Get our best content directly in your inbox
Sign up

Plant-based ingredients of the past, the present and the future

woman smiling
11 min read
AUTHOR: Stef Bottinelli
Vegetables on a plate in a knot

The plant-based ingredients sector has been going through what seems like a revolution in the last four years.

2017 was the year that cemented the importance of the plant-based and vegan food movement. With an ever-growing number of people shunning animal products, for ethical, environmental and health reasons, the demand for plant-based food started to skyrocket and with it its offer.

That year Richard Branson, Bill Gates and Leonardo DiCaprio invested in plant-based start-ups, as did giant food corporation Cargill. Danone spent $60m to launch its plant-based milk production after acquiring WhiteWaves Foods, owners of plant-based brands Alpro, Provamel and Silk, for €11 billion in 2016. Tesco appointed Derek Sarno as its Director of Plant-Based Innovation. Ben & Jerry’s and Häagen-Dazs launched vegan versions of their popular ice-cream to great success, Pizza Express put vegan mozzarella on its menu, Baileys Irish Cream introduced a plant-based liqueur made with almond milk, German vegan supermarket Veganz expanded and opened its fourth store and 52% of new product launches in the meat-free food sector were plant-based, according to Mintel.

2017 was a pivotal year for the plant-based sector, and since then the market has been growing exponentially with big investments in new product development and new vegan brands continuously appearing on supermarket shelves. In 2019 meat alternative company Beyond Meat was launched on the New York Stock Exchange, followed by dairy substitute brand Oatly who went public on Nasdaq this year.

“It was only a few years ago that Gregg’s made international headlines for launching its vegan sausage roll for Veganuary and since then we have seen Veganuary product launches from most high street food outlets – including Burger King, KFC and McDonald’s”, says Toni Vernelli, International Head of Communication and Marketing at Veganuary. “Last year all of the major supermarkets had large in-store promotions of plant-based products for Veganuary.”.

The birth of veganism

Blue plaque of man called Donald Watson

Picture: The Vegan Society

Picture: The Vegan Society

Whilst the plant-based market seems relatively new, veganism has been officially around since 1944 when the word vegan was coined by Donald Watson, who created it by taking the first and the last two letters of the already existing word vegetarian. In the west, veganism and vegetarianism started much earlier than the 40s – officially in the 19th century.

The word vegetarian first surfaced in the 1830s and it described both groups of people who ate an ovo-lacto diet and an exclusively plant-based one. The Vegetarian Society was founded a few years later, in 1847. In 1849 the first vegetarian cookbook was published by William Horsell. Written by Asenath Nicholson, the book featured vegan and vegetarian recipes. Nicholson stated that ‘good bread, pure water, ripe fruit, and vegetables are my meat and drink exclusively’ and although the book did include some recipes with dairy, Nicholson herself personally advocated against its use.”, says The Vegan Society Media and PR Officer Francine Jordan.

Just less than 100 years later since the birth of The Vegetarian Society, Yorkshire born Donald Watson co-founded The Vegan Society, a non-profit organisation to support those who avoided all animal products and to promote a cruelty-free lifestyle.

Whilst in the 40s plant-based meats and cheeses as we know them now had yet to be created, the basics of an animal ingredient-free diet weren’t so different from today’s.

Rice, pasta, vegetables, beans and pulses have always been staples of the vegan diet while nut butters, margarine and nut milks were still used as a brilliant alternative even back then.”, says Francine. “Looking at old copies of The Vegan, The Vegan Society magazine, we can see people enjoyed animal-free versions of classic 40s dishes including nutmeat and vegetable mould, apple and date mousse, banana biscuits, mixed fruit jelly, cottage pie, cauliflower pie, bean and tomato savoury, prune jelly and bread and butter pudding.”

The precursors: soy and tofu

tofu and tempeh

Bean curd has been a popular ingredient in China for 2000 years, however tofu wasn’t widely consumed in the UK and the rest of Europe until the 80s.
Soy flour on the other hand made an appearance much earlier than that.
“According to, the soybean was first cultivated in England in 1790 by Walter Ewer, however, it wasn’t until 1929 that Soy Foods Ltd. and the Soyolk Society was founded in North London. Soy Foods Ltd. Started to produce a soy flour brand-named Soyolk – the pioneer edible soy flour in England. By 1932 Soyolk is reported to be used increasingly in English foods, partially to replace eggs, milk, and chocolate.”, explains Francine.

“Three years later, in 1935, Elizabeth Bowdidge writes and publishes the UK’s first full book on soybeans and soyfoods, called The Soya Bean: Its History, Cultivation (in England), and Uses. In the 83-page work she praises soybeans as the world’s most valuable legume and encourages farmers to make a serious effort to grow them. She notes that there were many foods “on the London market under names that conceal their soya bean origin,” and that soy flour is widely used to make soya bread, breakfast foods, biscuits, cakes, and macaroni.

“And while tofu was mentioned by British professors and researchers as early as 1880, it wasn’t until 1966 that Dragon & Phoenix Co introduce the UK’s first commercial tofu.  Although it was still an under-rated plant-based protein, tofu steadily began to grow in popularity. By 1984 the company is the largest tofu maker in the UK, producing an estimated 10,000 kg/week.

“Fast forward again to 2020 and The Tofoo Co. Ltd, a tofu company based in Yorkshire, announced their turnover was £14.7 million, an 89% year-on-year increase and a significant contrast to its first year of trading in 2016 which was just £600,000.”

Ingredients of today and ingredients of tomorrow

close up of mushroom

Whilst tofu is still a hugely popular plant-based product, these days it has some serious competition in the form of proteins that can replicate the texture and taste of animal meat, such as seitan (wheat gluten), Quorn (made with protein from fusarium venenatum, a fungus that grows in the soil), mushrooms and legume proteins, like peas and beans. Company Better Nature Foods is updating the way it ferments soybeans to make tempeh to give the final product a more meat like consistency. Lupin bean protein, whilst not yet widely used in plant-based foods in Britain, is easy to find in the rest of Europe, in particularly in health-conscious Italy, where it’s used in vegan burgers and cutlets.

“The ability to mimic the taste and texture of animal meat, so much so that it can fool the most observant epicure, has been the most exciting innovation in the plant-based in the last 10 years.”, says Dr Jason Gibb, founder of Bread & Jam Festival. “This has been possible thanks to the improvement in high pressure wet extrusion manufacturing that is able to give plant protein a meaty texture.”

More and more alternative meat, dairy and egg products have appeared on the market in the last decade. Whilst once following a plant-based diet was considered challenging, these days, thanks to investment, new product development, technology, and, of course, demand, supermarket shelves are stacked with vegan burgers, sausages, chicken pieces, steak, ribs and even a selection – if still modest – of plant-based fish. Plant-based cheese, yogurt and ice-cream alternatives are also aplenty.

In the last few years, egg alternatives have also become available. Plant-based company Follow Your Heart produces VeganEgg, a replacer made with soy milk powder, carrageenan and nutritional yeast; OGGS makes a substitute with aquafaba, the starchy water from chickpeas; Crack’d a vegan liquid egg made with pea protein, and makes Just Egg using mung beans and turmeric for colour.

New plant-based products are launched continuously, and ingredient companies are always searching for the next big vegan proteins and dairy substitutes. No wonder 60% of  buyers attending Food Matters Live on 29 – 30 June are looking for the latest innovations in plant-based and vegan ingredients.

In 2020, a record £3.1 billion was invested in the alternative protein industry. So what’s next in the future of the plant-based food sector?

“There will always be a market for “meat mimicking” products (like burgers, sausages and chicken pieces) as these provide an easy jumping in point for meat-eaters looking to cut down on their meat consumption.”, says Dr Gibb. “However the ‘health’ halo that vegan food has is at risk of being eroded given that many of these meat alternatives are highly processed and stacked with unrecognisable ingredients. This will lead to more products based on whole, unprocessed bean, pulses and grains that are nonetheless delicious and filling.”

For Toni Vernelli, the future of the vegan food industry is certainly bright: Undoubtedly (the sector) will be much bigger, with really fantastic plant-based alternatives to virtually every animal product and ingredient, and it will still be growing at a fast pace.”
According to Toni, the meat industry will have some serious competition.  “I think all major meat brands will follow in Kerry Foods footsteps and launch their own range of plant-based meat alternatives as people continue to reduce their meat consumption, and sales of plant-based dairy alternatives will be approaching parity with animal-based dairy. This switch is such an easy way for people to reduce their environmental footprint without sacrificing any flavour.”.
Innovation will also be key, she says: “There will also be a host of innovative products on the market made from novel ingredients and technologies such as algae and fermentation. I can’t wait”.

Innovation challenges 

soy leaf

Despite the huge success of the vegan sector, innovation doesn’t come without its challenges.

“Plant-based meats need to have similar nutritional properties to animal meat (similar protein, fat and carbohydrate levels) and to achieve this in the most ‘natural’ way as possible.”, points out Dr Jason Gibb.

The price point of plant-based food is also an issue, as vegan products can sometime be more expensive than the meat and dairy versions.

“A recent report from Mintel showed that plant-based meats are currently priced 60% more than animal meat equivalents. Once price parity is achieved this will open the door for mass adoption of a plant-based diet. The Co-op are leading the ways with their CEO Jo Whitfield recently ordering a slashing of prices of their own-label plant-based range, regardless of their profit margin.”, adds Gibb.

Sustainability and a change in perception

mung bean

With the spotlight on sustainability, the environment, human health and animal welfare, more people are consuming plant-based food regularly and many are making the switch to veganism. Research conducted by The Vegan Society has found that the number of vegans in Great Britain has quadrupled to 600,000 in the four years to 2018.

More money is being spent to find sustainable alternatives to meat, fish and dairy. The European Union’s Horizon Programme has recently launched a 32m research fund into alternative proteins to combat climate change and strive for a more sustainable agriculture.

“Most people now accept that the current meat and dairy centred diet is unsustainable and that we must drastically reduce our consumption of animal products.”, says Toni. “A decade ago, when I told people I was vegan it was often met with ‘oh that must be so hard, I could never do it.’ Now most people respond by saying they are reducing their meat consumption and listing all of the vegan products they’ve tried and loved. And this is not just a UK or European phenomenon. We are seeing a huge response to our campaign in Latin America and India, and the speed of innovation and availability of plant-based foods across Asia is quite remarkable.”.

The public perception of plant-based food and the vegan lifestyle has also dramatically changed in the last few years.

“One pivotal moment in the plant-based movement – that happened almost unnoticed – has been the evolution of the word ‘vegan’. Only a few years ago it conjured up images of gaunt, sandal-wearing hippies. Today it is a badge of honour, and a product claim that is sought after by millions of consumers.”, comments Dr Gibb.

Francine Jordan agrees: “The image of veganism is undergoing the most radical change in its history, while shedding some tired, old stereotypes. People now closely associate it with health, fitness and wellbeing. It’s no longer portrayed as an unusual lifestyle, it’s easy and accessible – you can walk into any supermarket and be greeted by a huge range of plant-based products or walk into any restaurant and be presented with an exciting vegan menu. There has never been a better time to be vegan.”.

 In 2021 over 600,000 people took the Veganuary challenge globally, the highest number of participants the organisation has ever seen.  
“Every year we carry out a survey of our pledge participants a few weeks after their 31-day commitment has ended.”, Toni says.  “In the past few years, on average, around 50% have said they intend to stay 100% plant-based after Veganuary. Last year we also asked those who didn’t intend to stay vegan whether they did plan to reduce their intake of animal products. Seventy-five percent of those participants said they intended to reduce their consumption by 50% or more. These are incredibly inspiring results that will have a huge positive impact for the planet.”

With greater demand, new product development and technology, investment and public funds being poured into research, the plant-based food sector is not just here to stay, it could very well take over the meat, dairy and fish industry in the years to come.


Related content