There’s no denying that we are in the midst of a plant-based revolution. Meat alternative product development is on the menu at many of the major food manufacturers, as the demand for vegetarian, vegan and plant-based options goes truly mainstream.
The largest product groups for meat alternatives consist of minced and formed meat products, such as burgers, patties & meatballs and sausages. The scope of products is expanding, however. Beyond the well-established formed meat alternatives for hot consumption, there is a growing trend towards emulsified plant-based cold cuts too.
Meat alternative products no longer cater to consumers forgoing meat altogether. Rather, most of these consumers could be classified as “flexitarians,” who are making a conscious effort to diversify their diet, increasing the intake of plant-based protein.
"Almost four in 10 European shoppers believe plant-based foods are healthy"
For Matthias Bourdeau, marketing manager texturizers at Cargill, it is the health halo associated with plant-based foods that forms the biggest motivator for flexible vegetarians. “A Cargill study shows that almost four in 10 European shoppers believe plant-based foods are healthy,” he notes. “Environmental and ethical concerns play more of a role for vegans or vegetarians,” Bourdeau adds.
Catering to flexitarian demands
The broadening consumer appeal of meat alternatives brings its own challenges. Even if many consumers are receptive to switching to a vegan or vegetarian alternative, most are unwilling to compromise on flavour and other organoleptic characteristics. Flexitarians expect meat alternatives to come incredibly close to the real thing in terms of meat-like taste, texture, and visual appeal. Furthermore, Bourdeau notes that, in order to achieve repeat purchase, you must match the original in terms of the whole experience, including the preparation. “It’s crucial that you replicate the cooking and warming up of the product, in the case of the vegan burgers, nuggets, meatballs or sausages, as well as the experience in terms of presenting in a bun or spreading the product onto your bread, like with a vegan pâté or meat spread,” he notes.
Getting there is easier said than done from a formulation perspective, however. “Animal-based ingredients have specific properties that impact visual appeal, taste and texture,” Bourdeau points out. “The key to successful plant-based alternatives is creating a product that appeals to consumers across all these lines,” he adds.
This is where application experts such as Zuzana Van Beveren, senior meat technical service specialist at Cargill, succeeds in taking customers to new meat alternative frontiers. In summarising the challenges the task presents, she notes that both the animal protein and animal fat replacement present interesting formulation hurdles to overcome. “At the end of the day you are changing the type of protein that you are working with into something entirely different,” she explains. “You are also replacing the animal fats with plant-based oils and fats – and this impacts texture, organoleptic properties, product stability, as well as overall product acceptance,” Van Beveren explains.
Up to the cold cut challenge?
As consumers become generally more accepting of plant-based solutions, they are looking for meat alternatives beyond plant-based burgers, including cold cuts for light snacking sandwiches. They want something nutritious without compromising on the experience of eating meat products with a firm and juicy texture. While the current sliced cold cuts offering is still in its infancy when compared to the vast array of plant-based burgers, nuggets and sausages out there, Cargill is already looking into this.
The formulation of plant-based cold cut products is an ingredient balancing conundrum. These products typically consist of plant-based protein materials, plant-based oils & fats, water, salt/flavours & colours and, importantly, functional binding systems (based on hydrocolloids, fibers, and starches) to keep it all together. Making such a complex product matrix work demands real application knowhow.
Consumer expectations are to get the same visual appearance, bite and succulence that they know and love from their favourite ‘original’ meat-based product. It all means that manufacturers will have very specific objectives on the look, taste, juiciness, bite and elasticity of the product. Besides, there are several further processing challenges to be considered on the manufacturing front too, including emulsion stability, final dough viscosity before stuffing, sliceability of cooked plant-based cold cuts and product stability during shelf-life.
Winning taste on texture
Overcoming the organoleptic challenge of replicating the taste and texture of processed meat products undoubtedly requires the use of various high-quality ingredients.
In meat alternatives, formulators will find pea protein can improve texture, emulsification and juiciness. Nutritionally, pea protein has a lot to offer, too. It is highly regarded for its superior amino acid profile and high digestibility. Designed to meet the functional and sensory challenges in emerging applications in the alternative proteins space, Cargill recently added PURIS™ and RadiPure® pea proteins to its European portfolio of ingredients, complementing its existing line-up of plant-based proteins that includes Gluvital® vital wheat gluten and Prowliz® hydrolyzed wheat protein. Label-friendly pea proteins provide food and drinks manufacturers with a host of nutritional and functional benefits. Cargill’s high-quality protein offering for Europe contain a minimum of 80% protein content. They can help providing outstanding solubility, emulsifying and binding capabilities, or bring a creamy flavour and smooth mouthfeel.
Beyond proteins, Cargill’s vast range of functional ingredients includes starches from various botanicals to help increase yield, with enhanced water and oil absorption, moisture retention and add firmness to bite. The company is continuing to expand its SimPure® line of label-friendly functional starches, to address the consumer desire for label-friendly products, along with greater process tolerance, shelf-life, and storage stability. A SimPure® solution based on potato starch is particularly suitable for meat alternative applications.
The company also offers carrageenan solutions that provide firmness while binding water to create juicy mouthfeel and aid in the sliceability of meat alternatives.
However, if only carrageenan is used as a texturizer, it can result in brittle texture that is very difficult to slice. “Therefore, we have developed blends of different ingredients with high process tolerance. This is for improving oil binding and viscosity during processing, adding cohesiveness to cooked product, enhancing succulence, and reducing purge during shelf-life,” Van Beveren explains.
Having the right ingredients in place is not solely enough to win in the competitive meat alternatives space. Experience in working with them, knowing how they interact with each other and having the facilities available to test the end-product are also important. INFUSE by Cargill™, where the company tailors ingredient blends to answer specific customers’ requests, is designed to overcome the key organoleptic challenges for its existing and potential customers. Under the service, it has already developed several new functional binding systems that are suitable for a wide range of plant protein products. Versatile systems in the range allow customers to create high-quality, meat-free sliced products using different plant protein sources, including pea protein, that consumers can enjoy, without compromising on taste and nutrition.
Plant-based: The next generation
Meat substitutes based on alternative proteins are beginning to show up everywhere to cater to the needs of flexitarians, vegetarians and vegans. The next challenge will be to expand the possibilities to incorporate new eating occasions and experiences.
Furthermore, product developers are being challenged to deliver products that are more label-friendly, and also deliver nutritional benefits.
Cargill’s solutions, knowhow and application expertise can help a meat alternative product stand out in terms of taste, texture and visual appeal within the booming but increasingly crowded protein aisle.
For more information on Cargill’s pea protein offering in Europe visit:
For more on INFUSE by Cargill™ visit: https://www.cargill.com/food-beverage/emea/infuse-by-cargill