5 Things You May Not Have Known About Plant-Based Formulations

March 31, 2020
As plant-based products grow in popularity, we wanted to get to the root of what’s behind the trend. Virgina Dare’s Philip Caputo gives us the scoop.

Food Processing recently talked with Philip Caputo, Marketing and Consumer Insights Manager for Virginia Dare about plant-based formulations. We wanted to dig a little deeper and find out common misconceptions he’s hearing as well as barriers food and beverage processors are coming up against. Rounding out our conversation, we talked about talked about the future of plant-based as well as how Virginia Dare is helping processors with their formulations.

Food Processing: What do you think are the most common consumer misconceptions about plant-based food and beverage products?

Philip Caputo: We’re extremely excited about the plant-based food and beverage category’s rapid growth, but with that rapid growth has come plenty of misconceptions. From taste to nutrition and beyond, both consumers and formulators have a lot to learn about the potential of plant-based products.

There are a few misconceptions, in particular, that we hope to help overcome:

  • Plant-based products are only for vegans and vegetarians. While this may have been the case several years ago, it’s no longer the case today. Evidence of this: according to recent SPINS data, plant-based options are driving growth at grocery retailers nationwide, outpacing overall food growth by more than five times. This means that plant-based options are now reaching mainstream consumers.
  • Plant-based options cannot replicate or replace the taste or physical functionality of animal-based ingredients. While formulators may have a more difficult time delivering preferred taste and functionality when using plant-based options, it is certainly possible. We collaborate with customers every day to fine-tune their formulations with characterizing flavors, masking flavors, and more to ensure that their plant-based products have a taste that matches or exceeds their animal-based counterparts.
  • Plant-based options are less nutritious than animal-based ingredients. Many health professionals are now emphasizing the connection between a plant-based diet and improved health. As plant-based ingredient suppliers become even more sophisticated in their offerings, their products are able to deliver nutritional profiles that can stand against animal-based options.
  • Plant-based products lack flavor or taste vegetal. Whether it’s described as green, grassy, earthy, beany, or cardboard-y, consumers have many different ways to describe what they associate with plant-based options. We’re committed to fixing that misconception and developing products that prove plant-based options can taste absolutely delicious.
  • Plant-based options struggle to compete with many other functional qualities of animal-based options. Some of these include not providing the same energy levels, protein levels in sports nutrition products, taste and function in gelatin products (like gummies or marshmallows), allergen avoidance, or digestibility. Consumers and formulators will be seeing many new plant-based products entering the market over the coming year that prove these perceptions are false.

FP: What are you hearing in the food/beverage industry regarding barriers to plant-based formulations?

PC: The most common barriers that we hear are the texture, mouthfeel, and off-flavor challenges that plant-based ingredients present. Through our Taste Improvement platform, our skilled product developers collaborate with our customers to help them overcome those barriers and deliver a plant-based product with a taste that consumers love.

There’s nothing we love more at Virginia Dare than helping formulators transcend the hurdles they face in formulation. We encourage anyone struggling with plant-based ingredients to give us a call, and we can collaborate to develop delicious products.

Other common barriers that we hear include:

  • Replacing dairy in bakery, confections, and beverages. Dairy has long contributed to not just the taste of products in these categories, but also their functional properties such as bulk and mouthfeel. As formulators used to working with dairy start working with plant-based alternatives, they will likely face challenges, but that’s why companies like Virginia Dare exist: to help overcome those challenges! 
  • Replacing high quality, proven animal-based protein in sports nutrition products. Ingredients such as whey and egg have long been used in the protein and muscle building markets, and getting consumers to consider alternatives will be an uphill battle. We think the best way to change that perception is for consumers to taste and experience the power and potential of plant-based proteins. We can help formulators develop plant-based alternatives for the sports nutrition market that’ll not just impress consumers but encourage them to keep buying.

FP: How does flavor play a part in plant-based food and beverage products?

PC: Determining the best flavor profile to pair with a plant-based product is essential. Taste is, and likely always will be, the top factor that keeps consumers purchasing your product. Covering or complementing the flavor of the plant-based ingredient is achieved with a customized solution, which can include flavor top notes, masking flavors, or subtle adjustments to a characterizing flavor.

Certain flavors do tend to better complement particular plant-based ingredients. In bean-, grain-, or coconut water/oil-based protein beverages and bakery products, cocoa and nutty flavor profiles tend to work very well. In CBD or hemp-based oils, minty profiles are a great option.

FP: How can Virginia Dare help a manufacturer develop products for the various diet or restrictive lifestyles (i.e., allergen-free, vegan, gluten-free, low-carb, no-sugar, etc.)?

PC: From flavor creation to taste refinement, our Taste Improvement platform draws on the expertise of our dedicated flavorists and food scientists to deliver preferred taste in any application for any diet or lifestyle. We do this through customized flavor systems with characterizing flavor profiles, off-taste and texture masking, and modulation.

For restrictive diets, we collaborate with our clients to determine the product’s goals, intentions, restrictions, and labeling requirements. With this information, we determine the best ingredients to optimize the product’s performance (this is particularly important in baked goods like bars, muffins, and snacks).

After the product functionally performs well, we tackle all taste and texture challenges – such as off-flavors like bitterness and earthiness – with masking systems and complementary characterizing flavors. Achieving the right balance of taste and nutrition typically requires a combination of different plant-based ingredients, proteins, and more. Our flavorists and food scientists are experts in this area.

FP: Where do you see plant-based products going next? Any predictions you care to share?

PC: It’s no secret that the protein category is one where plant-based ingredients are flourishing. Within this segment, we are most actively working with pea, chickpea, oat, hemp seeds, lentils, chia, rice, beans, and nut butters like almond and hazelnut. We expect that spirulina and algae are going to become more popular as this category continues to grow.

Product-wise, there are a few plant-based categories that we believe are on the brink of major growth:

  • Coffee creamers. As consumers look to limit or remove dairy from their diets, we expect many new entrants to this category, some of which may carry intriguing functional properties such as probiotics. We anticipate the most growth within the powdered creamer area in particular, where there are still very few clean label options that function well and taste great.
  • Premium spoonable dessert cups. The refrigerated dessert aisle is in a state of rapid innovation, especially with plant-based options, clean label ingredients, and unique flavors. We see that spoonable, “mini” dessert cups that feature sophisticated flavors can appeal to adventurous and conventional consumers alike. How great does a plant-based, spoonable, dense cheesecake that’s made with almonds and cashews sound? We think pretty great – but even better if it’s topped with a layer of strawberries and a crunchy toasted almond-crust on the bottom. Spoonable dessert cups can deliver on all of that!
  • Clean label convenience products. Consumers are increasingly on-the-go, and convenience products like bakery mixes, meal replacements, shakes, condiments, and snacks are growing in popularity. With that said, the plant-based space within these categories is still in its infancy, creating opportunity for products that align with other consumer trends like wholefood-based, nutritionally complete, bioavailable, and more.
  • Refrigerated and semi-fresh nutrition and snack bars. The emergence of this category is no fad – it’s going to be huge. From flavor to shelf life to sustainable packaging, there are a lot of hurdles for formulators in this category, and we’re prepared to help formulators overcome them all.

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