By: Carl Pennington, President and Chief Executive Officer of Impact Group

Over the past few decades, food production has evolved exponentially. Now more than ever, we’re seeing science and technology play a more central role in food manufacturing. With growing consumer preferences for plant-based products and other foods that accommodate special diets, food companies are perfecting formulas and recipes to stay relevant with shopper’s demands. Through Impact Group’s work with over 700 CPG brands and food manufacturers, we’ve gleaned insight on three plant-based innovations expected to take center stage this year.

1. Animal-free meat options continue to expand

Based on health and ethical concerns, more consumers are turning to meat alternatives. Plant-based innovations like the vegan burgers that “bleed” and “not-tuna,” a fish alternative made from tomatoes, are modernizing grocery aisles, ultimately expanding consumers’ view of what is possible in the food space. We expect plant-based meat options to expand exponentially this year, especially with aggressive innovators like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods leading the charge.

2. Plant-based milks rival conventional cow’s milk in taste and nutrition

Over the past few years, plant-based milks have grown in popularity to the point where they’re now considered mainstream. However, up until recently, plant-based milks fell short nutritionally, especially when comparing protein or calcium content to conventional cow’s milk. Due to recent scientific developments, plant-based milks can now rival the nutritional profile of conventional cow’s milk. For example, Ripple’s pea protein milk contains 50% more calcium than 2% dairy milk. Another key player in this category is Perfect Day, a “cellular agriculture” company that uses genetically engineered yeast to produce milk proteins through a fermentation process, which yields a plant-based milk that mimics the same taste and texture of cow’s milk.

3. Vegan cheese is the new frontier

Once relegated to local vegan shops or natural food stores, vegan cheese was previously known to be bland, chalky, and gummy. However, recent developments in R&D and experimentation with plant-based proteins, solids, and fats have elevated the vegan cheese category, allowing products in this space to mimic the same bite and creamy mouthfeel as dairy-based cheese. Field Roast is a great example of a plant-based company using fermentation and aging processes, typically associated with dairy cheese making, to bring out the true umami flavor of cheese in its vegan Chao products.

Beyond meatless “meats” and cow-free dairy products, we can expect to see countless other innovations that will meet the demand for sustainable, healthy food.