Processors Get to the Meat of the Matter with Protein

American custom still puts animal protein at the center of the dinner plate. But some processors worry how they'll keep it there in the future.

By Anibal Concha-Meyer, Contributing Editor

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The USDA recently reported a decline in animal protein consumption, with both health concerns and the economy suggested as the driving factors. The safety of meat products is as much a part of the health issue as the desire to lower saturated fat and cholesterol intake. Yet Americans still get two-thirds of their daily protein needs from once-mobile sources, which is double that of the rest of the world.

Experts have noted that interest in plant-based ingredients has led to a steady increase in consumption of vegetable-derived proteins as additives in animal protein-based food product formulations. They point to four main drivers: big demand for reduced- or zero- saturated fat and cholesterol products; increased interest in Halal or Kosher; sustainability and economic parity due to the high ecological and economic costs of animal protein, especially in poorer countries; and the overall cost of plant vs. animal protein.

With that in mind, companies such as Roquette America Inc. (www.roquette-food.com), Geneva, Ill., have developed plant protein ingredients designed specifically for use in processed meat and fish products. The company's Nutralys is a pure and highly soluble pea protein used for its emulsifying and extending capacities, as well as the nutritional benefits of using vegetable protein and fibers to replace or extend the meat in products such as burgers and nuggets.

Nutralys, developed in collaboration with French company Sotexpro, is able to replace 30 percent of meat protein as an alternative to soy-based ingredients. The company notes its main goal is to develop products that can achieve 100 percent meat replacement. Other Roquette vegetable ingredients that are being used in new, meat-based products, processed and convenience foods include gums and starches.

Texturized proteins such as those from soy and peas become an excellent choice to replace or extend meat, reaching higher substitution levels by binding/holding water and improving emulsifying and gelling capacities of the food.

Although they lower costs, carefully chosen meat product extenders and texture enhancers are not to be considered merely "fillers" or a way of cutting corners. The right ingredient will serve multiple functions, without sacrificing -- and in some cases even enhancing -- flavor and texture.

Extending circumstances

Fiber is a commonly added ingredient to ground meat preparations or coatings and breadings for meat products. In such surface portions, they help retain moisture while increasing the crispness and cohesion of a coating.

As a binder or extender, plant proteins and starches add attributes that impact texture and health. International Fiber Corp. (www.ifcfiber.com), North Tonawanda, N.Y., studied the use of pea fiber in ground beef patties using its Justfiber Inner Pea Fiber and Solka-Floc Powdered Cellulose ingredients. Ground meat patties lose more moisture and fat during cooking than a whole muscle protein product. This translates to loss of weight and shrinkage of the finished product. The extent to which cooked yield of the product may be impacted is also dependent on meat quality and cooking method.

Typically, binders and extenders used to improve product texture, retain moisture and assure adhesion of the component ingredients in a product formulation will bind to the water but not the fat portion of the mixture. Some binders and extenders also will display instability during high-temperature preparation, which not only can damage texture but can lead to high losses on the product line in freeze-and-eat or ready-to-eat products. The wrong binders and extenders also will impact final product flavor and some even create spots of undesired gelatin texture in ground meat products.

The IFC study showed that adding its pea fiber as a binding agent "can provide meaty texture similar to ground meat while exhibiting high water and fat retention under heat." The study also showed that "the addition of fiber in beef patties resulted in increased cooked yield and reduced shrinkage." Textural properties tested in the study gave subjective and objective evidence indicating the fiber-containing patties "were perceived to be acceptable with improved juiciness." As an extra benefit, the company reported a cost savings of about $38-$49 per 100 lbs. of cooked product.

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