Those green pastures filled with contented cattle lazily chewing its contents might be emptied of their occupants – or at least put to use for more environmentally-friendly alternatives. Plant proteins, based on ingredients derived from soy, wheat, pea, oats, potatoes rice and corn, offer options to help developers create analogues or alternatives to beef, poultry, pork and fish.
The meat analogue or alternative market is heating up due to consumers who might not be embracing a strict vegetarian lifestyle, but exhibiting increased interest in flexitarian meals, across a spectrum of ages and for a variety of reasons.
According to Datassential, a large percentage of flexitarians hail from the Millennial population, however Americans over the age of 55 have embraced flexitarian habits as well. One firm says this could be due to a “Millennial influence,” or a ripple effect from the movement in the younger sect to eat more local produce, eat healthier and consume more environmentally-friendly products. Nearly half of all Boomers, according to the Datassential report, intend to increase their consumption of fruits and vegetables.
Far from eschewing meat however, this population is seeking meat alternatives or analogues. In this case Millennials are leading the charge. One report says that close to a third of millennials (30%) eat meat alternatives every day and 50 percent eat meat alternatives a few times per week.
Sales figures confirm this trend. Innova data shows that plant protein claims are up 58 percent as a percent of global new product launches CAGR from 2013 to 2017, with meat substitutes during that time up 10 percent CAGR. One recent report found the market for alternative proteins is anticipated to reach $5.2 billion by 2020.
Since a true flexitarian doesn’t cut out meat entirely but tries to reduce it, some manufacturers have experimented with plant-based/meat partnerships or blends. There is traction for this concept using mushrooms as an adjunct, however it is still a minor part of the market. Researchers also would need to investigate consumer perception of meat/plant-based blends to determine acceptance.
Starting the Process
Meat is basically comprised of water, protein and fat, yet the interaction between these elements during the cooking process is anything but basic, which makes it impossible to completely recreate. Meat has unique structures from the nanometer to the millimeter scale. In addition to the components that comprise its macro and micro muscle structure, responsible for the appearance and texture of meat, hundreds of other biochemical compounds involved with metabolism and homeostasis influence the color and flavor of meat.
That being said, it is possible to recreate the experience of certain types of meat products and the more ingredients and added dominant flavors in the product, the easier the process. While creating a convincing steak may yet be beyond current capabilities, sausages and burgers can be very believable when crafted with plant-based proteins. It’s highly likely, crumbles in a stir-fry or burrito might go unnoticed by even the most ardent carnivore.
In order to begin the process of meat mimicry, the formulator or manufacturer should always begin by defining the end-product texture—there is a vast difference between a steak and a frankfurter, for example. This end-product texture dictates ingredients, equipment and processing conditions that would be easiest to use.
However, just because the initial project dictates the ingredients easiest to use, the final list will include input from every stakeholder involved in the project, from brand management to the consumer. Each has opinions on allergen restrictions, desired ingredients, the nutritional panel and cost/pricing. The entire team must be able to answer this question: “Can we make this with the given restrictions?” Then the actual formulation can start.
Form Above Species
Product form has a greater impact on a project’s difficulty than species: chicken, beef, pork or seafood. Simulating certain species is more a function of matching color and flavor than texture. That being said, seafood presents its own unique set of challenges due to structural and compositional differences from mammalian muscle and a much greater variety within sea life used for food than traditional meat species. This explains why seafood analogs are uncommon in the current marketplace, but there has been a spike of interest in the seafood space, and therefore some new product introductions.
Recreating whole muscle texture is probably the most challenging form to develop as processors are limited to the size, shape and function of available textured proteins; unless a manufacturer owns high-moisture extrusion equipment—which requires significant capital expenditure and skilled labor to operate.
Different ingredients have been tested and used to varying degrees of success when replacing meat content and any potential plant alternative must build the texture base in addition to supplying protein content, with the latter function easier to fulfill than the former. The three most mature ingredients also supply the greatest functional properties and are therefore the most commonly used in meat alternatives, including soy, wheat and egg white. The emerging alternative plant proteins being considered for use in meat analogues include pea, oat, potato, rice and corn.
Wheat protein, for example, aids with texture because the wheat gluten fibers exhibit some similarities when compared to meat product fibers. This is important because different proteins exhibit varying levels of fibrosity and granularity, two characteristics important when trying to recreate the texture, mouthfeel and appearance of animal protein products.
Emerging alternative plant proteins fall short when compared to soy, wheat and egg white, because they lack critical functional properties, such as gel-forming or firmness and water holding in textured material. Crude supply chains, low fractionation capacity and volatile pricing can often compound these basic issues with these emerging proteins.
Methylcellulose can help firm up product texture upon heating and can sometimes replace egg functionality in certain applications. Carrageenan firms up texture in chilled or ambient conditions. There are a number of other hydrocolloids, gums, emulsifiers, fibers and starches that find their way on to labels for various specialized effects on texture, but most of the work generating texture stems from the same few ingredients.
In addition, if a manufacturer is interested in entering the meat analogue market, a formulator with a background in meat processing equipment and workflows can be an asset in the development process. A bowl chopper, sausage stuffer or forming unit (for patties/nuggets) might be unknown to general food science students and even industry veterans who haven’t worked with processed meats, yet these are commonly employed in meat analogue production. Many processed meats use textured and powdered plant proteins (especially soy) and since these constitute the bulk of most meat analogues, a person with meat industry experience can rely on these tools and assets that overlap into plant-based proteins.
Whatever plant-based substitute is proposed, there are multiple methods commonly used to evaluate performance and quality from development through commercialization. Mechanical analyses, like texture profile analysis, tensile stress/strain and shear testing are useful in understanding ingredient and processing impacts on firmness and fibrosity. Sensory testing with consumer or trained panels can unlock a wealth of information around not just product texture, but flavor and general liking as well.
Because the sensory challenges are many when trying to recreate a meat application, one way to help is to add complexity to the application. This can include creating meat alternatives in ready meals, battered and breaded products, or by including sauces, which provide almost limitless flavor potential. Alternatively, these meat products can be packaged in bulk to help encourage foodservice or customer creativity.
Mainstream consumer experimentation and creativity, rather than the traditional vegetarian/vegan consumer, continues to drive innovation in the plant-based meat alternatives market. As the meat alternative segment expands, emerging plant-based protein ingredients hold promise for blends and combinations with the tried and true trio of soy, wheat and egg white supplying expected flavor, fibrosity and form for more authentic and acceptable forms of meat analogues. Although the sentiment among flexitarians might be to hold onto those grazing cattle for the time being, the time is ripe for new meat alternative applications.
Austin Lowder, PhD, is an applications scientist at DuPont Nutrition & Health. Visit www.danisco.com for more information.