Overcoming Meat Analogues' Processing Challenges

May 4, 2020
Plant-based analogues often can be processed on the same equipment as the real thing – but adjustments are needed.

The point of plant-based meat analogue products is to make them look and taste, as much as possible, like real meat. But that doesn’t mean they get made exactly the same way.

Meat analogues, led by Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, are among the fastest growing protein segments. The market for meat substitutes is projected by Allied Market Research to hit $8.1 billion globally by 2026.

Most meat analogues, so far, come as ground, formed products like patties, meatballs and sausage. These are often processed on the same grinders, formers, presses, extruders and other equipment that handle regular ground meat. But processors have to adjust to differences in the formulations. “Many issues come up,” says Gary Seiffer, product specialist for EnSight Solutions.

One of the biggest is moisture content. Vegetables and legumes have more moisture than meat, which makes for significant differences in handling.

“In beef or other animal products higher in proteins and fats, there is a natural tendency to be more resilient and hold together,” Seiffer says. “A mixture of vegetables may not adhere to each other as well as meat, and usually has a higher water content.”

Stefan Neumann, an application specialist at Reiser, agrees: “The biggest difference we see in PBP [plant-based protein] products compared to meat products is the moisture content and the texture of the material.” This often requires differences in processing and handling, Neumann says. “PBP matrixes are more fluid until heat-treated. Reiser has found using positive displacement pumping and low-pressure forming allows for better forming and shaping of PBP product.”

How gentle the handling must be depends on what’s in the formulation and how the processor wants the product to look and taste. Seiffer raises the example of a patty made from black beans that are still supposed to be recognizable as black beans, “not black mush.” Because the beans are only partially macerated, they’re still fragile and require delicate handling.

On the other hand, “There are some end product analogues where a mashed analogue is acceptable/desirable, and that is OK and done earlier in processing before forming to imitate meat,” he says. “These are easier to handle.” They are even easier if the formulation has additives, like starches, thickeners or gums, that make the product more resilient.

Getting into the mix

Perhaps the most basic difference is that with most formed meat products, meat is usually the one component that determines its handling characteristics. Many analogue products, on the other hand, have multiple base ingredients, often dry ones like pea or soy powder. In those cases, the process has to begin with blending these dry ingredients with water or other liquids.

“Our PBP equipment allows filling of dry ingredients in ways that reduce or eliminate dry powers from spreading in the air,” says Jim Kerr, an application specialist with Reiser. “PBP products usually have multiple types of liquid in their formulations. Some of these liquids need to be metered into the process.”

This is especially true for products like hot dogs and some other sausages, which require their protein, whether meat or an analogue, to be rendered into a flowable emulsion.

“In the case of emulsion-type products, the focus is on combining liquids and powders; whereas with meat, your main component is being reduced in size (grinding, chopping, emulsifying) and then being mixed with liquids and other ingredients,” says Michael Kapps, national sales manager for AmTrade Systems. “Once mixed, these products have very different characteristics, including viscosity, temperature, etc.”

Suppliers like Urschel Laboratories have pilot plants where processors can scale up production of analogue meat formulations.

Other handling problems can turn up that require various kinds of adjustments, says Mike Jacko, vice president of applications and new product innovation for Urschel Laboratories.

“Every cutting application is unique, and the recipe of each plant-based meat product can present different sets of challenges,” Jacko says. “Viscosity, pliability, stickiness and other characteristics play important roles. Speaking specifically about the cutting parameters in the process, a certain amount of problem-solving may be required, and adjustments implemented, while maintaining customer objectives. Adjustments may include: the temperature of the product, VFD [variable frequency drive] speed, different cutting parts, alternative feeding method, etc.”

Egging the question

Meatless emulsified products like vegetarian sausage generally require a higher cooking temperature, with a final core temperature of 185°F, according to an article by Ludger Glass of Glass Maschinen GmbH. Other than that, they’re processed almost identically to regular meat sausage, with one possible exception: When they’re made with egg, they require one piece of different equipment.

“The overall manufacturing process for vegetarian sausage is almost identical to conventional meat production, and the majority of the equipment required for making vegetarian products is already installed and in operation in just about every meat plant,” Glass writes. But when the formulation contains egg, a vacuumized emulsifying mixer should be used instead of the bowl cutter that most processors use for sausage.

Plant-based chicken analogue product is extruded for further processing into chunks or strips.
Photo: Clextral

“The egg products used in making vegetarian products tend to form clumps when mixed with water, which are not able to be completely eliminated in a bowl cutter,” Glass writes. “The result is the risk of spots within the finished product which are not uniformly mixed. The correct vacuumized emulsifying mixer is able to completely mix and homogenize the emulsion for the best finished product.”

Analogues need not always be processed on standard meat equipment. Clextral has developed a way, patented in 2001, to process meat analogue product in a twin-screw extruder, says Gilles Maller, Clextral’s vice president of sales and international.

“The process includes thermo-mechanical cooking of the plant proteins in the twin screw extruder to convert the protein to an ‘unfolded’ state, then processing in a long cooling die where the proteins relink in various forms, depending on the processing conditions,” Maller says.

Ground and shaped products like nuggets are the most popular form of meat analogues.
Photo: Clextral

Cleaning up

Another important difference between meat analogues and regular meat is in sanitation procedure. Generally speaking, analogues are easier to clean up – but not always.

“It is easier to clean vegetable analogue than meats in a machine,” Seiffer says. “The animal fat resists water and is very sticky. So a higher degree of chemicals or very different types of chemicals are often used to clean meat products from machines.

“Vegetable products, having a higher water [content] to start with, tend to clean off easier.” He adds that formulations with gums or starches may be a little harder to clean, but those products are still hydroscopic, unlike animal fats.

“PBP product is easier to clean because the protein sets at a higher processing temperature than meat protein,” Neumann says. “When the sanitation crew uses hot water cleaning equipment with meat protein, the crew needs to scrub the contact surfaces to release the biofilm. PBP emulsions and matrixes are sticky and hard to remove from mixers but can be cleaned with a water rinse, soap and water, and a little elbow grease.”

Scaling up

With the challenges of adapting meatless formulations to meat-processing equipment, extra care must be given to scale-up.

“Ideally, you would want equipment that functions and performs similarly in a small size as in a larger size,” Kapps says. “For example, moving from a small specialty mixer to a much larger one, you will want to have the ability to control the larger machine so that the effective mixing action is not negatively affected by the higher vessel volume.”

Probably the best way to scale up would be to enlist the services of a processor with a well-equipped pilot lab or other testing facility.

“Urschel offers free-of-charge test cutting at our headquarters, located an hour outside of Chicago, in Chesterton, Ind.,” Jacko says. “Processors are invited to set up test cutting of their product on several models of Urschel cutting machinery. Dedicated, experienced test lab technicians create a comprehensive report. Customers may witness test cutting in person, ask to receive video, and request photos of the test cuts.”

Processors who are already making conventional ground meat products are in a good position to cash in on the fast-growing plant-based analogue segment, if they so desire. All it takes is a little intelligent planning and adjustment.

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