Taste, texture and technology are driving the meat alternative space

Helena V Berbie

08 Sep 2021 — The alternative meat arena is packed with major players creating plant-based NPD solutions and developing innovative products and technologies to keep pace with global meat-free demand.

Innova Market Insights Top Ten Trend “Plant-Forward” shows no sign of waning as we head into the latter stages of 2021. It’s gathering momentum with more consumers than ever seeking out alt-meat products, primarily driven by overarching health trends, recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and an increasing concern for the planet.

Plant-Based Nutrition
Also, agile suppliers are rising to the challenge of diversifying their offerings.

FoodIngredientsFirst speaks to a range of industry professionals on the latest trends and market dynamics driving alt-meat.

Among them is Olivier Chevalier, senior product manager functional proteins at Beneo, who describes the old consumer paradigm of, “I choose to eat what is good for me and also good for the planet,” has now altered to a mindset of, “What is good for the planet is also good for me.”

“Although plant-based products have seen immense growth over recent years, primarily driven by health and eco-conscious shoppers, the global pandemic has widened the appeal of meat-alterative products further still. As more mainstream consumers make changes to their diets to promote their long-term health and reduce their impact on the planet, there has been a recent upsurge in shoppers planning to include more plant-based foods into their diets, as a result of COVID-19,” he explains.Many consumers perceive plant proteins as natural, healthy ingredients that are more sustainable than meat in their production.

Many consumers perceive plant proteins as natural, healthy ingredients that are more sustainable than meat in their production. Chevalier details howabout environmental and animal welfare-related concerns are also significant motivating factors driving the popularity of nutritious plant-based diets.

“Plant proteins have specific benefits such as being low in cholesterol, saturated fats and sugars, making them a popular choice for a growing range of plant-based applications,” he continues.

“With the pandemic influencing every area of life, health is front-of-mind for everyone and many consumers now make vegan and flexitarian choices for the perceived health benefits and sustainability credentials of these products. As a result, these categories are proving to be both incredibly popular and profitable.”

Health and well-being
Sylvain Jouet, global product manager, savory, Givaudan, agrees that demand for plant-based meat alternatives continues to expand as consumers seek alternatives to meat that feel good and do good for the mind, body and planet.

“This trend has been accelerated over the last year and a half, driven by several factors. First, with lockdowns, curfews and stay-at-home orders in countries around the globe, people are spending much more time at home. This has led to a substantial increase in media consumption, with social media, in particular, leading the way,” he says.

These factors, combined with a focus on health and overall well-being, have strengthened interest in alternative meat products.

In turn, he says, this presents opportunities for food and drink companies as meat alternatives become more mainstream, with the focus on getting these products to the next level in terms of the food experience.

“Consumers have high expectations for both taste and nutrition, and this is where Givaudan can make a big difference. Our solutions help to deliver the best possible eating experience for our customers’ products,” Jouet details.

“This goes well beyond flavors to include every aspect of the food experience from the appearance of the product before cooking, to the sound created by moisture and fat release during cooking, to the color change as a product heats up, and to the texture, taste and aroma experienced during consumption.”

Technologies and processing
The production of alternative plant-based proteins now and in the future must be sustainable, including appropriate processing. Consumers want to know what’s in their foods, but also that it’s minimally processed through innovative technologies.

Last week, Bühler and the German Institute of Food Technologies (DIL) bolstered their protein partnership to develop extruded meat substitutes – products targeted for their lower environmental impact than the CO2-heavy meat value chain.The production of alternative plant-based proteins now and in the future must be sustainable, including appropriate processing.

The Germany-based center provides research, test and production infrastructure to develop healthy, sustainable-protein food products.

Extrusion is a key technology to unlock the plant protein’s full functionalities. High moisture extrusion enables the conversion of plant proteins into food products with textures similar to meat.

“The center – with its advanced technological setup and expert teams – assists our customers in the food industry, as well as start-ups, to fully realize the potential of new plant-based proteins and develop new healthy and environmentally friendly food products for a growing market,” says Johannes Wick, CEO Grains & Food at Bühler Group.

Protein sources and their link to taste
Selecting the suitable plant-based proteins that deliver on taste, texture, mouthfeel while hitting all the planet-friendly markers is critical for brands and manufacturers. There’s a range of alternative proteins out there – but who is choosing what?

Although there are many plant protein sources, wheat is among the top proteins in meat substitutes alongside soybean, pulses and pea.

According to Chevalier, the popularity of wheat protein is partly due to its neutral taste and the wide variety of textures it can create.

“Wheat protein is also an excellent source of many amino acids (such as cystéine, méthionine, phénylalanine, tyrosine and tryptophan). It is also recognized to be more neutral in taste than other protein sources, which is important, as taste is a key repeat purchasing driver for consumers. As such, wheat-based protein is one of the most promising meat substitutes for meat-free burgers, nuggets and vegetarian sausages, to name but a few,” he says.

Jouet, meanwhile, believes that choosing the right alternative protein source can be a bit of a balancing act for manufacturers.

On the subject of how Givaudan goes about selecting its proteins, Jouet explains that recent company research, in partnership with the University of California, Berkeley, looks at no less than 40 unique plant proteins and identifies six potential candidates for the “next new protein.”The meat alternative space is pegged to go from strength to strength, with a wide range of possibilities for product development.

“While soy remains a top choice for plant-based protein, it comes with certain drawbacks, notably its status as a common allergen. Popular alternatives like pea protein and wheat protein are also on the rise, but other less-known alternatives, such as oat, show great promise,” he says.

“Once the protein base has been selected, there are specific challenges that need to be addressed to deliver the best possible food experience. For example, consider a plant-based burger made with pea protein: there will likely be taste challenges that require off-note masking and taste gaps to fill relative to salt and juiciness. Additionally, there will likely be a need for natural coloring to provide an authentic appearance as the product is cooked. Givaudan’s broad portfolio helps to address these issues and many others.”

The next wave of alternative protein
With the ongoing innovations enhancing the authenticity of meat alternatives, Jouet expects that this market will continue to go from strength to strength, with a wide range of possibilities for product development.

“As more people transition to a flexitarian diet, we can expect to see hybrid products that contain a blend of both meat and plant protein, allowing for reduced consumption of meat, to become more widely available and popular. Such products will likely be healthier than their full meat counterparts and provide good dietary options for many types of consumers,” he says.

Notably, some of the most exciting plant-based innovations are coming out of the alternative fish and seafood product market. 

“Developed from micro and macroalgae, algal proteins are currently gaining great interest as a protein base for these products. These novel proteins are grown in water via photosynthesis and actually provide a complementary flavor profile for fish and seafood,” Jouet says.

“Together, these properties make them an attractive protein source for manufacturers and a logical, easy-to-understand ingredient for consumers. While scale-up costs, in particular, pose certain challenges to successful large-scale production, we expect this to be a long-term growth source for this market,” he concludes.

By Gaynor Selby

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