When it comes to why one burger is demonstrably ‘better’ than the next one on the shelf, when it basically has the same ingredients list, says Sergio Machado, head of customer technical service Americas at Roquette (maker of Nutralys pea protein), “I will give you a one word answer to that question: process.”
He added: “I started my career with General Mills at Betty Crocker, where we always used to say, you and I can go to the grocery store and buy exactly the same flour, sugar, butter, baking powder, vanilla, but your cake won’t be the same as mine.”
‘Every time I hear of a launch in plant-based meat, I cross my fingers and hope it is well executed’
Generally speaking, plant-based meat is “exponentially better” than it was even a couple of years ago, said Machado, in part because firms such as Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat – which have hired R&D people spanning disciplines from life sciences to engineering, data analysis, machine-learning, neurobiology and experimental psychology – have gained a far more granular understanding of what makes regular meat, look, smell, taste, cook, and eat like meat, in order to reverse engineer it and build it back, molecule by molecule, with plants.
However, the pressure to get a slice of the action in a market heating up very rapidly has meant some products – even from very big players – have hit the market when they are not ready for prime time, prompting rapid reformulations.
And while continuous improvement is one thing, sub-par products in emerging categories can have a wider impact, he said: “I think many folks see this massive opportunity, and they skip some of the necessary building blocks to the launch, they get on shelf, and consumers are disappointed.
“I remember when stevia first came out, many launches were so poorly executed that it created a negative halo that led many people to assume that stevia just doesn’t taste good, so every time I hear of a launch in plant-based meat, I cross my fingers and I hope it is well executed.”
Texturizing proteins: From extrusion to shear cell technology
When it comes to texturizing proteins – basically trying to make plant proteins behave like animal proteins – shear-cell technology (read more about this from Givaudan, which is working on the Plant Meat Matters project in Europe) ice/freeze structuring, mixing with hydrocolloids, and wet spinning all have potential, Dr Nadji Rekhif, senior flavor scientist at Nestlé told delegates at the virtual IFT show last week.
However, extrusion (re-arranging protein structures via heat and mechanical shear) is still the main game in town, he said.
Low moisture extrusion delivers a fibrous, spongy texture and shelf-stable product that will need rehydrating (textured vegetable protein).
High moisture extrusion, in turn, delivers a more fibrous, striated, meaty product that must be chilled or frozen, said Julie Prost, process engineer at extruder specialist Clextral USA, who said that while extrusion technology has been around for a while, firms are learning that they can make significant changes to the product eating experience by adjusting ingredients going into the machine, but also by adjusting parameters from the screw profile and speed, to temperature, fluid flow rates, die design and dimensions, and cooling temperatures.
Nowadays low moisture extrusion
While some high-profile players such as Beyond Meat deploy high moisture extrusion, it’s an expensive process delivering an extrudate that must be temperature controlled, said Max Elder at plant-based chicken brand Nowadays, which uses a proprietary low moisture extrusion process enabling it to use fewer ingredients and scale up more easily with co-packers.
“We’ve just filed a provisional patent on our novel form of extrusion; it’s a unique approach to extruding pea protein that creates whole cuts of chicken with a two-year shelf-life that can be shipped anywhere in the world very cheaply [without requiring refrigeration], rehydrated at co-packing plants and then treated like a piece of meat.
“This protects our IP [because the co-packers aren’t dealing with anything proprietary], and also significantly lowers the barrier to entry for co-manufacturers.”
The extrudate that most companies are providing co-manufacturers “is really an ingredient rather than a product, which needs to be formed into a nugget with a bunch of binders and other ingredients,” he claimed. “Whereas we’re basically sending co-manufacturers a full cut of a nugget, a fibrous juicy stick shape that can be treated like a cut of chicken.
“We’re only asking co-packers to manage very few ingredients, then it’s just a case of a [companies with a] battering, breading frying and freezing line, which are everywhere, and super cheap. We do not have to augment lines or develop new kinds of machinery or equipment, so we can leverage existing value added and manufacturing facilities in a way that no one else can.”
“[Animal] muscle consists of meat fibers surrounded and supported by connective tissues, consisting mostly of collagen and elastin. The toughness of meat is related to the distribution of myofibrillar and connective tissues. Meat tenderness is strongly related to the spatial organization of the connective tissue throughout the meat fiber bundles. The water held between meat fibers is connected to the juiciness of meat.” Dr Nadji Rekhif, senior flavor scientist, Nestlé
Fat… the final frontier in plant-based meat?
When it comes to fats in plant-based burgers, most companies are using a combination of hard fats such as coconut, cocoa butter, or shea butter, and liquid oils such as canola or sunflower, although new options from cell-cultured fat to ‘animal-free’ fats produced via microbial fermentation (click here) are emerging on the scene, said Melissa Machen, protein senior technical services specialist at Cargill.
“Hard fats such as coconut provide that firmness when the burger is refrigerated. You also want something that is going to give you those nice white flecks but also will melt when you cook it. Then the liquid fat gives a nice sizzle when it hits the pan or the grill.
“What we’re seeing now is that customers want to reduce their saturated fat [most products range from 5-8g, although OZO burgers from Planterra Foods have just 2g], but this can make products more difficult to handle out of the package, as they can become very soft. So some manufacturers are adding a clean label starch or hydrocolloids so they can get the texture you would have with a higher level of saturated fat.
“The other thing that is really challenging is water balance to get to the right texture and eating experience.”
‘Fat plays an important role in flavor, flavor retention, flavor release, mouthfeel, texture, and juiciness’
Another key challenge, said Machado at Roquette, is getting fat uniformly distributed into the plant-based meat matrix: “Fat plays such an important role as far as flavor, flavor retention, flavor release, mouthfeel, texture, and juiciness are concerned.
“And if it’s not uniformly dispersed, when you cook it, the outer layer is going to get hard and thick, and then the inside probably is not going to be very uniform, and might be perceived as a little bit raw.”
Motif FoodWorks: ‘Today, there’s no real way to get marbling through extrusion’
Fat has been a particular area of focus at Boston-based foodtech firm Motif FoodWorks, which recently raised a jaw-dropping $226m in a series B round, and is working on technology that can enable plant-based meat companies to replicate the distinct marbling structures you see in conventional meat, and potentially reduce saturated fat, said CTO Dr Mike Leonard.
“Think about fat marbling in meat, how the fat is intimately connected and interpolated within the protein fibers. Today, there’s no real way to get marbling through extrusion. In high moisture extrusion, you’ve got your protein blend, you’ve got your starches, water and so on in there, but if you try to put coconut oil in the front end of an extruder or inject it anywhere, it’s going to end up coating the outside of the product and it’s not going to partition the right way in there, so it’s usually added post process.
“But we are looking at extrudable fats that have elongational properties in extrusion; fat that is able to interpolate with plant-based protein fibers as it extrudes, creating juiciness and structure in the finished product.”
This involves oleogel technology – deploying plant-based oils, ethyl cellulose, and emulsifiers – whereby liquid oil is effectively trapped within an ethyl cellulose scaffold such that it is solid or semi-solid at room temperature and can be co-extruded with plant-based proteins, creating a “veining and marbling effect,” said Leonard.
Co-processing fat with the plant-based proteins could also improve binding, he said: “It might be more stable in the product so when you heat it up, it won’t all leak out.”
Roquette: ‘When it comes to proteins in a plant space, we’re scouting the entire landscape’
When it comes to proteins in plant-based burgers, most firms (with the exception of Quorn and Nature’s Fynd) are using soy or pea as the primary protein, usually with something else as a secondary protein, from rice to faba beans, both to balance out the amino acid profile and for technical reasons.
“From a nutritional perspective,” said Machado at Roquette, who was speaking to FoodNavigator-USA as Roquette gears up to open a large pea protein extraction facility in Portage la Prairie, Manitoba, Canada, next year, “people want to get to a PDCAAS of 1.0, but there are also benefits of blending proteins for texture, chewiness and resilience.
“So rice dovetails in there nicely with pea [to balance out the amino acid profile], but does it do the trick on a texture front? Probably not. There you are probably better off blending pea with other proteins such as faba bean protein.”
He added: “When it comes to proteins in a plant space, we’re scouting the entire landscape, because the space is very fluid and fast evolving, so we’re looking at the next proteins that can play well in our portfolio.”
Faba beans, chickpeas, canola, mycoproteins…
Cargill, meanwhile, has also been road-testing a variety of proteins from faba beans to chickpea protein – which Machen said has a neutral taste and some nice gelling properties.
Canola protein – coming onto the market shortly from firms including Merit Functional Foods and DSM – is also interesting, she said: “Canola protein does have some gelling capability, but there’s a bit of color variation, so for a meat alternative such as chicken or seafood alternative that can be a challenge, whereas in a burger it’s not an issue.”
Next-generation novel proteins produced via microbial fermentation are also an exciting potential addition to the formulator’s toolbox, she said: “Cargill is researching quite heavily right now in fermentation so things like mycoproteins [fungi-based proteins], and also cell-based proteins [cell-cultured meat from real animal cells], as we’re all trying to figure out what’s going to be really the most economical.”
Everyone wants to replace methylcellulose…
When it comes to ‘cleaning up labels,’ every player is looking for a shorter, cleaner ingredients list, with methylcellulose probably top of the list of things they’d like to replace if they could, said Machado at Roquette.
“Replacing that functionality right now is very difficult because methylcellulose has great binding properties, and during the cooking process it gels to enhance the bite and firmness and juiciness of the finished product, so finding one thing that will do that is one of those holy grails that everybody’s looking for.” (Read about potential alternatives to methylcellulose HERE and HERE.)
Whether consumers care as much about methylcellulose or other ingredients you won’t find in Grandma’s kitchen as some brands think they do, is a matter for debate of course, said Machado: “I believe in looking at consumer behavior in unguarded situations like online searches or actual purchasing behavior rather than online surveys. Take maltodextrin, it doesn’t even register on Google Trends, but companies will tell you it’s a number one priority to remove it.”
That said, “everyone” wants to get rid of methylcellulose (sometimes listed as ‘modified cellulose’ in a bid to make it sound more appealing), added Machen at Cargill.
“The challenge is that it’s such a unique ingredient, it’s such a functional ingredient. It’s soft in a gel at cold temperatures, but it firms as you heat it up so it gives that really nice hot firm bite in a meat alternative. It’s also very effective because it’s used it really moderate usage levels, just 1-2%.”
She added: “A lot of our customers have come to us requesting a replacement, but it won’t be a one-for-one replacement.”
Flavor: ‘Overcoming beanie or grassy or green notes from some plant proteins is key’
When it comes to flavor, she said, it’s not just about which ‘meaty’ flavors to add, but how the fat impacts the flavor, how the core protein impacts the flavor and so on. “Overcoming those beanie or grassy or green notes from some plant proteins is key.”
Asked whether Impossible Foods’ flagship heme protein – which imparts flavor and color to its burgers –set its products apart from rivals, she said: “I would say there is a discernible difference that the heme adds, but I would say that other colors and flavors are definitely making advancements.”
Motif FoodWorks, meanwhile, is working on a ‘muscle protein’ (providing flavor and color) that is “going to be a real game changer in the industry for plant-based meat flavor,” claimed Leonard, who said more details will be shared later this year. [Read about Givaudan’s work on flavor in plant-based meat HERE.]
Beyond Meat: ‘Faba bean is the main source of protein [in its new chicken tenders], which is something no one has done before’
When it comes to nutrition, protein levels are typically around 20g although they can vary from around 16-25g, saturated fat is typically around 5-8g per 4oz burger (vs 8g for 80:20 beef), fiber is 0-3g, while sodium levels have generally come down to 300-400mg as firms adjust flavor systems, test lower-sodium pea varieties, or deploy potassium chloride.
At Beyond Meat – which recently launched v3 of its flagship burger with the same level of saturated fat (5g), but lower total fat (14g) fewer calories (230), and a meatier flavor – CEO Ethan Brown has observed that, “When people grab a plant-based burger, they assume it’s going to be healthier,” and has an even leaner version to follow later this year featuring 55% less saturated fat than 80:20 beef burgers.
It has not shared the Nutritional Facts panel for its new Beyond Chicken breaded tenders, but said they feature 14g protein per serving and 40% less saturated fat than the leading foodservice chicken tender, and are the first plant-based product to feature faba beans as the primary protein source.
Chief innovation officer Dariush Ajami PhD told us: “Replicating that whole muscle structure in chicken is something we’ve been working on for years and we’ve improved the texture [in the latest iteration] with [adjusting] heating, cooling, pressure, but at the same time, developing more knowledge about using different plant based proteins, so faba bean is the main source of protein, which is something no one has done before.”
Beyond Chicken tenders contain faba beans, canola & sunflower oil, methylcellulose, and titanium dioxide for white color
The new Beyond Chicken tenders also contain canola oil, sunflower oil and a small amount of coconut oil; wheat protein; corn and pea starch; methylcellulose; yeast extract, various natural flavors and seasonings; and titanium dioxide, a whitening agent that is approved by the FDA, although the European Food Safety Authority says it “can no longer be considered safe as a food additive,” prompting many manufacturers on both sides of the Atlantic to attempt to find alternatives.
Beyond Meat is “monitoring” the situation in the US and is aware of EFSA’s determination, said Dr Ajami, adding “The FDA considers it safe and it’s been used in the food chain for a long time; at the same time, we are listening to feedback from consumers about clean labels.”
‘Cooking meat releases thousands of flavor molecules’
While Beyond Meat – now a public company – is careful not to share detailed information about its ingredients or processes, Dr Ajami said sensory testing has been key to steady improvements in the firm’s formulations.
“At our innovation center, we’ve come up with unbiased ways of measuring the gap between animal products and our products in flavor, texture, juiciness, mouthfeel, color transition [over shelf-life and as the product cooks] and appearance using technology including electronic noses and mouths.”
He added: “So raw meat doesn’t really have any flavor, but when you grill it, you create 4,000 new aroma molecules and the electronic nose can build a fingerprint of all those flavor profiles [which Beyond Meat then attempts to replicate using plant-based ingredients].
“We also have a very extensive [human] sensory program, including using an internal descriptive panel, and then when something gets closer to market, central location tests
Asked about the use of meaty flavors such as heme or myoglobin made from genetically engineered microbes and whether it’s possible to make truly ‘meaty’ tasting analogs without them, he said: “Our retail products are non GMO Project Verified and all of our products are non-GMO, but there are elements in plant-based ingredients we can use to deliver all of the aspects of animal meat.”
Fat perception, novel protein sources
Beyond Meat also has sophisticated tools to look at textural properties such as chewiness, juiciness and elasticity, as well as fat perception, he said. “So we have what we call an electronic mouth to look at the rheology, but we also look at how fat coats the tongue or activates receptors.”
When it comes to proteins, Beyond Meat is constantly evaluating new sources from plants and microbes, which have to be both functional, scalable, and Non GMO, he said. “We’ll looking at all emerging non-GMO proteins; our approach has been from the beginning to blend protein, both for nutritional reasons [to balance out amino acid profiles] and for functional reasons.”
It is also looking at next-generation texturizing technologies.
“We want to be a leader in the sector, and of course we’re looking into new technologies as you look at making things like a steak or more complex muscle tissues, but they have to be scalable,” added Dr Ajami, who has been working at Beyond Meat since 2015, and is named on several patents that have been filed by the California-based company.
‘The meat alternative space has the fastest iteration cycles out there’
Stepping back and looking at the meat alternative space today vs 10 years ago, said Machen at Cargill, it’s come a long way.
“I’ve been in the food industry for over 20 years, and the meat alternative space has the fastest iteration cycles out there, so you’ve got version one, version two, version three, every six to nine months which is very fast for food developers.
“I think still the biggest challenge is supply of proteins and especially highly nutritious proteins and options compared to soy.”
Consumer perceptions: Taste is still king
As for perceptions of plant-based meat, consumers still tell researchers that conventional meat has the edge when it comes to taste, texture, and bite, said Mark Fahlin, business development manager for dairy and plant-based at Cargill.
However, they generally believe that plant-based meat is healthier. So while “taste is still king,” he said, formulators are coming under pressure both to clean up labels and improve the nutritional profiles of their wares, something that might not be a major issue now, but could become more of a factor as the market matures and shoppers scrutinize labels more closely.
“Methylcellulose has not held companies back, but the industry is not standing still.”
Consumers purchase drivers for plant-based meat: ‘People like to try new things’
As to what ‘healthier’ looks like in plant-based meat, for some consumers it’s about the number of recognizable ingredients on the label, or avoiding hormones and antibiotics, while for others it’s about more fiber, less saturated fat and cholesterol, fewer calories, he said.
For others, meanwhile, it’s not about what isn’t in the products, but about proactively trying to consume more plant proteins, he said.
“Beyond personal health, there’s also animal welfare, sustainability, and then just discovery… people like to try new things.”
When it comes to white space in the market, he said, “We have a lot of burgers, but there’s runway in, sausages and hot dogs, deli slices, meatballs, pizza toppings, chicken, and seafood, which is a small market but high growth so we’re working with industry on it.”