The vegetarian meat sector in Europe appears in poor health. Retail sales in Western Europe rose 19% to €2.4 billion in 2021, according to annual state-of-the-industry reports from the NGO Good Food Institute. That outperforms North America, where sales last year held steady in value at $1.4 billion (€1.3 billion).
But when the United States sneezes, Europe catches a cold. GFI further acknowledges that capturing a tiny portion of the global meat market – estimated in 2020 at 328 million tons and valued at more than $1 trillion – presents a “tremendous opportunity”.
Those companies looking to sell products based on plant proteins need to choose their strategy very carefully and among all the strategic choices “The biggest problem is the category of meat substitutes,” warned Julian Melentin, director of New Nutrition Business. He told the food advisory podcast that the meat alternatives category will only begin to realize its ambition to create real disruption in the meat industry when ingredient suppliers and product developers can offer products “Actually met human expectations of good taste, good texture and a reasonably short ingredient list.”
Technology – particularly High Moisture Extrusion (HME) – is one of the key areas for producing more realistic meat replicas.
Whereas the traditionally used Low Moisture Extruder delivers a fibrous, spongy texture and a shelf-stable product that needs rehydration, HME offers a more fibrous, flake, and meaty product that must be refrigerated or frozen.
HME technology is still in its infancy. It is a more expensive investment for companies and a more expensive product for the end consumers. However, it is hoped that this method will improve the nutritional qualities as well as the taste and texture of the vegetarian meat alternatives.
Biggest Fund Ever, $30 Million
Case in point, French startup Umami has just raised what it claims is Europe’s largest Tier 1 funding round ever. This was a feat thanks to its proprietary HME process which claims to outperform other commercially available extrusion technologies by producing thicker, fuller cuts of alternative meat.
It claims that the current crop of HME technology on the market is only capable of creating horizontal or V-shaped fibers. However, its patent-pending process creates horizontal, diagonal or vertical fibres, allowing it to better fit the texture of real meat. In the category where size matters, it boasts the potential to get up to eight centimeters thick, five times the current yield of HME.
The company makes meat and seafood alternatives using primarily soy, but the process works with any protein, she says. For example, vegetarian chicken nuggets are based on the pea plant.
“Our technology is one of the very few that can clone the elongated fibers from meat using plant proteins,”explained Martin Hapfast, co-founder of Umiami. “Current commercially available technologies, particularly extrusion, cannot produce whole muscle products such as chicken breast, tenderloin, or a whole piece of salmon.”
Unique weaving process
Umami calls the process of protein synthesis, developed after two years of research and development, “umisation”, which gives a fibrous consistency of plant matrices and allows control of fiber size, direction and thickness.
Our process mainly consists of creating homogeneous fibers from vegetable proteins. By controlling fiber orientation, product thickness, water and fat content, and flavor, we can create a very wide range of whole pieces,”Co-founder status.
“Extrusion can’t reproduce those big bits: dry extrusion can only produce minced products, wet extrusion is best for thinner/shredded pieces. Our process is unique in that it bridges this gap: through the functions of vegetable proteins, it allows us to create large chunks They contain long flesh fibers. We master the orientation of these fibers as well as a host of other parameters, such as juiciness, which we can reach higher levels of extrusion), bite, flaking, and of course color, fat, and texture, allowing to recreate a wide range of Meat and fish.”
The best part, he added, is that it is clean. “We don’t use any binding or thickening agent, which means no methylcellulose, no gum, and absolutely nothing. Our products are made with five to seven easy-to-understand ingredients, such as proteins, water, oil, salt and natural flavors. “
The process, however, was a major technical challenge. “We created this process from scratch. We did not make a small modification to the extruder. We removed the extruder completely from the process and reinvented how the structure of plant proteins is made. Fortunately, we can largely implement our process using and modifying existing equipment designed for other purposes, making our process Highly scalable. This was a key aspect of our successful profit: Because this category is so dynamic, investors just don’t want a different technology. They want a reasonable time to get to market.”
“We are here to help companies expand their offering.”
Umiami’s technology last year garnered support for alternative meat brand Quorn, which awarded the Innovation Challenge award to the young company — which formed in 2020 and started life as an idea between three friends at the University of Engineering and Sciences in Paris. The number of Umami employees has grown to 20 employees, most of whom are dedicated to research and development.
It will now use the $30 million (€28 million) it raised from investors including the French government to open a 15,000 square meter plant in the country by the end of 2023. This will create 200 jobs and produce 15,000 tons of alternative meat per year to serve B2B clients on a scale the world in the field of food manufacturing and food services.
“In a couple of months, we will be the first company worldwide to produce such products on a semi-industrial scale at our pilot plant,”Follow Habfast.
Why did he go the entire B2B route? The young entrepreneur told us that consumers don’t want more brands. He said there are a lot of excellent brands out there, and they want better products. “So instead of creating another vegan brand and competing with everyone else, we focus on our core knowledge, technology and production, partnering with existing brands to bring the product to the end consumer.”
He explained that their customers are large food companies or food service organizations “They are looking to differentiate themselves by sourcing a one-of-a-kind vegan product that has total muscle. We are a partner, not a competitor, because we are here to help companies expand their offering.”