From alternative ingredients, to lab grown seafood and the processing of plant proteins

First given way by vegetarians and vegans, today mostly driven by increasing consumer demand for more sustainable and nutritious products, substifoods (altfoods, analogues) are seeing ever-increasing sales across continents.

While media coverage and supermarket shelves may have altered public perception, the total amount of consumers identifying as vegans and vegetarians is at best around 5% in any western country. In the United States. only 2.5 percent of Americans above age 50 consider themselves vegetarian while 7.5 percent of Gen Y and Z claim to have permanently given up meat.

In Europe, consumers display increased awareness for sustainability and view their diet as a tool to contribute to a better environment. Looking at Germany, where the sales value of meat substitutes increased to 180.3m USD. These sales however, are shared across 2421 new vegan and vegetarian products that launched in the country. Allowing for the assumption that it remains a scattered and dynamic market that is far from having dominant producers.

In the United Kingdom, 600,000 people identified as vegans, which equals 1.16% of the population.

The caveat, the move towards substifoods is less about the people who entirely avoid animal protein, but more about the group of consumers who identify as flexitarians. Theses are consumers who follow a mostly plant-based diet but include occasional animal protein. I would argue that this is how most people have always eaten, but the term has been appropriated by/applied to consumers who like to articulate their consciousness about having a more sustainable diet.

I will cover the four main categories of substifoods / analogues / alternatives, meat, dairy, proteins, and alternative ingredients. Each one of which will see increased product launches, sales volumes, innovation, distribution and will, long term, take consumer diets in a different direction. Some of these are interrelated but approached in different ways by producers, distributors, and consumers.


Substitutes for meat may have been around the longest time, from my earliest recollection of vegetarian chicken filets in the late 90s to today’s engineered plant-based burger patties. Many of the early versions were made of cellulose variants such as methylcellulose, yeast extracts, starch varieties and an industry favorite, Xanthan gum. After about a decade the processing of peas and soy has advanced so much so that it could be used as the base for meat alternatives at scale. Wheat remains an important ingredient in some recipes which leaves the estimated 1% of the global population with gluten intolerance left with fewer choices.

Plant based meat / PBM

There are three generations of alternative proteins two of which are mainly plant-based proteins. The first generation consists of soy based products which contain variants and blends of soy protein, tofu and tempeh. Second generation proteins are becoming increasingly popular and refer to beans, canola, chickpea, rice, seitan (wheat gluten) and TVP (textured vegetable protein) and yeast. Third-generation is only partially plant based with proteins include insects, algae and synthetic sources. In most current products a blend of the aforementioned ingredients is used to achieve a texture and nutritional value similiar to meat.

In the 2010s, especially in North America, a variety of companies such as Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat have commercialized meat alternatives and in doing so become media darlings.

Yet there is more to the substifoods movement in the meat category than these two companies, which fall into the plant-based meat category (although Beyond Meat explicitly differentiates itself from Impossible Foods by not using GMO to make its products).

Beyond Meat has had its line up in grocery stores for some time and even announced that its products will be available at Canadian coffee shop company Tim Horton, as well as being distributed through meal kit delivery company Blue Apron. At the same time Impossible Foods strategy relies more on B2B distribution. It first made its burgers available at independent restaurants and added fast-food franchise Burger King to its customers in 2019.

Interestingly, Restaurant Business Interntional (RBI), is the parent holding company of both, Tim Horton and Burger King.

In Europe, food giant Nestlé has joined the market with its Garden Gourmet Incredible Burger, which went on sale in April and is also available at McDonald’s. Made from mainly from soy and wheat, the product will see a US market launch in fall 2019. Its taste will be customized to meet American consumer requirements. It will be marketed as the Awesome Burger and complement the product line up of Nestlé’s Sweet Earth brand.

Lab Meat / cultured meat / in vitro meat

This approach targets animal best sellers, such as the filet and steak. Cells are cultivated in a lab and produce only the most commercial cuts of an animal that are preferred by most consumers. This approach is vastly more difficult and has so far not produced results on a commercially viable scale. There are several partnerships among different companies and across continents. The most commonly mentioned businesses are Memphis Meats (US) backed by meat giant Tyson. In Europe, Dutch professor Mark Post who, through the backing of Google Sergey Brin, produced the first cultured burger patty and has since then founded Mosa Meats (EU) is also targeting the commercialization of in vitro meat, looking for distribution by 2021 in Europe.

Due to massive venture capital backing in these companies, the preferred result is to become the largest producer in this category, at least by a mile.

Which is why in Japan the lesser-known Shojinmeat project was set up. An open-source approach builds a community approach to developing the technology and making it available for everyone, not just meat companies such as Cargill, Tyson, and JBS who bought shares in startups and venture capitalists who look for market-dominating products.


Although the demand is ever-increasing, seafood has not yet gotten the same treatment that meat has. The only coverage with mainstream coverage who at least on lab-scale has produced results is Finless Foods.

Wild Type Inc wants to bring cultured salmon to market and Blue Nalu, the self proclaimed global leader in cellular aquaculture™ wants to a share of the market too.

As in the meat category, there are plant based competitors. These include Good Catch Foods taking the Beyond Meat approach. The company has already a line of tuna products, crab cakes and slider patties in stores. Followed by New Wave Foods which as brought a plant based shrimp to market.



Alternatives to this liquid are most commonly made from soy, coconut, almond, rice, oat, cashew, hazelnut, hemp, quinoa as well as blends of these ingredients. Milk alternatives are still a tiny category compared to natural cow milk. Observing the UK with £3bn in annual milk sales, compared to estimates of just oat milk sales increasing to more than £30m for for 2019. Leaving cow milk with a market share of 87% among British consumers.

Milk alternatives have long seen increased sales across markets. Yet only the Swedish brand Oatly as managed to gain major public interest with its sleek social media and OOH campaigns, along with a strategy that focused on premium coffee shops stocking it first and having a continuous dialogue with baristas across the United States as part of the sales process. The production process is rather simple and similar to most grain-based milk. After the milling, the oats are blended with naturally occurring enzymes that break the starch into smaller components. The mass then gets filtered and leaves loose fiber, the beta-glucans which makes up for the milk base. The further processing into the different varieties takes place by adding the corresponding ingredients.

Part of the process

An important part of making products with long expiration dates is the application of UHT or pasteurization.

Oatly itself does not specify which method it applies, neither do many of its competitors, therefore a brief introduction to UHT and pasteurization and why it does matter that it does not matter.

UHT, ultrahigh- temperature processing, and pasteurization

It can be achieved by in container (final packaging) processing, as well as the in-tank application of high temperatures.

In-container sterilization takes place by heating up packaged batches of the final product to 110–120°C for about 10 to 20 minutes. The UHT process heats the liquid in tanks / a continuous flow system, to about 140°C for around 5 seconds.

The reason for mentioning this process is simple. The argument against UHT / pasteurization is that beneficial bacteria do not make it through the process, it also leads to browning, less nutrients, sedimentation, fat separation, and a cooked flavor in-container sterilized milk and milk substitutes.

However, taking into considering that consumers look for similar nutritious values and flavor when choosing dairy substitutes. The aforementioned processes leads to similar results in dairy and dairy-free products. While being only a technicality for most, it ought to be taken into consideration when developing dairy substitutes that, no matter the main ingredient, certain nutrients will be added back in either way and do not make one a superior product when comparing nutrition values.


Largely made of coconut oil or soy, some craft creameries are gaining scale with the use of the same ingredients as dairy milk substitutes, as well as walnuts and nutritional yeast as well as Tapioca starch (extracted from the storage roots of the cassava plant) in some cases for texture. To achieve cheese like coloring the most common natural ingredients used are turmeric, annatto, carotene, as well as titanium dioxide.

Whereas in traditional cheesemaking the texture is achieved in a natural process by adding bacteria to the milk, the same result for vegan and vegetarian product variants is achieved by additing thickeners.

Some of these are not particularly popular among consumers, but still widely used as additives. The majority of products contain at least one of the following, xanthan, tara (E417), agar (also know as agar agar), guar gum, and the controversial thickener carregeenan (E 407 and E 407a)

Lab Dairy

New Culture Food wants to bring cow cheese without the cow to market advertising it as sustainable and lactose free with no animals being used in the process.

Perfect Day Foods, has so far specified its approach in some detail. It uses milk’s essential genes and adds them to a microflora convert them into usable protein. Fermentation then converts plant sugar into milk proteins, whey and casein.


Most are made from rapeseed, olive, sunflower, coconut, soya, canola, and what is referred to as vegetable oil and a combination of them.

The fat composition varies vastly depending on the ingredient chosen, however, due to comprehensive advertising campaigns for decades the common perception remains that margarine is better for you. This has been rebuffed several times, as in this Harvard publication.

To provide similar nutritional value, vitamins such as A, D2, E, and B12 are usually added and also used to advertise the products as a better alternative.

A common misguidance in labeling occurs due to the large scale use of palm oil which can be listed a vegetable oil. The environmental issues linked to palm oil have been widely covered across countries and media channels. While extensive, this 2018 report by the European Commission still serves as the most comprehensive resource on the matter.

Seed butters

A subcategory that is entirely vegan and made from the likes of chia, sunflower, flax, pumpkin, as well as watermelon seeds.

LATER EDIT: You can get a butter alternative from companies such as Miyoko’s Creamery, thank you Barry W. Enderwick for suggesting them.


Made from similiar ingredients as milk alternatives, coconut milk is a more popular ingredient because it requires less stabilizers. There are alternatives from every major dairy brand, as well as Chobani (coconut), Silk (almond), Nancy’s (soy), Stonyfield (soy). There have been soy based alternatives in Europe for almost two decades by Alpro, while also making its way into US stores, it is seeing ever more competition in Europe too.


Insects, a third generation alternative protein, are commonly referred to as the most beneficial and sustainable food due to their high nutritional content. Alongside fats and proteins, they also contain high amounts of vitamins and minerals. The increased sustainability due to less water and land requirement compared with animal production results also in lower greenhouse gas emissions.

Switzerland was the first European country to authorise the sale of insect-based food products for human consumption. Its food safety laws were updated in May 2017 to make way for the sale products containing crickets, grasshoppers and mealworms.

In 2018, the startup Bugfoundation, has succesfully launched its burger patties in Rewe stores in Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands.

There are a variety of companies making anything from burger patties to cookies and chocolate alternatives from insects. Made from the flour of processed insects, a variety of baked goods are already available online. However, Western consumers are not (yet) fully at ease with insects as the main ingredient. That said, around 2bn people globally already regularly consume them as part of their diet.

Alternative ingredients / Indigenous foods

Ashwagandha, also known as Indian ginseng, is an adaptogen, it, therefore, can support your body stress management.

Cassava, processed and packaged as flour it qualifies as a gluten-free and vegan base ingredient. Its neutral taste makes it a grain-free alternative for wheat-based flours. It is also claimed to have digestive benefits.

Jackfruit, also known as jack tree, has been much talked about as a vegan alternative ingredient to pulled pork. While not being the meat substitute many thought it would be and high in calories, it still has a place in a modern diet. It comes packed with vitamin-C (about 13.7 mg or 23% of RDA), vitamin-A and high amounts of vitamin B-6, riboflavin, as well as folic acid.

Farro, also labeled as spelt, emmer, and einkorn. It is an ancient grain that is high in fiber, vitamin B3 and zinc.

Cassava, processed and packaged as flour it qualifies as a gluten-free and vegan base ingredient. Its neutral taste makes it a grain-free alternative for wheat-based flours. It is also claimed to have digestive benefits.

Hemp, contains large amounts of amino acids as well as an omega-3 and 6 fatty acids. As aforementioned, it is also used in certain cheese substitutes.

Maca, also known as Peruvian ginseng, from Peru’s Andes region. Claimed to have various benefits, but may rather gain popularity because it serves consumer demand for ancient products from remote regions.

Mulberries feature a variety of vitamins and nutrients, but only 43 calories per 100 grams of berries.

Probiotics, live cultures sometimes called the “good bacteria”, include Lactobacillus, L. acidophilus, L. bulgaricus, and S. thermophilus.

Turmeric and its pigment curcumin is not only used as a coloring additive, but the plant is processed into powder but contains vitamin C, calcium, iron, dietary fiber, sodium.

There are massive opportunities for traditional food producers, suppliers as well as startups to take part in the movement towards a more diverse and sustainable diet. While some in the industry already voiced concerns that many of these substifoods are being developed with a similar amount of processing as current convenience foods, this generation of foods tries to incorporate more natural ingredients than its predecessors did. Therefore, driven by a variety of influences and consumer interest, the time to meet emerging consumer demands and launch innovative products, is now.

Meat Inudstry, Retail and more

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store