The food world is going green, with consumers embracing all things plant-based, including meat alternatives or meat analogues.
As just one example, according to NPD Group plant-based burger orders and veggie sandwiches at quick-service restaurants were up 10% from May 2018 to May 2019, totaling 228 million servings. NPD said this rise is mainly due to ordinary consumers (18% of all adults) who are trying to include more plant-based foods into their diets.
New entries into the meat alternative market are popping up all over. Just within the past few months a number of major manufacturers either announced their entry into the meat alternative market or partnerships with meat alternative firms.
Hormel launched Happy Little Plants, an unseasoned ground product that relies on non-GMO soybeans for its protein content. Tyson Foods invested in New Wave Foods, which is working on a plant-based shrimp alternative formulated with seaweed and plant protein, claiming it will contain all eight essential amino acids found in meats and seafood. Conagra Brands, Smithfield Foods and Nestle are throwing their hats in the ring or trying to increase market presence.
Yet these mock meats must replicate the same taste, appearance and texture of related foods based on meat, poultry, fish or shellfish. And meat analogs are among the most challenging of all plant-based applications.
Hydrocolloids hold the key to achieving success within this product category. Several suppliers spoke with Food Processing to talk about the types and blends of hydrocolloids and gums that can lead to product success.
Among meat analogues, the most difficult to recreate are those that “replicate the muscle fiber definition of traditional animal-based products,” says Melissa Machen, senior technical service specialist for Cargill. “It is possible to create a similar texture, with an appearance and bit of striated muscle, using technology such as high moisture extrusion.”
In other formats, she says, such as nuggets or patties, textured pea or soy protein used as the based can deliver both nutritionally and texturally.
Mark Cornthwaite, industry and marketing manager at DuPont Nutrition & Biosciences, agrees whole muscle meat is the most difficult to re-create, with the key issue muscle fibrosity, whether trying to create steak or whole chicken breast.
“There are very few examples, if any, on the market, of a (planted-based) steak,” he says. Chicken breast products are based on a chopped and formed approach rather than a whole breast, which is “more suited to current technology.”
“Consistently aligned fibers interspersed with a genuine fat mimetic on a larger scale are simply very hard to replicate,” says Cornthwaite, “and gluing smaller pieces together does not deliver on consumer expectations.”
Olaf Kohnke, senior technical service manager, food and beverage solutions for Tate & Lyle says, “By rule of thumb, the more the meat is processed, the easier it is to develop a meat analogue alternative.” The desired level of firmness, such as bite or sliceability, can amp up the difficulty level.
Rather than a single hydrocolloid, formulators might look to create a synergy from a palette of choices, such as carrageenan, konjac or locust bean gum.
Carrageenan creates a hard and brittle gel, says Kohnke, depending on the type used, such as the kappa fraction. “Using this additive, a cold cut will break as soon as you start to slice or bend it. Yet in combination with konjac, the gel becomes more flexible.”
Machen says carrageenan is commonly used in meat alternatives to deliver a “firm, sliceable structure and eating texture,” In addition, starches and fibers come into play within binder systems to “create the optimal balance between a firm bite and juiciness.” However, there is “always a fine balance between juiciness and softness,” she cautions. “Mimicking the succulence and lubricity experienced with conventional meat forms is a definite challenge.”
In addition to texture and firmness, serving temperature is critically important, says Kohnke. Within a plant-based hot dog, even if a blend of carrageenan and konjac supply proper texture, springiness and appearance, the product will “melt when heated,” he said. This is where methylcellulose comes into play.
All respondents agree that methylcellulose performs at high functional levels in meat analogues. Cornthwaite calls methylcellulose “one of the essential hydrocolloid building blocks for plant-based products.”
And like Kohnke, he stresses the need for a deep understanding of the interplay between ingredients when working with plant-based proteins. This helps avoid issues related to poor texture and greater input costs from unnecessarily high usage rates of ingredients like hydrocolloids.
“Methylcellulose is the universal ‘safety net’ ingredient without which many plant-based products, regardless of format and category, would struggle to perform up to consumer expectations,” Cornthwaite agrees.
Upon heating, methylcellulose gels enhance bite, firmness and juiciness in meat alternatives. Cornthwaite indicated that additional benefits in these applications include improved yields, (through the retention of moisture and fat during the cooking process) and its ability to function across a wide pH range (without negatively interacting with other proteins and ingredients). In true vegan applications he says, it can replace egg white functionality. Recommended usage levels are at a concentration of ~1% across most meat alternative applications.
And while plant-based products might rely slightly on their “green” halo, in all honesty, multiple additives are necessary for proper product form, structure and functionality, meaning clean labels are a bit of a stretch. “To achieve the proper quality, you cannot avoid certain ingredients,” says Kohnke.
Formulators can however, avoid allergens when creating meat alternatives, if they select the right solutions. Tate & Lyle can recommend high-quality prototype recipes that do not contain allergens, that are also soy-free and gluten-free.
Machen said that, as in other food and beverage categories, “consumers are hungry for premium products made from ingredients that are easily recognized.” Since premium ingredients carry a higher price tag than other more economical meat analogues, Machen sees two tiers developing: one for more premium lines and another for less expensive meat alternative options.
Qualitative primary consumer research sourced by DuPont indicates that while clean label is important, texture remains the primary aspect that guides product success. “Binding plant protein, locking in moisture, mouthfeel, bite and ease of processing are some of the critical aspects that producers are grappling with as they transition knowledge to the plant-based space,” says Cornthwaite. Clean label is often secondary to this key consumer driver (texture/taste) linked with value for the money.
“Taste and texture are paramount for success and this means formulators are going to use the most effective hydrocolloid for that purpose,” says Cornthwaite, adding that there are only a few ingredients that can cause consumers to “truly pause and put a product back on the shelf.”