22 May 2020 — COVID-19 has put a strain on the plant-based and vegan food sector. That is according to Anne Marie Butler, EU R&D Applications Manager at Edlong, who says the number of new product launches has fallen, as the focus is now on ensuring that standard products remain on shelves. “This is especially true in Europe, where many supermarkets have prioritized standard and well-known products in place of new launches,” she tells FoodIngredientsFirst. Meanwhile, protein remains one of the stand-out ingredients in plant-based foods, as well as claims around sustainability, health and indulgence the company sees regularly.

“Consumers are returning to comfort foods during the pandemic, along with cooking from scratch. For some, the financial burdens that have come with COVID-19 means that consumers increasingly want value for their money, and plant-based foods often price much higher than their standard counterparts,” explains Butler. “The full impact of COVID-19 is yet to be felt, but I don’t think it is the end of plant-based. It could be a real driver for creativity and innovation in the space going forward.” 

Meanwhile, Jennifer Nystrom, Sales Account Manager at Edlong, flags how the pandemic has been “a double-edged sword for plant-based,” as people are craving comfort foods on the one hand, but trying to stay healthy on the other. “Grocery store shelves reflect this current trend, meat and comfort foods often sold-out, while some plant-based foods remain,” she comments.

“Consumers see vegan and plant-based foods as healthier, and with more people becoming flexitarians, we’re seeing an increase in the number of consumers who are working plant-based foods into their diet. Many consumers also feel that eating more plant-based foods is helpful to the environment,” Nystrom explains. 

“We are in a unique time in the world – environmental concerns, health and wellness, and increasing consumer curiosity are huge drivers impacting purchasing decisions when it comes to food,” adds Butler. Plant-based foods appeal to those trying to reduce meat or dairy, and certainly those looking to eliminate it entirely,” she states. 

Nystrom expects to see an increased level of innovation in the space, and a greater variety of products added to the market, especially as people begin to move forward from COVID-19, she claims. 

Moreover, nutrition and cost are likely the two biggest challenges that the plant-based food industry currently faces, according to Butler. “Every plant-based product gets compared to a version of itself that is not plant-based. We, as consumers, want to feel that we are getting the best value, taste and nutrition for our money. Plant-based products typically require fortification to achieve the levels of protein, vitamins, minerals, and the like, which today’s health-conscious consumers want.”

Edlong has been doing a lot of work on protein fortification and finding flavors that help mask off-notes that can often be found in fortified products. This week, the company unveiled a line of organic flavors, featuring natural milk, butter, cheese, sweet, masking and cultured varieties.

“From sweet to savory, this collection sets a new standard for flavor and functional performance in organic dairy flavors,” says Mario Jez, Edlong Flavorist and Better For You Strategy Team Lead. “We are rapidly increasing our organic portfolio of cheese, butter, cultured, sweet dairy, milk and cream, and functional flavors that meet the organic regulatory requirement to help create products that are consumer-preferred.”

The company’s dairy flavors and maskers can help bring an authentic dairy taste to these products and help achieve the desired taste profile, adds Nystrom. 

“We have seen an increasing interest in flavors for plant-based butter type spreads and would expect to see strong growth in this space in the coming months. Additionally, the plant-based cheese sector is going from strength to strength, and with such a large variety of dairy options, we can expect to see growth in this space in the next 12 months as new launches pick back-up,” comments Butler. 

Meanwhile, protein is one of the stand-out ingredients in plant-based foods, she asserts. Ensuring products have sufficient nutritional benefits for consumers has become a significant focus. Whether it’s in plant-based milk, spreads, meats, cheeses – protein is a focal point,” Butler highlights. “We have been partnering with several forward-thinking ingredient companies to understand and solve for the variety of challenges developers will come up against when adding protein and other ingredients to their products. Keeping on top of this is important, as it allows us to offer effective and authentic flavor solutions that we know will work in applications.”

Plant-based milks are launching with more creative and indulgent profiles like birthday cake flavor or seeing more mainstream convenience foods like stroganoff getting a vegan makeover as we saw in Marks and Spencer’s Plant Kitchen range, says Butler. 

“Plant-based cheese is an area in which we see a big leap in development, with manufacturers, focused on offering consumers products that have a taste that is as authentic as possible,” she adds. 

For Nystrom, the biggest challenges in the plant-based cheese space is the price gap, with the vegan offerings typically more expensive than most real cheeses, she continues, “Along with the challenge of achieving good melt and texture.” 

“For vegan meat, the long ingredient declaration runs counter to the growing consumer interest in clean labels. For vegan milk type beverages, it is difficult to reach protein levels of dairy milk while still offering a good taste profile. We see fewer challenges in yogurts, dips and sauces, but yogurts are still having trouble achieving the protein claims of dairy products,” Nystrom concludes. 

By Elizabeth Green

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“COVID-19 could drive creativity and NPD in plant-based space,” says Edlong

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