The Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) is enabling New Zealand to tap into the growing market for plant-based products, where vegetables feature as a 'centre of the plate' item.
A diverse range of new processed vegetable products is now available on the market, thanks to $147,000 investment from MPI's Sustainable Food and Fibre Futures (SFF Futures) fund – and more innovation is underway.
The 2-year project led by Food Nation, which kicked off in mid-2019, aimed to develop a range of plant-based 'meat alternative' foods using mushroom seconds and an array of other more novel plants.
One year on, it has made some exciting progress.
"Many of the plant-based meals currently on the market revolve around 'fake meat'," says Miranda Burdon, co-founder of Food Nation.
"They try to reflect the taste and texture of meat, rather than showcasing the various plants they are made of. The products we're developing are predominantly and unashamedly made of mushrooms, grains, and vegetables.
"They are free from soy, dairy, and gluten so people with all types of diets can enjoy them."
The Auckland-based company is using fresh New Zealand ingredients as much as possible, working in partnership with New Zealand producers such as Meadow Mushrooms, Kiwi Quinoa, Hemp Farm, and the Pure NZ Buckwheat Co.
"We're aiming our products at the 'reduce-a-tarians' market – including vegans and vegetarians as much as anyone who wants to eat less meat, but still want something substantial that tastes amazing," says Ms Burdon.
Steve Penno, MPI's director investment programmes, says the skills and ingredients Food Nation are using are in their infancy in New Zealand, and the work they're doing with food technology institutions and other plant food suppliers and processors in New Zealand is building this capability.
"There's a growing global market for alternatives to meat-based protein, and our support of this project will help New Zealand to tap into that market much faster. This investment will have benefits for New Zealand businesses looking to enter the market, and help build our plant-based food sector."
Ms Burdon says without SFF Futures funding, Food Nation wouldn't have got where it is today. "It's helped us with the development end immeasurably, enabling us to develop our knowhow and capability as we innovate to deliver new taste sensations."
Food Nation recognises that to create change in consumer's eating habits, any new product must be easy to adopt. To make it easy for people wanting to reduce their meat intake, they have focused on developing products that can be substituted in traditional recipes.
"Our market research found that consumers wanted a mince-like product first and foremost as it's so versatile in cooking, so that was our first area of focus," says Ms Burdon. "Whatever we produce, our aim is to make it 'craveably' good. There are around 50,000 edible plants in the world, so there's no shortage of options."
The products have a 4-week shelf life without using preservatives, achieved by changing the cooking process and packaging. By using fully recyclable packaging and mushrooms that don't make the grade for supermarket shelves, Food Nation is reducing waste.
The company is already turning heads internationally – taking out the 'Best meat alternative' category at the World Plant-Based Awards in October 2020. They were also recently one of the top 10 finalists of FoodStarter, New World, and Ministry of Awesome's competition to find New Zealand's most innovative food and beverage products for their 'Happy Patties'.
Mr Penno says boosting the capability of the plant-based sector provides diversification opportunities for farmers from regions across New Zealand. "It's a sustainable and high-value revenue stream with a low environmental impact – and what's more the end result is tasty and healthy."