UNILEVER Innovation is crucial for the future, also in the food industry

The food industry is changing. As more and more people switch to plant-based diets, the emergence of meat substitutes whose structure and flavour are all but indistinguishable from the real thing is easing the transformation. ‘De Vegetarische Slager’ is a pioneer in this arena. Ram Huigen is in charge of the company’s Dutch division and knows all the ins and outs of plant-based innovation.

Back in 2010, De Vegetarische Slager became one of the first companies to start marketing plant-based ‘meat’ products. It all started with founder Jaap Korteweg’s quest to satisfy his meat craving without eating animals. That planted the seed for De Vegetarische Slager, replicating the taste and texture of meat in plant-based products made using proteins derived from soya and lupin beans.

After Unilever acquired the company from Jaap and his co-founder Niko Koffeman in late 2018, Ram Huigen worked on marketing its line of plant-based meat alternatives, focusing specifically on the product range, where it is sold and how it’s marketed. “To me, the great thing about working in the food industry is that you can have impact every day”, Ram says. “It may seem small, but because you have to eat every day, food can genuinely change society.”

Preparing for the future
It was the book Ten Billion that first sparked Ram’s interest in innovative, sustainable solutions, in which author Stephen Emmott imagines our world with a global population of ten billion. “That book was an eye-opener for me. Many problems the world faces are a consequence of the way we lead our lives. Innovation is crucial for the future, also in the food industry. Switching to a plant-based eating pattern may not seem like it would accomplish much, but it has a real effect at scale.”

Research and development
Consumer awareness about why plant-based food matters has been rising in recent years. “Whether out of concern for the planet, animal welfare or individual health, interest in plant-based food is growing”, Ram observes. “By offering meat substitutes that taste, feel and look like the original, we make choosing the plant-based version easier. Added to that, we are improving and expanding our product range all the time.” Getting the composition just right takes a lot of research. Most of that happens at the Unilever Foods Innovation Centre in Wageningen. “This is where we work on innovations and research to produce food that’s sustainable, nutritious and delicious”, Ram explains. “Newly developed products are subjected to a whole battery of taste tests. Consumers are very frank in their feedback, especially on social media, and we make the most of that.”

Growing market
The market for plant-based foods is growing. De Vegetarische Slager now supplies its range of meat substitutes to 55 countries globally, and the brand has partnerships with major chains including Burger King, Domino’s Pizza and Starbucks.

All the same, transforming the food industry is no easy feat. Innovation is key, but not enough to guarantee change. “Consumers have to want to adopt an innovation”, Ram concludes, “and with our marketing campaigns we are trying to stimulate that. Creating consumer awareness is the first step. Acting on it is another story. Changing behaviour is the hardest thing to do, but we are trying.”