Unilever partners with fermented protein provider to bulk up plant-based alternatives

Dive Brief:

  • Unilever will partner with European food tech company Enough to supply ingredients for new plant-based products. Enough uses fermentation technology to produce Abunda, a versatile and high-quality mycoprotein.
  • Enough is a business-to-business ingredient provider that uses renewable feedstocks to grow its protein. As a company, Enough has plans to double in size next year, and will be opening a mycoprotein factory that will start out producing about 11,000 tons of protein annually, Vegconomist reported. Within a decade, the new factory is projected to produce more than 1 million tons of mycoprotein a year.
  • This partnership is Unilever’s latest development as it works toward the goal of selling 1 billion euros ($1.2 billion) worth of plant-based meat and dairy alternatives in the next five to seven years. Unilever, which estimated last year that a third of its food and beverage portfolio was plant-based products, has previously partnered with algae protein company Algenuity and opened a new R&D center in 2019 to help focus on plant-based innovation.

Dive Insight:

As Unilever works to forge its path as a plant-based product leader, making partnerships with up and coming ingredient providers can help it get there more successfully.

Enough — or 3F Bio, as it was until recently known — is not a well-known player in the fermentation space in the United States, but it’s grabbing a deep foothold on the European market. As the company was announcing its name change last month, Vegconomist reported it had a commitment for 75% of its initial production capacity of Abunda. The company has also partnered with British retailer Marks and Spencer, which launched a unit this year called the Innovation Hub to work toward building sustainable food solutions — especially in the plant-based realm.

In the United States, Unilever’s plant-based offerings are mainly concentrated in frozen treats and condiments, including its vegan varieties of Ben & Jerry’s, Hellmann’s and Talenti. In Europe, Unilever’s Vegetarian Butcher brand of plant-based meat has been one of the company’s top growth brands, with sales increasing more than 70% last year, the company said. The press release indicates Enough will be helping this brand expand and develop new offerings. Vegetarian Butcher, a Dutch company which Unilever purchased in 2018, has plant-based chicken, beef and pork products at grocery stores in 45 countries. The brand has a partnership with Burger King in more than 35 countries, providing the fast food restaurant with Plant-Based Whoppers, Plant-Based Nuggets and Vegan Royales.

Unilever has been tight lipped about whether Vegetarian Butcher products may cross the Atlantic Ocean and appear in U.S. grocery stores, but this new partnership with Enough could help the company create many new options, both adding to the Vegetarian Butcher and creating new product lines. Fungus fermentation is used by a variety of companies to create varying food products, ranging from Quorn’s vast portfolio of meat alternatives to MycoTechology’s ingredients to block bitter tastes and enhance sweetness.

Enough incorporates its low carbon footprint deep into its branding, which will be an asset to Unilever as works to meet its sustainability goals — including the plant-based sales target, which the company said is related to reducing emissions from traditional animal agriculture. On its website, Enough compares its water usage, carbon emissions and feed and resource efficiency to beef, chicken, pea and grain production. The differences are stark — compared with beef production, Enough says it uses 97% less water, has 82% lower carbon emissions and uses 97% less feed.

For Enough — and for mycoprotein as an ingredient in general — this agreement also opens more doors at a time when the company is primed for expansion. Manufacturers that are looking for new options for plant-based proteins could see Unilever’s partnership with Enough and think more about the possibilities mycoprotein could bring to their products. After Unilever’s agreement with algae protein company Algenuity last year, its founder and CEO Andrew Spicer said their partnership boosted the algae ingredient market. Mycoprotein — and fermented ingredients on the whole — are in a position for massive expansion, with $435 million invested in the space in the first eight months of 2020, according to the Good Food Institute. 

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