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Plant Proteins Are Far From Dead

March 21, 2023
Two successful recent products, a new consumer survey and challenges in making protein claims present an updated glimpse of plant-based products.

“The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated,” read a cable reportedly sent by Mark Twain to a newspaper inquiring about rumors of his demise. Many high-profile plant protein companies, product failures and disappointing category sales have led to similar exaggerated predictions of a diminished future for plant protein-based products.

For more than half a century, however, agricultural and ingredient processing advances have produced high-protein ingredients functioning as nutritious meat extenders with beneficial properties for formulations. As these developments continue, plant-protein-based foods and beverages will improve in quality. Here are a few delightful products recent to the marketplace, a “reality check” survey on consumer attitudes toward protein sources and a reminder of one pervasive nutritional challenge.

A tasty winner

Often mentioned challenges in developing plant-based alternatives include high cost, long ingredient lists and nutritional quality. Taste issues are often paramount but not insurmountable.

“The objective of all top-of-the-market players in plant-based alternatives is to win a mass market,” says Brian Chun, director of quality assurance at Current Foods. For that, you need people to say ‘this is a great tuna,’ not ‘this a great plant-based tuna.’”

Current Foods has earned bragging rights in this area. Its smoked plant-based salmon slices, launched in 2021 in foodservice, have won awards, including Time Magazine’s 100 Best Inventions of 2021. A retail version was a Nexty Award Finalist in the “Best New Meat Alternative” category at last month’s Natural Products Expo West.

Bamboo fiber, konjac gum, carrageenan and potato starch are key contributors to the product’s structure. Pea protein, ranking second on the ingredient list, is crucial to nutrition and texture.

Dan Howell, director of product development at Current Foods, detailed an interesting challenge from a technical point of view. While other plant-based products, such as burgers or eggs, are transformed from a raw to a cooked state, Current Foods had to develop a fully cooked product from the start that would not be further changed.

The company’s plant-based “salmon” offers a peak at what the future may bring. Industry surveys provide a reality check on where demand is today, which helps guide what needs to be done.

Plant vs. animal proteins – surveying consumer interests

“We’ve long tracked consumers’ attitudes toward protein sources,” says Julie Johnson, president of HealthFocus International. “Our 2023 U.S. Trends Report highlights the current and changing interest in protein from over 2,000 respondents.”

Long-established foods like eggs and meat in U.S. diets garnered the greatest interest. (See the chart Plant Protein Sources in Perspective below) Other sources of protein fell lower, often much lower on the scale.

For example, 17% of survey respondents said they were “extremely interested” or “interested” in high-protein products such as bars and powders, says Johnson. While this was significantly less than the total number (42%) who said they were interested in legumes, it was substantially more than the 8% of respondents expressing interest in “hybrid meats (e.g., a blend of animal and plant),” a relatively new term to consumers.

Drilling down into specific demographic segments provides a wealth of data. One question listed 18 protein sources and asked those surveyed to select the “types of protein that you are interested in using in your diet.” Results are reported by sex, age group and whether children are in the household. “While the number is relatively low, younger consumers are more engaged in alternative/emerging proteins, while older consumers are much more interested in traditional protein sources,” says Johnson.

For example, 1% of respondents 65 years or older say they are extremely interested/interested in lab-grown protein, and 3% say the same for hybrid meat. When looking at interest by 18-29-year-olds, 10% indicate interest in lab-grown protein and 18% in hybrid meats. The situation is reversed for traditional eggs, with 82% of those 65+ saying they are extremely interested or interested, but only 48% of 18-29-year-olds having the same interest.

One often under-emphasized challenge of plant proteins and products is quantifying nutritional quality.

Taste, texture plus nutritional quality

While smaller companies often excel in creativity, larger companies launch products that more reliably meet label regulations as well as sensory and nutritional goals. One impression from the 2023 Natural Products Expo West floor is that small companies appear more hesitant to make protein claims than in the past.

“They aren’t talking about protein quality as much because they don’t know how yet,” suggested Mary Mulry, managing director at FoodWise One LLC a product development firm. “It’s part of the trajectory in gaining knowledge about the industry.” In contrast, “Large corporations have greater liability,” she adds. They are more knowledgeable about risks, encouraging them to go by the books.

Gardein Ultimate Plant-Based Chicken Nuggets from ConAgra Brands is an example of a product that checks off most boxes for success. ZDNet rated the snack as one of the five best vegan chicken nuggets of 2022. When the nuggets were offered at a 2022 protein seminar among two dozen new-to-the-market innovative protein products, the nuggets flew off the sampling plates. The product had been purchased for an affordable price of 30 cents per ounce at one of the nation’s larger discount chains.

Positioned as a snack, the Gardein product is formulated with plant proteins such as vital wheat gluten, soy protein isolate, pea protein concentrate, textured wheat protein and protein-containing wheat and corn flour. With 14g and 18% DV (Daily Value) of protein in a 94g serving size, it can claim to be “a good source of protein.”

Determining the amount of protein (i.e., grams of protein per serving) is relatively simple. A food or ingredient is analyzed for its nitrogen content and that value is multiplied by a known conversion factor specific to the protein source, often 6.25. See a recent discussion of methods and issues at Measuring Protein Content in Food: An Overview of Methods

“In contrast, (to protein content alone) protein quality claim determinations are complex but also important,” says Matthew Nosworthy, food science and nutrition research scientist with Guelph Research and Development Centre of Agriculture and Agri-food Canada. Food processors use the nutritional quality of protein components when selecting ingredients for product formulations and package labeling.

To make a protein claim such as a good or excellent source of protein, a product’s PDCAAS (Protein Digestibility-Corrected Amino Acid Score), RACC (Reference Amount Customarily Consumed Recommended) and %DV must be known, with the %DV also appearing on the Nutrition Facts panel.

A protein’s amino acid composition and digestibility must be established to determine its PDCAAS value (or that of a finished food product). Although an estimate can be calculated from known PDCAAS values, many factors impact the final protein quality, says Nosworthy, such as anti-nutritional compounds, type of thermal treatment(s), biological treatments (e.g., fermentation, hydrolysis) and other processing steps (e.g., isolation, concentration, “deflavoring”)

The more novel and/or complex the processing and plant protein(s) under consideration, the greater the need for an analytical evaluation of PDCAAS. For a lengthy list of peer-reviewed articles on PDCAAS values, type “PDCAAS” into the search field on PubMed.

So reports of this category’s demise may be a little exaggerated. As food processors strive to design affordable, high-quality (in taste to nutrition) plant protein products, consumer options will increase and so will sales.

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