Labelling regulations called threat to pulse protein sector

MONTREAL — Pulse protein demand and development is being pushed forward by mighty consumer tailwinds.

But it also faces frequent headwinds, so promising products have to fight choppy seas.

Food developers must tack through the rough waters to reach the consumer demand, Loblaws’ director of product development, Samara Foisy, told the Canadian pulse and special crops industry.

“It’s hard for us to make a claim,” said Foisy, whose company, which owns a number of grocery store companies across Canada, has introduced dozens of plant-based protein products in recent years.

“The biggest challenge for us is the (labelling) regulations because it really holds us back communicating the benefits of these plant-based products, especially when it comes to making a protein claim.”

Plant-based protein demand is exploding, driven by a wave of consumer demand from “flexitarians,” vegetarians, vegans and those seeking “healthy” and “sustainable” diets. The development is being supported by processors, food manufacturers, grocery stores and fast food restaurants.

But it faces unique challenges, especially in the meat-replacement category, Foisy said:

  • Labelling regulations require protein measurements that aren’t necessarily accurate about the value of plant protein.
  • Canadian regulations are often different than those in other countries, causing problems when accessing ingredients from outside Canada.
  • Canada’s Food Guide encourages consumers to look for less-processed foods.
  • Consumers want plant-based alternatives to meat, but they want those alternatives to taste and seem like meat.
  • Consumers don’t like seeing complicated names for ingredients on food packages.

“Most of the innovations coming on the market in terms of plant-based foods have some level of processing to it,” said Foisy.

Plant-based proteins have been around forever, but their contemporary use as ingredients in complex food products and as the basis of meat replacements is relatively new. The past three years have seen a rapid inflation of plant protein demand, with the processing, manufacturing, grocery and restaurant industries scrambling to keep up.

Foisy said companies like hers want to be able to clearly show consumers how much protein is in a packaged product, but labelling regulations make this difficult and confusing.

The primary method by which protein value is assessed doesn’t well represent the true value for humans of various types of plant protein, Foisy said. That method should be re-examined.

And when multiple forms of plant protein are used in a product to replace meat protein, the labelling also gets confusing, she said.

Both Foisy and Dalhousie University food industry expert Sylvain Charlebois said the Canada’s Food Guide recommendations to avoid too much processed food is a problem for the perception of many current and on-the-way plant protein products, since most are highly processed.

In the long run, Foisy said, the food industry must consider how to make products with less processing and simpler ingredients.

“How do we get to an area where it’s less processed and will have more kitchen-cupboard-friendly ingredients in these products,” said Foisy.

In surveys, many consumers say they don’t like seeing too big a list of ingredients in food products, and they especially don’t like ingredients with complicated, science-sounding names.

Charlebois said the food guide needs to include more input from food industry people because those composing the guide don’t necessarily understand the modern food industry and aren’t always challenged on their assumptions.

Health Canada’s guide staff are “great people, (the) dietitians and nutritionists, but their view of the food system is very narrow,” said Charlebois.

However, they appear to be willing to talk with industry, so some input is possible.

“They deserve a broader approach to food,” said Charlebois.

“There is more openness today.”

While some challenges to plant protein development depend on government action, the food industry should be working out among itself how to develop the market and regulations so that these popular and seemingly healthy and sustainable products can be as available as possible.

Labelling is an area where an industry voice would help.

“I think we need to move forward with a consistent labelling strategy as an industry so that consumers are able to easily identify these products,” said Foisy.

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