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Delicious plant-based foods are better for the health of people and the planet. We’ve put them at the heart of our strategy.
The benefits of plant-based foods
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. But plant-based diets are not only better for the planet, they’re good for human health too.
The health benefits of a plant-based diet
In our Ask a Scientist video series, our Global Diet & Health Director, Julie Willems, explains why eating a plant-based diet is healthy.
“Firstly, it’s typically lower in calories and saturated fat and higher in fibre and unsaturated fats. Secondly, it can reduce the risk of disease. 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 of the health benefits of adding more plant-based foods to our diets. We’ve been using our expertise and product knowledge for several years to increase consumer choice, by introducing more plant-based options and increasing sales of a diverse range of protein sources. And 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. In 2021, 4,000 of our products carried the European Vegetarian Union’s logo. And we’ve set a goal on plant-based foods as part of our Unilever Compass strategy.
It’s a stretching ambition that means around a fivefold increase on our 2020 figures – and we’re determined to reach it, by increasing our plant-based offer in The Vegetarian Butcher, our dressings like Hellmann’s, and our ice cream portfolio.
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
There are different reasons why consumers choose plant-based instead of animal products, for example animal welfare, the environment, novelty, availability, affordability and, of course, health. And the move towards plant-based foods is gathering pace. New research by ethical investor network FAIRR shows that all companies assessed are investing in the development of plant-based products.
We were named by FAIRR as a pioneer in its 2021 list of the best prepared companies for the shift towards plant-based proteins. We scored 91 out of a maximum of 100 points – a best-in-class score and number 1 position within our industry and we retained the number 1 position in 2022.
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 Mayo, 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.
Nielsen named Hellmann’s Vegan Mayo as one of its 2020 top 25 breakthrough innovations in Europe. In fact, it’s the top-selling vegan mayonnaise in the UK, Canada, Germany, Spain, Sweden, Greece, the Czech Republic and the Netherlands. It’s now available in 33 markets (and counting).
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.
In countries where Unilever mayonnaises were not already present, we launched new products as ‘plant-based by design’ from the start. For example, in India we introduced our full Hellmann’s range as egg-free.
Mouth-watering, non-dairy ice cream
In response to increasing demand, we’ve continued expanding our ice cream portfolio with non-dairy and vegan offerings. We offer these 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 our ice cream products to be non-dairy by 2030 .
More plant-based ideas for professionals
Through our foodservice business, Unilever Food Solutions (UFS), we offer plant-based options catering to all needs to help professional kitchens and catering partners like Sodexo respond to consumer preferences.
UFS North America, for example, is helping operators meet customer demand with our range of plant-based, vegetarian and vegan products, including vegan mayo, seasonings, soups and sauces. 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 include 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 popular recipes. 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 to offer more plant-based options on their menus, by providing recipe inspiration, workshops and training – see Nutritious diets, healthy habits for everyone.
Understanding good food with Knorr’s Good Food Lab
We’ve teamed up with students and experts at Wageningen University & Research 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 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 at a time, to shifting people towards choosing and eating better 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 the planet.
We’ve developed clear nutrition guidelines for our plant-based products to ensure we design nutrient-balanced plant-based options to meet consumer 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. And product development of our vegan dressings and foods are guided by Unilever Nutrition Standards (PDF 540.15 KB) .
We’ve taken several steps in reformulating The Vegetarian Butcher products to meet these standards. For instance, What the Cluck, Schnitzel and Gehacktbal products sold through our Unilever Food Solutions business and stores in Europe are now Highest Nutrition Standards (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.”
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 & Research, we’re working on formulating the next generation of meat and dairy alternatives and plant-based protein products. This means making plant-based foods not only with great taste, texture and nutrition, but also finding future ingredients , such as a diverse range of protein sources in our products and recipes, that respect the planet.
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.
Soy is also an important ingredient across our foods portfolio, particularly for The Vegetarian Butcher and our ice cream ranges. Scientists from Unilever and Wageningen University & Research have discovered that, contrary to popular belief, processing soy does not decrease its protein nutritional quality , which confirms it as a valuable source of protein in plant-based foods.
We are also working with Wageningen University & Research, and partners that span the entire vegetable protein chain, the Plant Meat Matters project. Together we are working on the scientific basis to understand the structuring process of meat alternatives while including flavour components, fat and other ingredients. These findings will be used to further develop technology for making the next generation of meat alternatives. We’re also a part of PlantPROMISE , which is assessing meat alternatives for optimal nutritional value, digestibility, sensorial quality and long-term consumer acceptance.
In addition, we’ve initiated a public–private partnership, led by Wageningen University & Research, which will look at the health impact of currently available plant-based meats compared to animal meat. We know, for example, that many plant-based meat products have more fibre, less saturated fat and more salt than animal meat. But little is known about the long-term health effects and the impact on the gut microbiome of these products. We’re researching how to improve plant-based meat by evaluating their effects on human health , as well as developing design rules for healthier ingredients.
We’re also part of the EU-funded Horizon Research and Innovation Action called Giant Leaps . This consortium, with 34 multidisciplinary partners, aims to deliver the strategic innovations, methodologies, and open-access datasets to speed up the shift from animal-based diets to diversified proteins. And the Bites & Beats research with TNO and other partners at Lowlands in the Netherlands is helping us to gain a better understanding of both present and future plant-forward eating behaviours.
Driving a total food system transformation
Through the Food Reform for Sustainability and Health (FReSH) project, led by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) and in collaboration with other business partners, we’re helping to drive a total food system transformation. We take a ‘fork to farm’ approach, starting with the dietary shifts needed for everybody to be able to eat well, responsibly and within planetary boundaries. Together, we will develop, implement and scale transformative business solutions aligned with science-based targets.
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.