Deliciousness*, Sustainability & ROI – The FoodTech Conundrum

By Yoni Glickman, Managing Director of FoodSparks® by PeakBridge 

Yoni Glickman

Yesterday, one of my WhatsApp groups – all group members are privileged Boomers – had a robust discussion around the merits and drawbacks of plant-based salmon. Some supported the idea, others said that whilst appreciating the problem the product was trying to solve, they would rather simply partake of the real thing. Earlier today, I tasted plant-based smoked salmon and these two experiences served to crystallize some of my recent thoughts after spending twenty years in the food industry, initially as a senior executive in a flavour company and now as a FoodTech fund manager. 

Most of my Boomer friends, only one of whom is a vegetarian, were open to experiencing plant-based salmon, but were also quick to point out that if the experience was not highly comparable to the real thing, it would be just that, a one-time experience and not an ongoing item on the weekly shopping list. About 24 hours later, I tasted the plant-based salmon substitute. It’s enough to say that it will not be on our menu at home. 

This tasting experience joins similar ones I have had tasting multiple plant-based burgers, mycelium-based bacon, plant-based eggs and more. To date unfortunately, none have passed a basic taste test. 

About two years ago, I decided to switch sides leaving an executive committee position at one of the world’s largest companies, IFF, that provides specialty ingredients to the food industry to enter the brave new world of FoodTech. The move had two central motivations, the first was to play a part in correcting the broken food system and the second to bring my years of experience and expertise to this new and exciting asset class. 

Foodtech’s key mission is to deploy innovative technology contributing solutions for the two underlying issues within the food system: 

  • Negative effects on the planet due to significant amount of GHG emissions, deforestation to grow crops for both animals and humans, and land degradation. 
  • Negative effects on human health due to over-consumption of ultra-processed food. 

Multiple strategies including, but certainly not limited to, cultivating field crops for better nutrient values, developing a new generation of low-calorie sweeteners and growing cellular meat are now being deployed to mitigate these underlying issues. 

So, how does this connect to my initial plant-based salmon story? Food is one of human beings’ greatest pleasures. It is not just a way to receive necessary sustenance, but a source of joy, human engagement and socialization. Over the course of the last two years, I have met many inspiring, aspirational entrepreneurs driven by a desire to build profitable businesses whilst creating a positive impact. Sadly, however, the majority seem to forget that food must be delicious. Food is not only about physiological requirements, but also about psychological needs. 

As an investor, I would be pleased to see fewer plant-based start-ups attempting to mimic or recreate animal proteins in form and taste. Mimicking is almost mission impossible. The challenges of taste, texture mouthfeel and colour of a steak or salmon and even a hamburger are enormous and will almost inevitably lead to consumer disappointment. However, delivering the onset and prolonged deliciousness analogous, but not identical to animal protein in plant-based foods is indeed possible. For those of us who have experienced the inherent satisfaction of good Indian dahl or Mid-Eastern Humus this, is clear. 

Similarly, other novel ingredients that are being developed to either replace highly used, but less favourable, ingredients such as salt and sugar, or to be included in food for positive health benefits often suffer from the deliciousness gap. The simple fact is that the vast majority of human beings will only continue to consume foods that satisfy not only their conscience, but also their taste buds. 

Thus, true deliciousness must be a core criterion in FoodTech development and not, as I often observe when tasting, an after-thought to be solved once it is too late. Deliciousness will also be a critical factor for ROI, as after the initial curiosity wains, consumers will return to food that deeply satisfies them. The negative sales traction that has been witnessed in sales and consequently share price of the large plant-based burger brands Beyond, Maple Leaf, and Morning Star Farms should surely be a wake-up call for investors that perhaps there should be a new paradigm shift to satisfy consumer taste buds rather than merely attempting to copy meat 

*Thanks to my friends at MFL for the philosophical discussions around the deeper meaning of meat deliciousness.