In the last few years, we have seen some of the most notable moments in food science, specifically in the area of alternative proteins. According to Mintel’s Global New Product Database (Mintel GNPD), meat substitutes have followed an upward trend, with over double the number of products launched from the previous year. Additionally, meat substitutes make up roughly 10% of products launched in the processed fish, meat & egg product category in the past year. In fact, not only are these a marvel of food science innovation, but these products rival their animal-based counterparts in nearly every characteristic. So how did they do it?
Sensory and Drivers of Liking
Any great new product launch starts with determining the drivers of liking. Drivers of liking are the product or sensory characteristics that most greatly influence consumer liking of the product. For a chocolate chip cookie, the drivers of liking may be the number of chips per cookie, the chocolate intensity of the chips, the chewiness of the cookie, the sweetness level, or the color of the cookie. Once determined, product developers can try and optimize these characteristics to best match what consumers like, all the while balancing cost and manufacturing sophistication.
If you ever ate a plant-based meat alternative in the 90’s or early 2000’s, you may wonder if those companies had ever heard of drivers of liking. [Yikes! What did I just eat?] Keep in mind that the key drivers will be different if you are marketing to long-time vegetarians or if you are marketing to a broader market that may still enjoy meat-based proteins along with alternative proteins. The latter group poses a real challenge!
How does one match what the mainstream consumer enjoys about meat products with a plant-based approach?
Audible and Color Cues
Let’s move chronologically through the sizzle on the grill all the way to the last bite of that fillet. When we cook an animal-based product, we use certain cues while we cook. We see the color of the uncooked protein and compare that to the char, opacity, and golden hues that form as we cook. We listen to the sizzle of the fillet on our grill or pan. To add to the complication for food scientists, many consumers use a relative time (measured in their heads) or a tactile response (how does the fillet feel when I apply pressure with my finger) to judge doneness. A smaller percentage may cut a chicken or beef fillet to use a visual heuristic opacity and color change.
These learned cues can make it challenging for a meat-eating consumer to adapt to cooking alternative proteins. Most alternatives still give an amazing sizzle but when you’re looking for a degree of doneness by touch or a char mark to tell you to flip—you were left high and dry by alternatives of yesteryear. Today’s meat alternatives char, go pink to brown, and some even purge. All of these cues were identified via research in how consumers interact with the product. Meeting consumers’ expectations and heuristics are key for product success.
Texture is one of the biggest challenges for product developers of plant-based proteins. There is a great deal of variety in the textures of meat products. There are the striation of muscle tissue in a steak, the crunch of crispy bacon, and the coarse texture of a sausage patty. To mimic these textures in plant-based products, one must first describe and quantify these textures.
Understanding how to characterize each texture is important. This characterization can be done using trained sensory panels to describe the texture and quantify its intensity, or a texture analyzer can be used to mimic the biting/chewing action of the mouth and quantify the force needed to shear or break the product. Some developers will also correlate consumer insights and texture data to best understand at what texture does a consumer respond most favorably.
Flavor and Umami
Flavor is paramount. There is no arguing that. Consumers may try a new product out of pure curiosity but they will only repurchase that product if they enjoy the flavor. Sausages must be properly spiced; bacons properly smoked. And in the case of any meat alternative, this umami, defined as the savory flavor associated with broths and cooked meats, should be well characterized by a trained sensory panel.
Sensory data can be presented as spider graphs and the traditional and alternative proteins can be compared to highlight opportunities for developers to more closely match the expected savory notes of animal proteins.
In the chart below you can see opportunities to fine-tune the flavor profile of the plant-based sausage to more closely mimic its traditional cousin.
Spanning the gap between plant-based and animal-based proteins is a challenge for product developers. Sensory scientists can help bridge that gap by characterizing and quantifying consumer expectations and preferences and helping identify opportunities to optimize plant-based formulations.
Further, using analytical methods like texture analysis coupled with consumer insights data shows product developers how and where they need to tweak formulations so they are successful in the marketplace.
What We Do
Mérieux NutriSciences provides sensory and consumer insights testing services including trained sensory panels, consumer preference studies, and physical and analytical testing services. Mérieux NutriSciences supports product developers in their quest to design products that delight consumers. Contact us today to get started!