New consumer products such as plant-based meat alternatives can generate mass media attention, accompanied by inflated consumer expectations, said Julia Thompson, Culinologist III, CuliNEX. Tremendous 2020 sales growth for plant-based meat alternatives plateaued in 2021, because consumers’ taste and texture expectations were not always met. Next-generation ingredients are starting to hit the market, allowing for practical advice on formulating plant-based alternatives, particularly meats, which are much closer to the taste and texture of meat.
From the perspective of an experienced bench scientist developing plant-based products, Thompson suggested helpful tips for designing such products in her Global Food Forums’ 2022 Clean Label Conference presentation titled “Practical Formulation with Plant-Based Technologies.”
Consumer Perception of Ingredients
The building blocks of plant-based meat alternatives include protein, fat, flavor, color and functional ingredients. Consumers’ preferences matter, so it is essential to identify acceptable components for clean label consumers. CuliNEX partners with Insights Now, a consumer research group that generates scores for individual ingredients based on consumers’ perceptions.
Food companies with which Thompson works often try to avoid wheat and soy protein. Interestingly, however, research shows that wheat is at the top of the list of protein ingredients consumers view favorably. Wheat has excellent functional qualities that help replicate the flake and fiber of chicken and the “snap” of sausages.
Consumers highly accept pea protein itself; however, qualifiers in the product name, such as “textured,” “fermented,” “hydrolyzed,” etc., result in much lower consumer acceptance, likely because such terms connote a more processed ingredient.
Many of the most popular new protein ingredients come from foods consumers already eat, such as lentils, rice, peanut, pumpkin and chickpeas. Fava bean (faba) is another up-and-coming plant protein. The ability of many plants to serve as protein sources avoids “monocrop” problems related to environmental sustainability, while also reducing supply chain concerns and making reformulation easier.
New Technology and Ingredients
Thompson highlighted new ingredients and processing techniques used to create the next generation of plant-based products. One recent trend involves the use of high-protein, “whole food” ingredients. Traditional breeding can increase protein in plants—which provides a significant upside: You don’t need to extract the protein, minimizing waste and energy inputs. Whole food ingredients retain fiber and other food components, better absorbing water and providing a more realistic mouthfeel. Novel protein sources are being explored, including plants that grow fast with fewer inputs, such as algae, duckweed and seaweed.
Real meat has random variations in shape, size and texture, while foods with uniform shapes scream “processed.” Using technology or functional ingredients to make plant-based products more like real meat by introducing different textures, shapes and distributions of fat within a product is known as randomization.
Fats play a crucial role in making plant-based products more like real meat. Among oils, coconut oil is still perceived well by consumers. In contrast, palm oil, which has excellent functional qualities, is perceived poorly due to sustainability and fair-trade issues. Cocoa butter does not melt like animal fat but can be mixed with other fats to provide a melting curve like that of coconut or palm oil.
Encapsulated fat (water plus fat encapsulated in a plant-based protein) is a new technology that provides an excellent fat-like texture. Importantly for consumers, it also traps aromas and allows their release during cooking like real meat. Cultivated fat may also become available soon, but it might raise concerns with consumers.
Plant-based meat alternatives are generally bland without added flavors. Not surprisingly, consumers prefer typically natural flavors. Soy leghemoglobin is ranked lowest of all flavors surveyed. Paradoxically, however, the products in which leghemoglobin is used are very popular. Several new options for natural flavoring include cystine, which can participate in the Maillard reaction to provide an umami flavor, and specific mono- and disaccharides, where very low levels can enhance other flavors and potentially reduce salt requirements.
Clean label requirements increasingly limit ingredients to those with nutritional benefits, making products such as methylcellulose unpopular—despite excellent functionality. Potato protein, which creates an irreversible gel when heated but requires another component such as citrus fiber to hold a product together until it is cooked, may be a more accepted replacement. Another promising binder is red algae, a liquid that gels when heated (like blood) and provides color and flavor, potentially shortening ingredient lists.
While some new ingredients may be unfamiliar to consumers, Thompson believes there is an opportunity to increase their acceptability if they are sustainable or environmentally friendly. In addition, the precedent of leghemoglobin demonstrates that consumers can overlook a potentially unpopular ingredient –if the final product is tasty.
“Practical Formulation with Plant-Based Technologies,” Julia Thompson, Culinologist III, CuliNEX
To view a pdf of the presentation, go to Practical Formulation with Plant-Based Technologies at Global Food Forums’ R&D Academy.