The complete guide to plant-based protein

14 November 2023, 09:00 AM
  • From trendy vegan alt-meats, to store cupboard staples like legumes and nuts, Speciality Food explores everything you need to know about plant-based protein
The complete guide to plant-based protein

While the plant-based diet trend has had its ups and downs, there is no denying that vegan products have become a staple for many Brits. Whether your customers are flexitarians or live off legumes, plant-based protein is an important category to stock. We take a look at the different types of plant-based proteins available on the market today to find out what could fly off your shelves.

Trends in plant-based protein

Despite the boom in production of meat alternatives that mimic the flavour and texture of beef, chicken and other meats, good old-fashioned vegetables are still popular with customers who stick to a plant-based, vegetarian or flexitarian diet. In fact, they’ve become more desirable for consumers faced with shelf upon shelf of ultra-processed foods.

More shoppers want to put the ‘plant’ back in ‘plant-based’, according to Whole Foods Market’s 2024 trend predictions. “The OGs of plant-based cuisine are making a comeback, putting the ‘veggie’ back in your veggie burger and shrinking labels all over the plant-based category,” the Trends Council said. “We’re seeing new and emerging protein-forward products with mushrooms, walnuts, tempeh and legumes in place of complex meat alternatives.”

Indeed, Beyond Meat, a popular US-based producer of vegan meat alternatives, recently announced it was cutting nearly a fifth of its workforce as sales were expected to tumble.

Similarly, Mintel’s 2024 Global Food and Drink Trends report said scrutiny of processing use in the food and drink industry is intensifying. “Fuelled by discussions about highly, overly or ultra-processed food, feelings about processing will inspire consumers to look more closely at ingredients, nutrition and production,” says Jenny Zegler, director of Mintel Food & Drink. 

“Expect to see a growing interest in less-processed food and drink made with upcycled ingredients rich in vitamins, minerals, fibre, protein and other nutrients.”

FMCG Gurus’ consumer insights reveal that 69% of global consumers say it is important that alternative meat sources are naturally formulated. “Such products are perceived as healthier, higher in quality, more trustworthy, and sustainable, all of which align with the important needs and values of consumers,” says Kate Kehoe, marketing executive at FMCG Gurus.

Types of plant-based protein

Protein is high on the menu for those who follow a plant-based diet. FMCG Gurus market research demonstrates that of consumers who eat and drink dairy alternatives, 60% say protein content is important. 

Some of the best protein for vegans and the most common and readily available sources that retailers can stock include:


Examples: Lentils, chickpeas, beans (black beans, kidney beans, pinto beans)

“Legumes are protein powerhouses and rich in fibre. They are versatile and can form the base of many plant-based dishes,” says Dr Sarah Sadek. As well as filling your shelves with dried, canned or jarred options, look out for plant-based products made with these ingredients – but quality is key. “The pros include heart health benefits and reduced environmental impact. The cons may involve digestibility issues and antinutrients, which can inhibit nutrient absorption,” Sarah says.


Examples: Tempeh, tofu

“Soya and soya products are an excellent source of protein, containing good amounts of all essential amino acids. Seitan (made from vital wheat gluten) also really holds its own as a protein source, providing 18g of protein per 75g serving,” says VforLife CEO Amanda Woodvine.

“Soy protein is a complete protein source, making it a nutritional standout,” Sarah says. “It offers heart health benefits and has a wide variety of applications.” However, she adds that some customers have concerns about soy when it comes to potential allergies or even genetic modification, which some are looking to avoid. Counter this by stocking small-batch products with a known provenance, clearly labelling for those who require a soy-free diet.

Nuts and seeds

Examples: Almonds, peanuts, chia seeds, flaxseeds, hemp seeds

Nuts and seeds are great for snacking, but they can also be added to recipes like soups and salads to give a bit of extra crunch. Some plant-based customers may even want to make their own alternative milks and cheeses with nuts like almonds or cashews.

“Nuts and seeds provide healthy fats and protein. They are nutrient-dense and support satiety,” Sarah says. As with most food and drink, moderation is key. “Their calorie density can be a drawback if consumed excessively.”

Whole grains

Examples: Quinoa, farro, brown rice, bulgur wheat

Providing a range of quality whole grains for your customers will be a welcome alternative to the more processed options available at large supermarkets. “Whole grains are protein sources that also deliver essential nutrients and fibre. They are versatile in various dishes,” Sarah says. But a bowl of grains does not a meal make. “One limitation is that grains may not be complete protein sources, so combining them with complementary plant-based proteins is advisable,” she adds. Look out for opportunities to upsell with recipe ideas or kits.


Examples: Spinach, broccoli, Brussel sprouts and asparagus

Eating your veggies is easier when they are freshly plucked from the fields and packed with flavour and nutrients. For farm shops that sell their own produce, fresh vegetables will likely sell themselves. If your shop isn’t part of a farm business, link up with other local producers to showcase as much of the best of British produce as you can.

When it comes to veg-based products, look for shorter ingredient labels. Sam Dennigan, founder and CEO of Strong Roots, a vegan frozen food producer that wants to help consumers eat more vegetables, says, “The vegetables, proteins and grains used in our Good Made Easy Ready Meals all belong in the low processed category, with very light preparation (blanching and boiling) before being packaged with sauces made with recognisable ingredients, most of which you may have in your kitchen cupboard.”

Protein supplements

Examples: Pea, hemp, rice protein

Rather than products for your shelves, these might show up as ingredients in plant-based foods. As Sam says, “Our range of chips, fries, burgers and bites are made with pure veg and potatoes. We always make ingredients made from whole food sources our first choice for use in our batters, crispy coatings and stabilisers – ingredients like rice flour, pea flour, dehydrated carrot, potato flakes and puffed quinoa.”

Spotlight on health

As recent trend reports have shown, consumers are moving towards plant-based protein options that offer healthier benefits. 

“We’ve ended up with an acceptance of ultra-processed foods, which we had started to move away from,” Sam says. “This kind of guise of sustainability, or better eating, or reduction in animal protein consumption, has in fact disguised the over-consumption of foods that are not necessarily good for us in large quantities. Plus, they can create further problems in agriculture, like over-farming and unsustainable methods in order to meet demand.”

“Plant-based proteins have several selling points, both for health and for the environment,” adds Amanda. “Not only do they tend to be lower in saturated fat compared to animal-based proteins, but plant-based diets have also been associated with lower levels of LDL cholesterol, reducing the risk of heart disease. They can help stabilise blood sugar levels and may lower the risk of type 2 diabetes.

“Producing plant-based proteins generally has a lower environmental impact compared to animal agriculture, requiring fewer resources such as water, land, and energy to produce,” she continues. What’s more, it can inspire more exploration from customers. “Exploring plant-based proteins can introduce people to a wide variety of new and culturally diverse cuisines. They offer a wide range of culinary possibilities, from tofu and tempeh to legumes, nuts, and seeds, allowing for diverse and creative meal options.” One good way to inspire customers? Collaborating with vegan chefs or influencers for events, workshops, or special promotions to draw attention to your plant-based offerings, Amanda says.

With customers on the lookout for healthy, plant-based protein, retailers will be rewarded for stocking more whole food options.

“Whilst keeping a good level of protein in the diet is extremely beneficial, it’s important to search for the right protein and the cleanest protein,” advises Tammy Bonning, head of marketing at snack and drink maker Boostball. She says her products use only “the crème de la crème of protein” as well as steering clear of additives, “such as artificial colours, flavours and preservatives”.

Health and sustainability-focused consumers will also be on the lookout for other ‘red flags’ on the ingredient label. “Shop around and find [products] that are free from palm oil, gluten, artificial sweeteners, sugar or soya products,” Tammy says. “Offering a variety allows customers to choose products that suit their tastes and dietary requirements.”

Highlighting these health benefits can also help secure sales. “Educate your customers about the health benefits of plant-based proteins, such as lower saturated fat content, higher fibre and potential reductions in the risk of certain chronic diseases,” Tammy adds.

Plants with the highest protein

• Edamame
• Lentils
• Pinto beans
• Chickpeas
• Mung beans
• Broad beans

5 tips for stocking plant-based protein

Sarah explains how fine food retailers can capture the demand for plant-based protein.

1. A diverse selection: “Offer a wide range of plant-based products, catering to various dietary preferences and needs.”

2. Educate staff: “Ensure your employees are knowledgeable about the products, their ingredients, and their potential health benefits.”

3. Inspire home cooking: “Share recipes and cooking tips with customers to encourage them to experiment with plant-based ingredients.

4. Labelling and transparency: “Clearly label and provide information about the nutritional content and potential allergens in the products you sell.”

5. Taste testing: “Host taste tests or demonstrations to allow customers to sample plant-based products and understand their flavours and uses.”

By taking these strategies on board, fine food retailers can better stock and sell nutritious plant-based proteins and cater to the growing demand for these products.

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