Stratum Resource post, Plant-Based Ingredients, An Interview with Nena Dockery

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Plant-Based Ingredients, An Interview with Nena Dockery

Nena Dockery, Scientific Affairs Manager at Stratum Nutrition, was recently asked to join a panel by Nutrition Executive Industry to discuss plant-based and vegan ingredients. Read on to hear all she had to share. 

What is the state of the market for natural ingredients that are plant-based and vegan? How big is the market?

The global vegan food market continues to experience tremendous growth and is expected to hit $14.45 billion by the end of 2022, up from $13.55 billion in 2021. By 2026, it is expected to reach $18.73 billion at a CAGR of 6.7%.[i] The growth in vegan foods is one of the main factors contributing to the similarly forecasted growth rate of over 6.9% CAGR for vegan supplements from 2021-2028. According to a report from Allied Market Research, the global vegan supplements industry is expected to reach $13.59 billion by 2028, up from $6.30 billion in 2019.[ii]

The reasons for consumers seeking out these products are as diverse as the product offerings in this category. Marketing, particularly by celebrities, is definitely a factor fueling the plant-based food trend; but the health benefit of plant-based diets is probably the main driving force, which is then reflected in the increased demand for plant-based dietary supplements. This trend has been particularly noticeable in the sports nutrition market. But increasingly more individuals are opting for at least some plant-based food choices and supplements because of a concern for the environment or for the long-term sustainability of meat, poultry, and fish-dominant diets.

Aside from (or perhaps including) being trendy, what are the primary values or health goals driving consumers to seek out supplements and natural products that feature plant-based and/or vegan ingredients?

Avoidance of chronic health conditions and the quest to stay young and healthy are some of the biggest reasons consumers are seeking out non-animal-based foods and supplements. According to the Cleveland Clinic, a true plant-based (vegan) diet eliminates almost all foods that can lead to poor health outcomes, including processed foods and those that contain cholesterol or added sugar.[iii] Plant-based diets can help reduce cardiovascular risk factors, such as high blood pressure, cholesterol, and triglycerides; and they can lower the risk for diabetes, digestive disease, colon and breast cancers, and obesity.

What are the latest developments in this area, in terms of innovative ingredient types, taste profiles, applications, delivery forms and types of products?

The main area where innovation is taking place is in plant-based meat substitutes. According to NielsenIQ, purchases of meat alternatives have jumped 60% over the past two years, driven by a wider availability and better-tasting products.[iv] When meat alternatives began to enter the market, they were mostly soy-based products and were used not only as a dietary substitute for meat, but also as a low-cost filler to stretch the amount of beef or pork in a product. However, the motivation for choosing plant-sourced meat substitutes has changed dramatically through the years because of the increase in the number of individuals selecting to either reduce their consumption of meat, fish, and poultry or eliminate it altogether. This shift in preferences has been accompanied by a demand for products that can provide both the nutritional protein content of meat and taste either like their meat counterpart or at least have a palatable taste and texture. This has led to an explosion in plant-based offerings sourced from a wide range of ingredients including mushrooms, algae and seaweed, jackfruit, and various peas and beans. Plant-based protein supplements designed for use in sports-focused formulations often now contain pea protein instead of dairy options such as whey, and innovative technologies to improve taste profiles have enabled further diversity in protein supplements to include hemp, brown rice, pumpkin, and various nuts and seeds.

Though the increase in vegetarian and vegan diets has led to an increase in consumer purchasing of dietary supplement products that are also derived solely from plants, environmental and sustainability concerns are often equal motivating factors. Many supplements are already derived from botanical sources, so the switch to vegetarian capsules from gelatin-based capsules was initially the main area where the increase in plant-based diets made the biggest impact on the supplement market. This has changed as the supplement industry has expanded. The rise in the sports supplement market is responsible for much of this change, because of the popularity of protein supplements for athletes, which has sparked the demand for plant-sourced proteins. Another major factor that has influenced the plant-based supplement market is the rise in consumer demand for plant-based functional equivalents for omega-3 fatty acids and collagen.

Collagen is an animal protein, so the technological challenges have centered around finding vegan ingredients that promote the body’s production of collagen. This has been accomplished in formulations that contain ingredients that are known to be essential for collagen production, such as antioxidants like vitamin C, and specific combinations of amino acids.

A vegan source for omega-3 fatty acids already exists. The only true essential omega-3 fatty acid (essential because the body cannot make it) is alpha-linolenic acid or ALA, commonly available through consumption of canola or soybean oil, tofu, and nuts, such as walnuts. However, the omega-3 market has promoted from its onset, the need to consume the end-products of omega-3 fatty acid metabolism – eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and for many people this was reasonable advice because of the inefficiency of the body’s mechanisms to convert ALA into the longer chain beneficial omega-3s. Unfortunately, fatty fish and some algae are the only direct sources of EPA and DHA, putting a strain on the marine ecosystem; and consumption of fish, either in food or supplement form as fish oil, is not acceptable to vegans.  

Algae farms have begun to make algal DHA and EPA more widely available to the consumer and research into plant sources that contain additional omega-3s that are intermediate in omega-3 metabolism, has led to the introduction of ingredients, such as Ahiflower® seed oil that provide not only the health benefits of EPA and DHA, but also the benefits of the intermediates, such as stearidonic acid (SDA), eicosatetraenoic acid (ETA) and docosapentaenoic acid (DPA).

4.    How can manufacturers of finished products utilize these ingredients to meet consumer needs in a practical way?

 Manufacturers should be keenly aware of consumer desire for vegetarian and vegan products. Consumers who are vegan often have extremely strict stipulations regarding the absence of any animal products in food products they consume, including processing aids. And consumers who are flexitarian, ovo-lacto-vegetarian, or pescetarian are often more concerned about the environmental impact of product production than other consumers. Manufacturers who use ingredient suppliers who specialize in plant-based ingredients and are sensitive to the environment and sustainability can market these benefits through the distributor to the end consumer.

5.    How has the boom in vegan ingredients and dairy alternatives impacted your business, positively or negatively

Stratum Nutrition®, a business of ESM Technologies, LLC, has been focused on sustainability and environmental impact since its inception. Though Stratum’s first two ingredients, NEM® brand eggshell membrane and ESC® brand eggshell calcium, are not vegan ingredients, they are ovo-vegetarian and produced sustainably from a waste stream product of egg-cracking facilities. This concern for the environment, in conjunction with Stratum’s goal of marketing research-supported nutritional ingredients, make Stratum a premier company interested in improving human health and well-being. The growth of the vegan ingredient market has dovetailed into Stratum’s own company goals and reinforced the importance of those principles.

As the vegan market has continued to grow, Stratum has prioritized the acquisition of additional ingredients that fall within the plant-based niche and has increased focus on expanding the current ingredient portfolio to include dairy-free versions of probiotic ingredients, such as BLIS K12® and BLIS M18®.

6.    What are some of the health advantages of plant-derived ingredients compared to non-plant-derived?

In most cases, plant-derived ingredients are more nutrient-dense than their animal counterparts, and can provide a wider variety of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and other beneficial compounds. For some individuals new to a vegan lifestyle, consuming enough complete protein and a few key nutrients, such as vitamin B12 might be more difficult or require supplementation; but in general, plants can provide an abundance of nutrients that are critical to human health. It is true that there are vegan meat alternatives that are no more nutritious (or even less so) than their animal counterparts, but for the most part, plant-based diets are healthier, especially in certain areas, such as cardiovascular health.

7.    For manufacturers, please provide 1-2 examples of plant-based or vegan ingredients (it can be as ingredients, capsules, processing aids, etc.) which your company is selling and what makes them different or better.

One of Stratum’s best examples of a plant-based alternative to a familiar animal-sourced ingredient is the multi-omega Ahiflower seed oil (and powder). Though there are several omega fatty acids that are critical for human health, this segment of the industry has been dominated by omega-3s and specifically by the end-products of omega-3 metabolism, EPA and DHA. These long-chain fatty acids can be made in the body from the essential omega-3 fatty acid, ALA, but they are also naturally found in fatty fish, such as mackerel, salmon, and sardines. The original population study that began the rise of omega-3 research was conducted in individuals who consumed a high fatty fish diet; and as a result, the research on omega-3s has been dominated by fish oil and its content of EPA and DHA. But there is much more to the story.

The original population study did not consider the current Western diet that is dominated by omega-6 oils. Consumption of omega-6 is also critical to health and linoleic acid (LA) is an essential fatty acid. However, the ratio of omega-6 consumption to omega-3 consumption should be around 4:1 to even 1:1 and the typical American’s ratio can be as high as 50:1. So, there is a need for more omega-3s. In addition, the metabolism of both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids overlap and both begin with a crucial enzymatic (delta-6-desaturase) reaction that is often inefficient, preventing the first step in omega metabolism and the body’s production of intermediate omega-3s and omega-6s necessary for optimal health, such as the omega-6, gamma linolenic acid (GLA) and the omega-3, stearidonic acid (SDA), both of which are produced from the delta-6 reaction. Ahiflower seed oil not only contains the two essential fatty acids, ALA and LA, in a favorable ratio of 1(LA):4(ALA), but it also contains both of the health-promoting fatty acids, SDA and GLA, enabling both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acid metabolism to proceed naturally as it should in the body. And Ahiflower also contains omega-9, the beneficial omega found in olive oil. Research on the benefits of Ahiflower seed oil continues to mount, with the latest research currently in progress supporting Ahiflower’s benefits as a superior omega-3.

Stratum also offers a wide range of plant-based ingredients including the antioxidant, NatAxtin™ astaxanthin from the algae (Haematococcus pluvialis), Curcumin95, a 95% curcumin derived from the optimal natural turmeric source, Curcuma longa, and dairy-free versions of two oral cavity-sourced probiotics, BLIS K12® and BLIS M18®.

8.    Where do you see the market for these ingredients headed over the next few years?

There is no doubt that there are multiple factors that are causing upheaval in the current global food supply. As more people become attuned to these issues as well as educated on the benefits of a plant-dominant diet, there will continue to be a strong demand for plant-based foods and supplements. The market will likely continue to expand and get more creative in ways to offer new and innovative options that have the taste and health-boosting benefits that consumers desire.