Alternatives to typically consumed animal protein products come from a variety of sources. While the media are abuzz with news of meat and dairy analogs from sources such as such as algae, insects, microbial biomass, and cultivated animal, plants still rule the meat and dairy substitute kingdom.

Today’s vegetarians, vegans, and especially flexitarians are increasingly turning to plant-based options to take the place of meat and dairy. Citing everything from the environmental and health impact of conventional protein choices to ethical and sustainability concerns, consumers are eagerly sinking their teeth into burgers, bacon, and brats made from plants and washing them down with milk from nuts and seeds. The combined annual sales of meat and dairy analogs from plants total more than $1 billion.

Part of the appeal, too, has been the “breaking of the wall” between meat substitutes and meat analogs. In the early years of veggie burger development, conflict arose between two goals. On one hand, there were those chefs who strived to make products that could substitute for meat rather than mimic meat. Form and nutrient profile seemed more important than flavor and texture. On the other hand, there were those developers who chose not to box themselves in by focusing on meat rejecters; instead, they wanted to appeal to those consumers who craved the flavor, bite, and mouthfeel of meat but didn’t want it from animals.

Early meat analogs suffered from deficits in flavor and texture until technology stepped in to create plant-derived ingredients that could stand up to their meaty counterparts and satisfy the latent carnivorous cravings of consumers.

The recent evolutionary leap in plant-based protein technology allows for exciting culinary exploration to meet the taste and texture experience expectations of consumers. From recent entries in the field to legacy products with expansive portfolios, the variety of offerings has grown to secure these tasty imposters solid footholds in the mainstream American diet.

Morningstar Farms is one brand that has been driving innovation for decades in the quest of fulfilling consumers’ desire to move toward a plant-forward diet. 

As other companies recognized the burgeoning trend, Morningstar Farms, following its purchase by the Kellogg Co., began to rapidly expand beyond its classic Grillers Original veggie burger, Veggie Breakfast Bacon strips, sausage patties and links, and Chik’N Nuggets.

In recent years, the Morningstar Farms research chefs and R&D team have successfully brought to market an expansive portfolio of burgers and patties, meals, meal starter kits, appetizers, and breakfast sandwiches. Flavor fusions and global flavors are employed to create variations of these items as well. The effort has paid off, with the brand now accounting for about 60% of sales of animal protein analogs.


Spin Doctors

Over time, demand has grown for more stable plant-based protein sources. In the 1960s, textured soy protein was a popular replacement for minced meat. Soy protein, as either granules or chunks, begins with defatted soy flour, which is processed at high temperature and high shear to form an expanded structure with low moisture.

Textured vegetable protein (TVP) developed as other protein sources, such as wheat gluten and pea proteins, were added to the mix. After hydrating in water, TVP has a soft, somewhat elastic texture without a distinctive fiber orientation. In the 1980s, a precipitation and fermentation process was introduced. This process was applied to making high-moisture protein filaments from milk and mycoprotein.

Also developed in the 1980s was a spinning process that takes a highly concentrated plant protein solution and spins the proteins into thin strands. The protein filaments are typically cut or ground to the desired size and mixed with binding agents, formed to specific shapes, or further processed into other products.

Worthington Foods, prior to being acquired by Kellogg Co., implemented the spun soy protein technology for Chik’n patty and nugget products. Spun fiber protein has since been replaced with a new, proprietary technology.

In 1989, “High-Moisture Extrusion Cooking” (HMEC) hit the scene. HMEC is a cooking and extrusion process that forms a solid three-dimensional crosslinked protein structure. Twin-screw extruders are typically used, as they have a high heat-transfer barrel surface and a good conveying capability that allow formulations with moderate viscosity to be processed with the HMEC technology.

There are three main formation steps in the HMEC process. The first step occurs in the initial sections of the extruder, where the native proteins start swelling, dissolving, and unfolding when mixed with water and heated. This step denatures the proteins. In the second step, reactive groups of protein become accessible due to denaturation, then form intermolecular covalent disulfide bonds.

The third and final step occurs in the cooling die, where molecules form noncovalent intermolecular electrostatic and hydrophobic interactions that stabilize the protein fiber structure. While some processes use egg white, casein, or other binders to make textured plant protein products, the HMEC process Kellogg uses does not include animal proteins. As such, products made by this process are able to be labeled as vegan.


Daring Dairy

On the dairy side, analogs have made significant advances, moving from liquid milk substitutes made from rice, almonds, and soy to “milks” from all varieties of nuts and legumes, as well as grains and seeds. But the biggest advances have been in dairyless yogurt, cheese, and other solids. 

“The challenge is knowing how to make these ingredients taste and perform as well as real dairy products,” says Paul Wong, chief innovation officer for Daiya Foods Inc. “This task is even more difficult when core values only allow non-GMO and clean-label ingredients.” In describing how, in order to be successful, plant-based dairy alternatives must match the texture, taste, and mouthfeel of real dairy counterparts, he uses cream cheese as an example. “A [cream cheese] alternative has to be smooth and must have the ability to spread onto a cracker or a bagel without too much effort,” he says. Wong adds that any alternatives have to “have the appearance and color of the real dairy foods, because people shop and eat with their eyes!”
Daiya uses all non-GMO ingredients that are gluten free and dairy free. “Our plant-based cheese alternatives contain ingredients like tapioca starch, coconut oil, and pea protein,” explains Wong. “We also incorporate some natural, vegan flavors to create some of the cheesy notes, and the oils and gums help mimic the texture of cheese.”

In addition, Wong and his team “integrate sensory sciences to discover the flavor gaps so that R&D can work to illuminate these gaps and improve existing formulas.” The proof, he says, is “in the ‘cheeze’.”


Milk Mimics

“Most sweet milk products do match the protein levels of cow’s milk (8g/cup) while most nut milks, such as almond, do not,” says Kelly Duffin, a food industry consultant and former senior vice-president of R&D for Whitewave Foods Inc. “When it comes to flavor, if you are truly trying to match the protein and other nutritional profile of cow’s milk, bitterness can be a major flavor problem.” According to Duffin, there are three primary methods used to reduce the bitterness of soy protein in a milk analog. First, manage your incoming soybean source and supply chain; know where your soybeans originate from and manage the environment (time/temp/pH). “Many manufacturers focus solely on formulation and masking bitterness whereas greater progress can be made proactively controlling bitterness development up front,” says Duffin.

Second, have a well-controlled processing method. “The time and temperature of how the soybeans are processed can either reduce or significantly increase the levels of bitterness in the final product,” explains Duffin. Third, fine-tune the formulation through the application of flavors (such as vanilla or chocolate) in combination with masking agents to significantly reduce bitterness.

“Texture is another significant hurdle to address in dairy analogs,” Duffin continues. “Mimicking the creaminess and mouthfeel can be difficult. Additives need to be used in dairy analogs to even come close to matching the mouthfeel of dairy. Leading additives include carrageenan, a thickener and emulsifier derived from seaweed, gums, and/or sunflower lecithin. Finding the right combination that consumers enjoy, that allows the manufacturer to produce consistently, and that can maintain shelflife—even with temperature abuse—can be challenging.”

Stability is the third concern Duffin presents. “Dairy analogs are suspensions of plant material in water, so additives coupled with thermal treatments are required to maintain the suspension and stability. Ingredient and technology chefs and researchers are critically important to the process of incorporating a dairy analog into a finished product, whether a baked good, an frozen dessert, a cheese analog, pudding, or other item.”


Plant Goodness

When appropriately planned, plant-based diets can meet or exceed the nutrition needs of the entire family. However, one common misperception is that animal sources of protein are superior to plant sources. While animal proteins tend to be complete proteins (providing all essential amino acids in required amounts), and plant sources generally are not, when consumed in adequate proportions various plant proteins may be combined to create a “complete” protein. The resulting protein profile will have similar quality to animal protein sources, plus the added nutritional and environmental benefits of plant-based eating.

Plant proteins of different sources do vary in their essential amino acid composition, with certain types having higher levels of some essential amino acids while being limited in others. For example, grains, nuts, and seeds are typically limited in lysine, whereas legumes are typically limited in methionine and cysteine, and/or tryptophan. For the formulator, combining these to make a complete protein blend can be advantageous.

Examples of such complementary protein plant pairings include: beans and rice, lentils and quinoa, chickpeas and sesame seeds, soy and rice, or beans and corn. Soy is generally considered to be a source of complete protein. 

Therefore, the use of soy or complementary protein blends can deliver protein quality comparable to animal sources.


Why Plants

Plant-based proteins are perceived as being healthy not only for the body but also for the planet. As the population is steadily increasing, projects such Food Reform for Sustainability & Health (FReSH), in partnership the World Business Council for Sustainable Development and the EAT Foundation, are tackling how to feed more than nine billion people in more healthy and sustainable ways.

Reducing meat consumption by swapping out just one meat-based meal per week, for example, can result in dramatic reductions in carbon footprint and preserving valuable resources such as water and land. Producing 1 kg of protein from beans requires 18 times less land, 10 times less water, nine times less fuel, 12 times less fertilizer, and 10 times less pesticide than producing 1 kg of protein from beef.

According to Life Cycle Assessment research conducted by Quantis International, each person choosing a vegetarian meal over a meat-containing meal once a week for a year could save enough water for more than 200 showers. Moreover, on average, when American adults consume a meatless meal instead of one containing meat, the result is at least 40% lower impact on the overall environment.

The plant-based analog category has evolved to deliver on more than familiar food formats. Through differentiated plant-based and vegetarian protein technologies, the cuisine is now highly desired on menus. The progression into prepared foods has become a backbone of the movement, and it continues to grow. The next leap: mainstream product developers including meatless “meat” and dairyless “dairy” ingredients into formulations as a matter of course rather than for a specific demographic.


Inspiring Upstarts

For some companies, especially boutique businesses, entering the plant-based analog field without the benefit of a decades-long legacy of trial and success can pose challenges. One new company meeting this challenge admirably is No Evil Foods LLC. “Our approach is super old-school and low tech,” confesses Sadrah Schadel, company co-founder and head of R&D. “We prioritize simple, minimally processed ingredients over isolated proteins and are far more focused on culinary art, taking an artisan approach versus utilizing specialized manufacturing equipment.”

Because of these choices, the No Evil team approaches product innovation from the chef’s perspective first and foremost. “Challenges in texture or flavor profile are addressed in the same way that a home cook would—by visiting the pantry and adding a pinch of this, a dash of that, adjusting wet to dry ingredient ratios, mixing techniques, etc.,” says Schadel.

“As small-scale artisan plant meat makers, we’re basically creating meat without the animal, which means that we need to start from scratch every time,” Schadel continues. “Meat formulations that require several steps or a variety of methods, such as marinating or smoking, often are more challenging and certainly more time-consuming. It’s important to take the traditional approach, especially when the end result is authenticity. So, for example, we smoke our pulled ‘pork’ over real hickory wood.”

Schadel further explains that, while such an approach “sounds ultra-simplified,” it “takes an extraordinary amount of understanding of ingredients and how they react under different cooking techniques to manipulate these basic inputs into something remarkable.” She also cautions that, “without that understanding and finesse, it’s really easy to turn wheat and chickpea flour into something that tastes more like rubber bands or sponges than the tender chicken you were aiming for.”

Schadel provides one key piece of advice for using its plant meats in formulation. “Use them as you would any other protein,” she says. “There’s a tendency to think of plant-based proteins as an ‘other’ or some foreign, hard-to-understand ingredient. We do a lot of education and encouragement toward breaking down preconceptions about plant-based proteins and how they can be used.” She does caution that, while the company’s analogs can be subbed as 1:1 drop-ins for animal proteins, the ingredients are low in oils. “Depending on the dish, cooking times and temperatures might need to be slightly altered,” she explains.

By using such real, time-tested methods as hand-crafting and hickory smoking, No Evil brings authentic character to its products. Schadel believes this helps move the category forward from “fake meat” to a more broadly accepted “protein” nomenclature.


New Tech and Trends

Technology advancements in the plant protein product arena are happening quickly. As an example, Leigh-Ann Howenstine, senior product development scientist for both Morningstar Farms and Gardenburger brands under Kellogg, was challenged with quickly renovating one of the legacy products in the Morningstar Farms lineup. Specifically, a commercial customer needed product that would meet not only vegetarian but vegan criteria.

Howenstine created several gelling and binding systems to replace the egg whites in the original product. “In consumer testing, people didn’t even notice the difference and the foodservice client that requested this change was happy,” says Howenstine. 

She notes that she’s encountered many trends in 20 years at Morningstar Farms. “It is a constant evolution,” Howenstein admits. “Now that vegan options are on trend, it poses new challenges.” She also points to how the company, as the leading vegetarian burger analog maker, has addressed recent competition from some well-publicized newcomers.

“Our new Meat Lovers and Veggie Lovers burgers deliver the thicker burger experience often found in restaurants,” she says. “However, they also deliver important clean-label attributes that consumers are seeking, such as colors and flavors from natural sources and non-GMO soy.” Howenstine says consumers can expect more vegan and clean-label offerings from the company in the near future.

Mark Graham, director of culinary, global R&D, and nutrition for Kellogg, supports the idea that plant-based food products will enable chefs to use endless creativity to deliver a multitude of offerings. “Improved foods in this category have achieved milestones in delivering on taste, texture, and nutrient content,” says Graham.

“Additionally,” concludes Graham, “we see evidence of a more aware consumer who is concerned about environmental sustainability, the perceived health benefits, and the versatility of a plant-based diet. Consumer needs can best be met when a standard of flavor expectations and a sense of global culinary influence and authenticity are applied to existing plant-based cuisines.”

Originally appeared in the October, 2018 issue of Prepared Foods as Protein Evolution.