NEW YORK — Taste remains an issue for many plant-based food applications, according to the Power of Plant-based Alternative Foods and Beverages 2023 report from FMI — The Food Industry Association, Arlington, Va. Steve Markenson, vice president of research and insights for FMI, presented highlights of the report at the Plant-Based World Expo, held Sept. 7-8 in New York City.

“Taste is the most frequently mentioned reason for repeat consumption and the leading barrier to trial of plant-based alternative foods and beverages,” Mr. Markenson said. “Regardless of the product, most shoppers say that it must taste good, or it is an important factor.”

The FMI research is supported by work done earlier this year by 84.51º, a part of the Kroger Co., in partnership with the Plant Based Foods Association, that found taste, texture and quality were unmet needs in plant-based meat and dairy alternatives.

Advancements in ingredient and processing technologies may help formulators deliver on those unmet needs. Nourish LLC, St. Albans, Vt., debuted its vegan brie and bleu lines of cheese alternatives. They are formulated with a cashew nut base that is cultured, fermented and aged. A vegan source of Penicillium candidum is used to develop the hard, outer white crust associated with dairy brie and responsible for imparting authentic flavor, according to the company. The cheeses are manufactured in 6-oz rounds and packaged in breathable brie cheese wrap.

“The cheeses continue to grow their bloom and ripen as they age,” said Ric Lavallee, corporate team lead for Nourish. “We release the cheese for sale at two to three weeks, with the cheeses reaching full maturity at four to six weeks, depending on the environment it is kept in.”

There’s a traditional brie offering, along with several flavored options. Maple bourbon pecan includes bourbon and maple syrup-soaked toasted pecans. Wild mushroom truffle is formulated with dried wild oyster, black trumpet, portobello and porcini mushrooms and white truffle. The four peppercorn variety features white, pink, red and black peppercorns for a spicy finish.

It’s such flavors that peak curiosity and encourage trial.

“Shoppers are seeking new and different types of foods as they continue to prepare their own meals and eat at home,” Mr. Markenson said. “Some regular consumers of plant-based alternative foods and beverages cite the desire to experiment or try new things as their impetus for continued consumption. However, as the NielsenIQ data show, repeat purchases continue to lag.”

Curiosity without repeat purchase is not sustainable. That’s likely why the number of food and beverage manufacturers exhibiting at the Plant-Based World Expo was down compared to previous years. Ingredient and technology suppliers had a much larger presence. They offered their expertise to assist with making plant-based foods more appealing to mainstream shoppers.

Benjamin Davis, content chair for Plant Based World Expo, recognized the challenges the industry is facing in his opening remarks.

“The theme of our expo this year — mindful innovation, resiliency and collaboration — is not just a catchphrase,” he said. “These are calls to action, challenging us to rise, to reflect and to co-create a brighter future. While the initial crescendo of our industry was amplified by trends and outpourings of capital, it is now our shared vision, values and dedicated teamwork that propels us forward.”

Some of the hurdles facing plant-based food manufacturers may be overcome by focusing on whole plants versus processed plants.

That’s something Rachel Sherman, project manager at the Drexel Food Lab, Drexel University, Philadelphia, emphasized during a panel discussion titled “The next generation: Decoding Gen Z’s palate and crafting authentic connection.” She said her department actively reaches out to students to access their food preferences.

“They want less processed and more vegetable-forward meals,” she said.   

Another panelist DeAndra Forde, a nutritionist and graduate student at Drexel University, said, “vegan and vegetarianism does not equate to good health.”  

This is true. Plant-based alternatives to dairy and meat may be higher in sodium, fat and sugar and sometimes lower in other beneficial nutrients, such as protein, vitamins and minerals and omega-3 fatty acids. But, in general, the FMI study showed many consumers associate plant-based foods and beverages with healthy eating.

“Our study showed that nutrition and healthier are frequently cited reasons for trial of plant-based alternative foods and beverage,” Mr. Markenson said. “Further, overall health and nutritional benefits are often reasons for regular consumers of these products to include them in their diets.

“In addition, about 4 in 10 shoppers have to consider allergies, intolerances or sensitivities when shopping for food. These considerations impact trial and continued consumption of plant-based alternative foods and beverages among some consumers. This is especially the case for dairy/lactose, seafood and gluten allergies, intolerances or sensitivities.”

Still there remains the barrier of taste and texture not meeting expectations. The FMI study also identified cost as another reason for not repurchasing plant-based products, as well as confusion among mainstream shoppers.

“When defining what is a plant-based alternative food or beverage, some shoppers focus on the presence of plants while others focus on the absence of animal products,” Mr. Markenson said. “When asked whether a series of these products are plant-based foods, many shoppers were unable to say definitively they were. In fact, a majority of shoppers said that it can be somewhat or even very difficult to determine if a product is plant-based.

“The majority of those who are regular plant-based alternative food and beverage consumers say they will increase their future consumption of these products. However, very few of those who are not regular consumers of these products expect they will increase their consumption of plant-based alternative foods and beverages in the future.”