Shifting consumer attitudes, an uptake of plant-based and flexitarian diets, and a growing global demand for food are driving rapid expansion in the plant-based meat sector. In fact, sales of meat-free products are expected to exceed £1.1 billion in the UK by 2024.
The plant-based meat market has become highly contested, with established brands and start-ups alike vying for the attention and loyalty of consumers. The notable increase of plant-based meat analogs on our supermarket shelves has been mirrored by a surge of patent filings to protect the exciting underlying technological innovations. The patent portfolios of plant-based companies provide insights into the technologies driving the future of plant-based meat products.
Patents on a plate
Despite the shift towards at least partially plant-based diets in recent years, traditional meat is still in high demand. One often cited issue is that the plant-based alternative isn’t the same – the complex characteristics of conventional meat are difficult to reproduce. Innovators are therefore developing technologies to create products that can match or even surpass conventional meat in terms of qualities such as cookability, texture and flavor.
To enhance the “cookability” of their products, THIS have developed “Fat 2.0”, a proprietary fat composition of blended plant oils and plant gum designed to mimic the distinctive transformations undergone by animal-derived products during cooking. The resulting products will have juiciness and rendering properties reminiscent of traditional meats with the additional bonus of reduced saturated fat content.
Plant proteins generally lack the fibrous characteristic of conventional meat, resulting in a less-than-authentic overall texture. However, Redefine Meat’s (‘Meat Matrix Manufacturing’ 3D printing technique improves the structure and consistency of their plant-based meat products by tailoring a combination of “fat” and “muscle” to accurately recreate traditional meat structures.
The chemical reactions undergone by molecules in meat upon heating contribute to the overall flavor. Using soy leghemoglobin as a convincing substitute for heme, Impossible Foods have succeeded in recreating the characteristically metallic meat-like flavor of traditional meats. The recent opposition in Europe and challenges in the US to these patents serve to highlight the importance of a comprehensive patent strategy covering all innovations to safeguard against challenges.
We expect to see a continued increase in both patent filings and disputes in this field as companies strive to carve out their own niche in an increasingly crowded sector.
Picky Eaters: how consumer demand drives innovation
Consumers want products to be good for their health, as well as the health of the planet. Ecovative’s proprietary AirMycelliumTM technology achieves this by guiding the natural growth patterns of mycelia, the “root-like” structures of fungi, to produce parallel fibres which mimic the texture, density, and flavor of muscle tissue. Their initial product MyTMBacon has quickly sold out of every production run so far.
IP protection as the ultimate side-dish
Producing a convincing plant-based meat analogue which meets the additional health and sustainability demands of modern consumers is complex; this is reflected in the amount of innovation in the plant‑based meat sector. To protect against competitors piggybacking off these hard-earned technological advances, companies must implement an IP strategy that suits their business model and harnesses all available IP rights. Patents protecting an underlying innovation should be complemented by design rights and trademarks to build brand identity and help prevent the launch of copy-cat products by competitors.
Being plant-based is no longer enough to stand out from the crowd in this busy sector. Successful brands will differentiate themselves through compelling marketing strategies which work together with their IP to create a unique selling point that draws in and retains customers.
Plant-based meats have arrived in a big way and look like they are here to stay. With innovation continuing to grow in this area, it presents an exciting challenge for both scientists and IP professionals working together to create and maintain a unique selling point based on underlying innovative technologies. For companies wanting to break-out in this market, a comprehensive IP portfolio may be the (not-so) secret ingredient.
Written by Eleanor Maciver, Partner Patent Attorney and Sustainability Champion, and Lauren Woolley, Trainee Patent Attorney working in the Life Sciences team, Mewburn Ellis.