A lot has been said about AI’s role in the future of our society in recent months, with the likes of ChatGPT and Dall-E 2 enabling more people to test its capabilities than ever before. However, AI has more of a role to play in our lives moving forward than just acting as a personal assistant in your watch, or in helping to write up complex documents. In fact, AI is already helping to make plant-based food closer to its meat-based counterparts in texture, taste, and nutritional value. Me
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Based in Chile, and with the backing of investment firms such as Bezos Expeditions and L Catterton, plant-based food company NotCo has been working to create the best vegan alternatives to some of the world’s most popular animal products: Milk, Mayonnaise, Ice Cream, Chicken and Beef.
These products have been workshopped over the past six years, with NotCo utilising various natural ingredients, such as peas, sunflower seeds, coconut butter, cabbage and pineapple in order to replicate not just the right flavour but the right texture, too.
And they’re getting pretty close, with global fast food chain Burger King selling NotCo’s ‘beef’ burgers under the Rebel Whopper name, and Kraft-Heinz company working with NotCo to create plant-based versions of some of their brands.
According to NotCo’s Country Manager for Australia Maximiliano Silva, the business’ in-house AI, Giuseppe, has played a key role in making that possible.
“Customers believe that switching to plant-based [food] means you have to make sacrifices [on taste],” Silva told Inside Retail.
“We wanted to create a product that eliminates the need for customers to make a trade off. We turned to AI for help to bring amazing tasting products to life that customers will adopt.
“Giuseppe allowed us to be the first company to disrupt massive food and beverage segments, including dairy, eggs, and meat simultaneously on a global scale [and] we have a team of scientists, culinary chefs, and engineers working together and providing feedback to Giuseppe, to refine and launch the best tasting products on the market.”
Giuseppe operates by taking data points about thousands of ingredients – such as taste, consistency, acidity, nutritional value, and even smell – and matching them with the product being replicated. According to NotCo, for example, pineapple and coconut have molecules equivalent to dairy products and create a more consistent vegan milk substitute.
This process cuts down on thousands of hours of R&D, and has “come a long way” since its initial launch.
“Our first NotMilk, while it tasted like milk, was green,” Silva said.
“Giuseppe is constantly learning, and we’re always refining recipes, but that was a lesson early on – people taste with their eyes first.”
According to forecasts by GlobalData, the alternative meat market’s value in Australasia is expected to jump 570 per cent in the next few years, reaching $1.4 billion (US$912 million) in 2025.
And, according to a recent study by Macquarie University, young people are leading the charge on healthier eating options: Australians aged between 18 and 25 are increasingly subscribing to the ‘climatarian’ diet: that is, a diet with a low environmental footprint.
Despite its novel approach, NotCo still has to prove that its products not only stack up to the originals, but beat out a widening group of competitors in the plant-based food sector.
For example, Lord of the Fries recently launched a limited-edition plant-based schnitzel menu in collaboration with Harvest Gourmet, while Domino’s has released a range of meatless pizzas with Impossible Foods.
McDonald’s McPlant burger, made in collaboration with Beyond Meat, also recently arrived in Australia as a trial offer, while Soul Burger partnered with Future Farm to create its own range of plant-based burgers.
“The plant-based protein space has become a saturated market [but] we see this as an opportunity,” Silva said.
“Consumers are demanding plant-based proteins [that] meet three pieces of criteria: tastes amazing, is affordable, and offers the same sensory experience one has when eating animal-based products.”