Growing pains in the plant protein marketplace

Labelling and supply are issues as plant protein production grows

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The next step in research and development of plant-based proteins is bringing ingredients into the kitchens of home-based cooks.

However, major challenges remain, including labelling, consistency of supply for raw ingredients, and the regulatory framework around fortification of vitamins.

Those were among the messages delivered on Jan. 29 by Leslie Ewing, executive director of Plant-Based Foods Canada, during the annual conference of Ontario’s processing vegetable industry.

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Why it matters: Plant-based proteins are a growth market that could represent an opportunity for farmers who can supply the crops necessary for the products’ creation.

Ewing spent the early part of her presentation at a conference jointly hosted by the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Processors Association and the Ontario Processing Vegetable Growers, providing evidence that plant-based proteins are much more than a fad.

When A&W launched its Beyond Meat burger in 2018, she said it was the first time in the fast food sector the manufacturer of the food product was front-and-centre in the marketing campaign, as opposed to the restaurant.

“This is not the way you typically launch products.”

As the public face of an organization advocating on behalf of about a dozen companies active in Canada selling plant-based alternatives to meat, Ewing said she thinks the dairy alternative market might offer clues as to what products might come next.

“Non-dairy” has been around a lot longer, she noted, but now it’s time for the plant-based meats and cheeses to move into the kitchen in a big way.

“People are looking for ‘how do I make my vegan pizza?’”

Any company that wants to join Plant-Based Foods Canada, she stressed, is “heavily vetted by me” because the organization does not aim to antagonize the meat-producing sectors.

“We are very moderate. This is not about the promotion of plant-based foods as a way to eliminate animal agriculture, and to the denigration of everybody involved in that sector.”

She argued it should be recognized, however, that eliminating meat from diets isn’t a new idea. After sharing a quote from Albert Einstein promoting a vegetarian diet, she offered Canadian farmers should “think of it as exploring diets with options, rather than reducing the options or taking away things from a diet.”

The reception received by Ewing from the predominantly southwestern Ontario-based conference attendees couldn’t be described as warm. She fielded questions related to the health merits of foods that are generally higher-processed and with more diverse ingredients than real meat, before hearing a single question about which types of crops farmers should be considering if they aim to serve the plant-based protein market in the future.

Ewing said the explosion in popularity of plant-based alternatives hasn’t been without big challenges.

Concurrent with this explosion, she noted, has been a significant diversification beyond soybeans, which previously dominated in raw crops being used to create plant-based meat products.

Whether it’s beets, jackfruit, palm or peas, the number of companies looking to secure supply rapidly skyrocketed, and there simply was nowhere near the quantity available. Often, if the crops could be obtained, they were of questionable quality.

Uncertainty also lingers about the regulatory framework needed for vitamin-fortifying ingredients, which grocery store shelves should hold the products, and labelling, which Ewing stressed, “can make a huge difference on consumer decisions.” In restaurant and food service environments, there’s the challenge of offering plant-based proteins but failing to disclose that they’ve been cooked on the same grills that are used for real meat.

“It has created disruption all along the value chain,” she said.

About the author


Stew Slater

Stew Slater operates a small dairy farm on 150 acres near St. Marys, Ont., and has been writing about rural and agricultural issues since 1999.



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