chain in this field, from bean to burger. With our expertise when it comes to knowledge and handling of raw materials, raw material processing and protein texturing in the extruder, we can offer our customers unique added value for their businesses,” says Naef. Bühler and its customers benefit from the fact that the range of source materials is more diverse today than they were 10 years ago. High-protein meat substitutes can be produced from peas, beans, lentils, and even from press cakes the solids remaining from pressing oilseeds to make vegetable oil.

Bühler has acquired decades of know-how in all these processing operations and has its finger on the pulse of innovative developments with newcomer ingredients, such as single-cell organisms including microalgae, yeasts, and fungal cells. “We are in the experimental phase here. Raw materials are not yet available in such large quantities and not yet at marketable prices. But we expect a breakthrough in three to five years at the latest,” explains Naef.


Not just a local phenomenon

According to Naef, the US is now far from being the only booming market when it comes to plantbased proteins. “We are seeing big momentum in Europe and Asia. Even in countries you might not think of at first, such as Italy, France, Malaysia, Indonesia, and China.” Growth is also expedited by economic and health factors spurred by the concerns around the spread of zoonotic disease, such as swine flu and coronavirus.

“You can see very clearly that the change makes a great deal of sense, not least from the ecological perspective. If you look at the CO2 emissions required to produce the same amount of protein from meat or from plants, it is immediately clear which solution is more sustainable. Moreover, we will be dependent on plant proteins if we are to continue feeding humanity on a sustainable basis in the future.”

Intensive research and development efforts in recent years have paid off. Due to the increasing media presence of successful brands, continuing interest of customers, and rising sales figures, more and more food producers are taking an interest in the technology. In addition to the start-ups that have already made rapid headway with exciting products, many of which are working with Bühler, more and more traditional businesses are also becoming keen on these products. “We are seeing a large number of inquiries from long-standing Bühler customers who see an opportunity to differentiate themselves with such products – for example from the flour milling industry,” explains Naef.

A novelty in Bühler’s history with these types of products is the interest that is now being shown by meat processing companies, many of which are discovering the vegetarian and vegan markets. “This is a completely new customer group for us. But it is actually a logical step for these companies,” says Naef. “Although meat producers have so far had no raw material handling operations or extrusion solutions, most of them have the rest of the production chain. They have the further processing, the cold chain, and the packaging operations.” 

Many meat producers regard products made of vegetable proteins as a supplement to their product range. The German company Rügenwalder, for example, known for its sausage products, has set itself the goal of offering 40 percent meat-free products in its range by the end of 2020. And more and more of these products are to be vegan.

Driving product development forward

In addition to its technological know-how, Bühler is globally connected in the food industry; it operates in over 140 countries and has application centers on several continents where customers can test new ideas and develop products within a short time. We are the only company in the industry that has an application center where we can map the entire processing chain. It is located in Minneapolis in the US. Customers can test processes from cleaning and sorting the bean to the finished extruded product. Bühler operates additional application centers in Switzerland and China; and in Singapore, the company will open a test center for plant proteins together with Givaudan, the global market leader in fragrances and flavors (see box). 

For Christoph Naef, it is clear that the trend is not short-term hype, but an important step towards more sustainable food production: “We will need this capacity in the future to feed people with sustainable proteins. That is why I am convinced that this market will continue to grow steadily.”


Innovation Center for plant-based food in Singapore

The leading supplier in the field of food technology and the global leader in fragrances and flavours are bringing their global partnership to South East Asia. Together, Bühler and Givaudan are building an innovation center for plant-based foods in Singapore. The new facility at the Givaudan Woodlands site will be operated jointly by both companies. It includes a Bühler pilot plant with extrusion and process technology as well as a Givaudan cuisine and flavor laboratory.

The innovation center is available to food processing companies, start-ups, and university researchers who want to develop novel plant-based foods. 

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