Flexitarian diet promises more than mock meat

9 October 2018

by Dr Jocelyn Eason

New Zealand consumers are demanding greater food diversity and more choices these days.

The "flexitarian" diet – a mostly but not strictly plant-based diet that emerged about a decade ago – is about a consumer's flexibility to match their food to their lifestyle. Embedding flexitarian diets in our culture by incorporating more plant-based foods and plant sourced proteins into what we eat paves the way for more resilient future generations.

It is something we can learn from the Chinese, as their traditional diet emphasises a good balance between "huncai" (dishes with animal elements) and "sucai" (plant dishes), rather than a complete substitute of one for the other.

Plant protein will be a dinner table staple in the future as consumers become more health and sustainability conscious. The question is: Will this protein be processed to look and taste like meat? Dr Roger Harker, a consumer and product insights expert at Plant & Food Research, believes that future consumers will adopt plant protein but in an authentic way that allows it to be recognised as plant protein rather than mock meat.

These flexitarian consumers will go for real meat when they want meat.

The perception of a food's footprint plays a role in influencing many consumers' purchasing decisions. They are questioning the sustainability limit for animal foods (carbon emissions, water and nitrogen footprints, nutrient leaching and animal welfare) and considering the social impact of food production.

The high fibre, low cholesterol and low saturated fat attributes that are associated with many plant-based high protein foods also appeal to consumers.

New Zealand has both the science capacity and expertise to be globally competitive in future plant-based food market by optimising plant genetics, developing future growing systems and capturing an eco-premium for new food products.

However, we need to move from a "synthetic, substitute, alternative" plant protein mind set to one that delivers value through provision of a "nutritious, diverse plant food menu".

We should build our future agrifoods beyond meat and milk substitution, which strips the flavour and nutrients from valuable raw materials streams, to something more innovative that excites consumers' taste buds and delivers nutrition beyond energy and protein.

Think about all those phytochemicals, vitamins and minerals that are good for our health. There is an opportunity for nutritional science to innovate and create plant protein-based foods in a way that provides better overall nutrition.

For future agrifoods to meet the evolving needs of our future consumers, these plant-based foods will need to provide greater diversity of texture, taste and flavour.

There is potential for food innovations to add value to our future foods. For instance:

  • Developing new processes to isolate the plant proteins while maximising the nutritional value of these ingredient streams.
  • Developing whole new ingredient streams from plants and incorporating those into the new foods. 
  • Applying novel chemistry to form new food protein structures.
  • Evaluating the sensory quality of these new food structures to ensure they deliver acceptable taste and texture to our consumers.

New Zealand's opportunity is in manufacturing more diverse plant-based foods, including high value plant-protein foods that can command a premium in the marketplace, and sourcing the ingredient streams from our own diversified primary production systems without wrecking our environment on the way.

*Originally published on Stuff.co.nz

Nickkita Lau
Senior Communications Advisor, Corporate Communications,
Plant & Food Research Mt Albert,
120 Mt Albert Road, Sandringham
Auckland, 1025, New Zealand
EMail: media@plantandfood.co.nz
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