• The explosion of the plant-based food industry
  • Consumers’ changing preferences
  • The challenges of bringing an alternative protein product to market

One thing I’ve realized in these first few days of the new decade is that it’s not getting easier to keep up-to-date on the news surrounding plant-based foods. Peruse the frozen meat aisles at your local grocery store in 2020 and you’ll find more plant-based alternatives to traditional meat products than ever before. The bar & grill or fast food drive-through down the block will likely have a lengthened menu – one that now includes plant-based versions of decades-old, iconic menu items.

The plant-based protein industry, expected to more than double by 2025, is without a doubt red-hot. Examining the industry drivers as well as its behind-the-scenes challenges in producing consumer-acceptable products can aid in appreciation of its success.

Push for Plants

Consumers are increasingly seeking protein sources that they perceive as more sustainable, ethical, and healthier than protein from animals. In North America, revenue from plant-based meat alternatives has grown nearly 40% from 2017 to 2019. Retailers across the country have observed a 10% growth in plant-based meat, but only 2% for animal proteins. Some industry experts will argue that we are not witnessing a temporary fad, but rather a long-term change in consumer behavior primarily driven by younger generations.

According to a YouGov and Whole Foods survey, over half of all millennials attempt to add more plant-based meals into their diet.  Additionally, more than 60% in this age group say they are aware of the implications their food choices have on the environment and are taking steps to lessen that impact.

This, however, does not mean younger generations are quitting meat cold turkey (no pun intended) and adopting vegetarianism or veganism. While those two diets have certainly become more prevalent, much of the plant-based industry’s growth can be attributed to a rise in flexitarianism – the middle ground diet involving replacing some animal meat with plants.

Rooted in Innovation

While a shifting consumer preference has no doubt driven growth, it’s fair to attribute a portion of the plant-based protein industry’s success to creative product innovation. Veggie burgers of the past were not intended to mimic the look, taste, texture, and mouthfeel of a ground beef burger, but today’s products are doing just that with their ability to “bleed”. Similarly, a plant-based bratwurst that produces a “snap” upon first bite, followed by the fatty mouthfeel experienced with a pork brat, is more likely to appeal to consumers of the pig-derived product.

In addition to having a sensory experience that is similar to the animal-based alternative, plant-based proteins are often chosen by consumers simply because they are intriguing. More consumers than ever are willing to experiment with foods categorized as novel or non-traditional. Consequently, a beloved animal-based product re-created with plant-based ingredients, and marketed as such, has been a winning formula for some food manufacturers.

A Balancing Act

As product developers know, innovative, successful plant-based food products do not just come to life overnight. They often require months or years of trial and error. From selecting a protein or blend of proteins, to labeling the final product lawfully according to food label regulations, challenges exist from ideation through product launch. Protein selection involves many considerations. Cereal grains have historically been popular choices due to their low relative low cost and availability, but legumes and even oilseeds have become increasingly common as they offer different, in some cases more favorable, functional and nutritional properties.  Some proteins, regardless of processing, will have inherent flavors that could affect the flavor of the final product intended for human consumption. For example, pulses can be earthy, beany, or bitter, while soybeans can impart a grassy flavor.

Texture and mouthfeel are also considerations, as some legumes are often described as thicker and creamier, whereas cereal grain proteins can be milder and grittier. Flavor, texture, and mouthfeel are just some of the numerous functional properties that should be considered. Solubility, emulsification, gelling capacity, and many others are important in achieving a proper balance.

Nevertheless, there will always be pros and cons to any particular protein source, and manufacturers will need to employ certain strategies to offset any drawbacks. Flavors can be masked with saltiness or sweetness, or paired with other flavors to improve the profile. Gums, starches, or other ingredients can be added to improve texture. Regardless of the protein chosen and modifications needed, this stage will undoubtedly require careful attention by food manufacturers in order to produce a favorable product.

Don’t Go It Alone

With no sign of deceleration, the plant-based movement can certainly benefit from support from a third-party lab to help navigate the complexity of product development. Mérieux NutriSciences offers a wide range of support for food companies formulating with plant proteins. We are able to conduct consumer sensory panels in order to evaluate acceptance of the protein in the final product. Further, we can perform shelf life studies to help understand the quality and safety of the product over time.

Analytical testing can also be an important tool in producing a successful plant-based product. We offer Protein Dispersibility Corrected Amino Acid Score testing, which is a method used to evaluate the quality of a protein-based on its amino acid content and is required for making protein content claims on a food label. These are just some highlights in our full suite of services for plant-based proteins. Get in touch with us today!


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