Food & Beverage

As protein goes meat-free, Ingredion rides the trend of rethinking vegetables

In order to ignite growth and meet changing consumer, big food firms are rolling out new innovations that make it both fun to eat your vegetables—and fill you up in the process.

One company, a nearly $9 billion giant called Ingredion, is on the front lines of eating trends that have made people rethink a wide variety of greens, legumes and other plant-based foods.

"One of the biggest trends, besides gluten free and non-GMO are having proteins in one's vegetables and forming that into something like pasta and this could be anything from chickpeas, or fava beans," Ingredion CEO Ilene Gordon told CNBC this week in an interview.

As its name might suggest, Ingredion supplies ingredients to large food firms. According to Gordon, the standards consumers are demanding from her company are constantly changing according to healthier eating trends.

"Millennials really want clean and simple labels... to understand what the ingredients are," Gordon said.

Health and wellness has recently become a big focus of the country's largest food companies. For example, just this week, Tyson Foods, the country's largest meat processor by revenue, announced a plan to remove all antibiotics used on poultry it its Tyson-branded products.

Snack giant Mondelez also announced its largest product launch since it split from Kraft Foods back in 2012. The Oreo cookie maker's new food line is called Vea and it's free of GMOs and artificial ingredients. The snacks come in superfood varieties like Peruvian sweet potato.

Yet the consumer shift towards clean eating isn't a new phenomenon. Health-conscious customers have been turning to upstarts that create the simple products they desire.

That's why large companies are creating in-house venture funds. Campbell's Soup for example, dedicated $125 million towards their fund last year.

For its part, one of the ways Ingredion has tried to conform is by implementing new preparation technologies. The CEO explained that her company is experimenting with techniques that make foods more palatable without adding in artificial ingredients.

Meanwhile, besides the obvious connotation with healthy eating, Gordon says vegetables also go hand in hand with the consumer's obsession with protein. The market for "meat-free" protein, which includes vegetables as well as other products, is expected to see sizable growth in the next few years.

"People want protein in different ways… soy protein has been around, but there are some negative connotations with soy protein, so I think vegetable protein is going to be the next trend that consumers want in their crackers, in their pasta and in their rice," Gordon said.

In order to compete, Gordon says Ingredion has made sure to focus on tailoring ingredients to the small firms that are gaining market share, since large firms are quickly acquiring those start-ups to keep up with the trends.