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Finland offers sustainable food choices for a modern diet

Finland’s high competence in industrial biotech has led to new plant-based food innovations.

Mikko Törmänen / Business Finland

Plant-based foods, in particular new oat products, offer Finland new opportunities to strengthen its role in the global food supply, write Csaba Jansik and Anu Kaukovirta from Natural Resources Institute Finland (Luke).

The global food system is undergoing a major transition towards more sustainable production. This has opened new opportunities for Finland to strengthen its role in the global food supply. Finnish food production has positive future prospects due to a beneficial climate, water resources and production hygiene conditions. These are further boosted by new technologies and high education levels in the primary sector.

In fact, Finland was a forerunner in functional foods already back in the 1980s, starting from dairy and special sugar and fat innovations. However, since 2010, plant-based foods have been the fastest-growing category of new food innovations. And the leading raw material in these innovations has been oats. Finland has been one of the world’s largest oat exporters for decades, exporting 300–400 thousand tonnes of oats annually. Oats are mainly shipped as grain, but the focus is shifting to processed milling products and new, innovative oat products. This development is based on long-term, cutting-edge oat-related research, which has been ongoing in Finland since the 1990s. Research projects have brought together academia and the business sector and have been actively supported by public funding bodies. These projects have developed fractionation, malting, extraction and other processing technologies and knowhow, which now support the commercial production of the likes of oat-based fibre, protein, oil and xylitol ingredients.

Finland’s high competence in industrial biotech has led to new plant-based food innovations. Image: Mikko Törmänen / Business Finland

One recently concluded high-scale research project was called Oathow. In it, a consortium of research institutes and universities established a hyperspectral imaging methodology that can predict oat quality parameters that cannot be measured with currently available commercial calibration tools. The consortium also developed new oat processing technologies with a focus on oat protein functionalisation and breadmaking.

Strong oat knowhow has boosted the rapid development of plant-based innovations, especially milk and meat alternatives, in Finnish food companies. Most major dairy, meat and cereal processing companies have established their own plant-based protein product lines and acquired related startups or mid-sized companies. As a result, the value of domestic markets for milk and meat substitutes amounts to tens of millions of euros. Finnish exports of oat drinks and oatgurts alone have tripled to nearly 24 million euros in two years. In addition, the export of meat alternatives has exceeded three million euros.

“Strong oat knowhow has boosted the rapid development of plant-based innovations, especially milk and meat alternatives, in Finnish food companies.”

The market potential of these plant-based food products is enormous, and oats are a substantial raw material for them. Thanks to investments in milling companies, the exports of oat products have doubled in just five years. And this is just the start. An immense new investment is on its way, and it will nearly double the Finnish oat milling capacity from the current level by 2023.

In future, other raw materials like faba bean, nettle and hemp are strongly coming aboard in product development. Furthermore, various emerging solutions, such as vertical farming and cellular agriculture, are expected to open new business fields for Finland with global export potential. The country’s high competence in industrial biotech has already been actively turned into food innovations. Innovative startups are developing single-cell proteins and recombinant protein solutions for food applications. One area of unexplored opportunities may be grass, the typical feed for ruminants in Finland. A new initiative titled Grass-biorefinery brings together different processing strategies to develop grass-based foods directly for human consumption. There are endless opportunities, but realistically we can expect it to take several years before these innovations will be widely available to consumers.

We also have to note how the current acute instability in Europe is rapidly changing the food system. The EU and other cereal producing regions have recognised their responsibility in the current food crisis. Finland could also contribute to the stabilisation of the global market situation by increasing food exports. While the country’s oat production has been primarily driven by commercial ambitions, it’s through oat products that Finland may have an opportunity to help to alleviate the global food crisis. Oatmeal is affordable but healthy and nutritious, making it a good fit for food aid programmes.

Anu Kaukovirta & Csaba Jansik
Natural Resources Institute Finland