Plant-based protein sources are getting all the love these days. From faux burgers to soy-based burrito fillings, meat analogues seem to be pushing animal proteins to the sidelines.
However, the data show that animal proteins still dominate. A 2018 study by The NPD Group showed 14 percent of U.S. consumers regularly use plant-based proteins in their diets … which means 86 percent evidently rely primarily on animal proteins instead.
The bottom line is that animal proteins provide a variety of functional benefits for commercial food processors, not to mention nutritional and economic benefits. From red meat to whey to eggs, animal protein still plays a major role in food processing.
Eggs, for example, are simply unbeatable in some applications.
“Industry research has shown very mixed results and even disappointment when food processors open up about their experiences trying to remove eggs from applications,” says Elisa Maloberti, director of egg product marketing for the American Egg Board.
“Eggs have proven their performance in multiple application scenarios through decades of commercial use. In my instances they’re simply irreplaceable, supplying functional properties and a desired taste profile that other ingredients are unable to mimic.”
Bone broth benefits
Bone broth is another good example of an animal protein that is finding continued strength among food processors. Bone broth imparts a umami taste to processed meat, poultry and fish products and enhances the savory flavors in soups, sauces and beverages.
But bone broth’s advantages go beyond taste: Recent research at Missouri State University (MSU) demonstrated some important nutritional benefits of this ingredient. For instance, the 2018 study found bone broth may reduce symptoms of migraine headaches.
“MSU’s researchers concluded that ‘dietary inclusion of [bone broth] provides a novel non-pharmacological method for modulating [pain receptors] and thus reducing the risk of developing migraine,’” according to a white paper based on the MSU studies issued by International Dehydrated Foods Inc., a supplier of chicken protein ingredients.
“The authors hypothesize that the combination of antioxidant and microbiome effects makes bone broth effective at regulating trigeminal activation and potentially reducing migraine onset and symptoms.”
Other research has shown that bone broth can improve the microbiome on the gut.
“It has been amazing to discover that this product [ChikPro Collagen Bone Broth] not only has chemical antioxidant capacity scoring like a plant polyphenol, but that it also has preclinical results demonstrating a decrease in markers for inflammation (COX-2, C Reactive Protein, Protein Kinase A),” says Stephanie Lynch, vice president of sales, marketing and technology for IDF. "It also has the ability to shift the gut microbiome selecting for favored prebiotic bacteria species. The same study on broth demonstrated epigenetic benefits.”
Plant-based hamburgers are in the headlines, but real meat still has the upper hand in many applications. For simplicity, it can’t be beat – one ingredient versus 21 ingredients in an Impossible Burger, for example.
Beef also contains a wide variety of nutrients that are needed for good health. These include carnosine, an amino acid that reduces the harm of a process called glycation, which is related to aging diseases; numerous minerals, such as iron, potassium and selenium; and a range of B vitamins.
A less-known red meat that is growing in popularity among some consumers is lamb. The flavor of lamb is familiar to people who grew up eating cuisines from the Middle East and other areas, and now is trending with Americans seeking an international twist.
“Lamb is an incredibly versatile protein with applications for commercial food processing ranging from sausage and other ground meat blends, soups and prepared entrees,” says Megan Wortman, executive director of the American Lamb Board. “Millennials and Gen Z consumers have more diverse and adventurous palates and are seeking foods from different corners of the globe. Since lamb is so commonly consumed in other places, consumers are seeking it out.”
Like beef, lamb is a nutrition powerhouse. It provides protein, zinc, selenium, vitamin B12 and vitamin B6, among other nutrients. A little more than half of the lamb available in the U.S. comes from Australia and New Zealand.
“Superior Farms Lamb is a leading processor of lamb in this country and they have developed several value-added lamb products, including lamb bacon and lamb vindaloo,” Wortman says. “For the most part, the value cuts of lamb are used in processing, while the middle meats – rack and loin – are used in foodservice and retail.”
Wortman adds that lamb intestines are popular for natural sausage casings, especially among those who do not eat pork for religious reasons.
Another animal protein being found in more applications is whey. Whey can be processed into dried whey, whey protein concentrate (WPC), whey protein isolate (WPI), and other ingredients.
“Many of these ingredients, like WPC, are used to provide functional properties such as good solubility, emulsification, gelation, foaming, water binding and browning,” says Kimberlee “KJ” Burrington, dairy ingredient applications coordinator at the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research at the University of Wisconsin. “They can be used as a replacement for whole egg or fat. They can contribute to a more tender crumb structure and help retain moisture in a baked product or provide a smooth, more viscous texture to yogurt with less syneresis.”
Burrington notes that food processors initially prized whey for its functional properties, but these days its nutritional properties are also highly valued. For example, because of its high leucine content, whey can help with muscle recovery, weight management and healthy aging. That makes it an ideal ingredient in high protein beverages, nutrition bars, and other healthy products.
Some whey has more leucine than others. With a portfolio of cheese brands, Lactalis has been making tons of regular whey, a byproduct of cheese processing. But the company recently developed ProNativ "native whey protein" as a primary product, not a byproduct, with a process that optimizes some beneficial ingredients that should be found in whey but often are removed in the production of primary dairy products.
Dan Mackenzie-Olson, Lactalis American Group's regional sales manager, says it's purer, more digestible, with 17% more bioavailable leucine, plus naturally occurring antioxidants and minerals that are filtered out in typical whey protein production.
“Many companies have developed more heat-stable WPC products that work better in low-acid beverages processed by UHT [ultra-high temperature],” Burrington adds. “There are also whey protein isolates that position themselves as lactose free. They have hydrolyzed the lactose using lactase. For the sports market, this is a plus.”
Eggs are an animal protein source that helps food processors tap into the “clean label” trend.
“Surveys among food manufacturers show that commercial users like the fact that real eggs supply them with a clean label option in addition to offering a wide variety of functional properties – more than 20 to be exact,” says Maloberti of the American Egg Board. “When they choose real eggs, commercial operators are simply responding to consumer demands for more natural, authentic and traceable ingredients in their foods.”
Maloberti notes that eggs are also popular in food processing because of their relatively low cost and high nutrient value. One large egg contains 6g of protein, as well as a host of vitamins and minerals. From a processing perspective, eggs aid in emulsification, aeration, binding and many other functions.
“In terms of trends, the baked goods category continues to account for the greatest number of new products introduced that use eggs as an ingredient,” she says. “As the snack category has grown to correspond with Americans’ love of snacking, commercial manufacturers have introduced snacks that either highlight egg inclusion or feature the egg as the hero.
"Peckish would be one example, a snack concept that features hard-boiled eggs with a variety of dusts or dipping sauces. Under breakfast trends, the RxBar introduced flavored oatmeal cups, including an egg white to add protein and permit clean labeling.”
Plant-based proteins are clearly on trend today, and that will likely continue in the years ahead. But animal proteins will continue to play a major – and evolving – role in food processing.