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Plant-based foods

Average read time: 8 minutes

Delicious plant-based foods are better for the health of people and the planet. We’ve put them at the heart of our strategy.

Jar of Hellmann's Vegan Mayo beside a wrap containing vegan meatballs and salad

Eating your greens really is ‘green’

The EAT-Lancet Commission showed that if people eat more plant-based foods, emissions could be cut by up to 80%. Eating meat and dairy alternatives and vegetables (whatever their colour) really is a ‘green’, or environmentally friendly, thing to do.

Eating a plant-based diet also benefits human health. Different studies have shown that plant-based diets can prevent diseases by improving glycaemic control and reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes and being overweight. There are also strong scientific indications that plant-based diets are generally associated with a reduced risk of developing cardiovascular diseases, overall cancer incidence and/or mortality.

We’re convinced. We’ve been using our expertise and product knowledge for several years to increase consumer choice, by introducing more plant-based options. We’ve now embedded plant-based thinking into our new Future Foods commitments.

More plant-based options for more people

We believe in nutritious diets that include more variety, more seasonal foods, fruit and vegetables, legumes, wholegrains and healthy oils, less meat and more plant-based options. Our portfolio of brands is well placed to help millions of people transition to a more plant-based diet.

As well as creating delicious new plant-based recipes, we’re making it easier for people to find vegetarian options in the shops. We’ve added the European Vegetarian Union’s logo to over 3,000 of our products.

We’ve set a goal on plant-based foods as part of our Unilever Compass strategy.

€1 billion annual sales from plant-based meat and dairy alternatives by 2025–2027.

This is one of our Positive nutrition goals

It’s a stretching ambition that means around a fivefold increase on our 2020 figures – and we’re determined to reach it, by increasing the plant-based offer in The Vegetarian Butcher, our dressings like Hellmann’s and ice cream portfolios.

In addition, our large global brands are taking the lead in encouraging people to switch to more plant-based diets: most notably, Knorr, which generates over €4 billion in annual turnover.

Plant-based foods are set to grow

The move towards plant-based foods is gathering pace.

New research by ethical investor network FAIRR, for example, highlights that two in five global food manufacturers now have dedicated teams to develop and sell plant-based alternatives to meat and dairy. We were named by FAIRR as a pioneer in its 2021 list of the best prepared companies for the shift towards plant-based proteins, for the second year running, scoring 91 out of a maximum of 100 points. This is a best-in-class score and #1 position within our industry.

It’s clear that plant-based alternatives offer huge commercial growth potential. And they offer a simple way of helping consumers transition to more sustainable diets.

Deliciously vegan dressings

We’re introducing delicious vegan options to our Dressings portfolio too.

Our Hellmann’s Vegan Dressing, for example, is our plant-based alternative to our traditional Hellmann's mayonnaise. We’ve removed the eggs, but not what consumers love about mayo – its famously creamy taste. In fact, Nielsen named Hellmann’s vegan mayonnaise as one of its 2020 top 25 breakthrough innovations in Europe.

Jar of Sir Kensington’s Classic Vegan Mayo against a green background

Our award-winning Sir Kensington’s Vegan Mayo also tastes just like the real thing but contains no eggs. Instead, it’s made with 100% sunflower oil and aquafaba – the natural egg substitute made simply from chickpeas and water.

And our Unilever Food Solutions (UFS) vegan mayonnaise is now available in more than 30 markets around the world, most recently introducing UFS Vegana Mayonnaise in Brazil.

Mouth-watering, non-dairy ice cream

In response to this increasing demand, we’ve continued expanding our ice cream portfolio with non-dairy and vegan offerings.

We offer non-dairy and vegan ice cream options across our global Ben & Jerry’s, Magnum, Wall’s and Cornetto brands. We also offer water ices and fruit sorbets that are inherently non-dairy.

Most recently, we’ve introduced delicious coconut- or almond-based Vegan Carte D’Or ice cream in Poland, Romania and Hungary. And in Brazil, Kibon launched its first vegan chocolate and hazelnut ice cream pint.

Our plant-based ice creams are also helping to lower the carbon intensity of our value chains, and we’re aiming for around 20% of ice cream products to be non-dairy by 2030.

More plant-based ideas for professionals

Our foodservice business, Unilever Food Solutions (UFS), offers plant-based products to help professional kitchens and hotel and catering partners like Sodexo respond to consumer demand.

UFS North America, for example, is helping operators meet customer demand for plant-based dishes with our range of plant-based, vegetarian and vegan products. In fact, in the US, 45% of our portfolio is plant-based, and in Canada, the figure is 42%. We offer recipe inspiration on our US website and Canada website, which includes plant-based, vegetarian and vegan dishes.

In 2021, we introduced Knorr’s Professional Vegan base blend in Israel, enabling chefs to create vegan versions of omelettes, shakshuka, meatballs, pies and other dishes. The product contains 30% protein, so it can also be used to diversify the source of protein in minced meat dishes.

UFS also helps chefs around the world offer more plant-based options on their menus by providing recipe inspiration, workshops and training – see Healthy habits, nutritious diets for more.

Understanding good food with Knorr’s Good Food Lab

Knorr Good Food Lab sign

We’ve teamed up with students and experts at Wageningen University in the Netherlands to create the Knorr Good Food Lab. Our aim is to conduct research into how we can shift people’s thinking and behaviour towards food that is better for their health and the planet. We will make our learnings available to the wider food community.

So what have we found already?

Our research shows that there is strong evidence that the younger generation is very open to changing their attitudes and behaviours towards good food. Diet is one of the areas that 18 to 24-year-olds are most willing to change for the benefit of the planet, with 90% saying they are willing to eat less meat.

Knorr, together with Food for Climate League and the university students, have also pulled together insights from a two-part study – we call these students the Future Food Leaders. Findings from this work can help design programmes that aim to make choosing and eating food that is good for people and the planet accessible, desirable and cookable for all.

While we don’t yet have all the answers, we hope that these findings will move the food industry one small step forward to shifting people towards choosing and eating good food.

Ensuring the nutrition quality of plant-based foods

Through our Future Foods commitments, we promote plant-based foods and diverse diets for better health of people and planet. There are different reasons why consumers choose plant-based instead of animal products, for example animal welfare, environment, novelty, availability, affordability, and, of course, health.

We’ve developed clear nutrition guidelines for our plant-based products to ensure we design nutrient-balanced plant-based options to meet our consumers’ expectations. For example, we design plant-based ice creams that comply with our sugar and calorie commitments for packaged ice cream, and often have a better nutrient profile than their dairy equivalents particularly for calories, sugar or saturated fat. Our vegan dressings are also designed to be lower in nutrients of concern (fat, salt and sugar), and are enhanced with positive nutrients and ingredients making them nutritionally comparable to our core mayonnaise ranges.

We have begun reformulating The Vegetarian Butcher products to meet our internal plant-based meat standards, which are in line with our Unilever Nutrition Standards. For instance, What the Cluck? Schnitzel and Gehacktbal products sold through our Unilever Food Solutions business and stores in Europe are now HNS compliant.

Alongside new nutritious products and making improvements to older recipes, a review conducted by our Unilever scientists suggested that “both the food and beverage industry and public health bodies have an important role to play in helping consumers transition to a more nutritionally adequate diet. It’s not up to us to decide for people what they want to eat, but it is up to us to make healthier and plant-based options accessible to all.”

Finding the next generation of meat and dairy alternatives

At our Global R&D Centre in the UK, as well as Hive Foods Innovation Centre at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, we’re working on formulating the next generation of meat and dairy alternatives, and plant-based proteins. This means making plant-based foods not only with great taste, texture and nutrition, but also finding future ingredients that respect the planet.

For example, Unilever, The Vegetarian Butcher and ENOUGH have joined forces to find diversified protein sources, such as an innovative, flavour-neutral, mushroom-based protein for our plant-based meat products. It’s got all the protein and ‘meatiness’ of meat, but is made in a more environmentally-friendly way, using 93% less water, 97% less feed and producing 97% less CO₂ than beef.

We’ve also partnered with Algenuity which has created a new type of microalgae. Algae as a source of sustainable nutrition is nothing new, as it’s packed full of protein, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals. However, microalgae have never really made it into the mainstream because of their bitter taste and smell. Algenuity’s microalgae not only taste and look good, they also perform well in cooking. We think this could be a gamechanger as a viable, vegan and climate-friendly protein alternative.

Hanneke Faber

It’s not up to us to decide for people what they want to eat, but it is up to us to make healthier and plant-based options accessible to all.

Hanneke Faber, our President, Global Nutrition

Positive nutrition and fortification explains how we’re making our products even healthier.

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