Health and sustainability concerns have caused a major shift in consumer diets to include plant-based food sources. With growing concerns about climate change and a growing need for sustainable protein sources, plant-based diets are now in the spotlight as one of many critical solutions.
The Need for Plant-Based Proteins
There is an increasing awareness among consumers about the benefits of a healthy diet and lifestyle in preventing diseases. The perceived health benefits from flexitarian, vegetarian and vegan diets have nudged some consumers to adopt diets that include more plant-based foods.
Plant-based protein sources are also a ray of hope in solving the food security crisis of the growing human population. A rapidly increasing human population necessitates the search for new sources of nutrition. Specifically, protein supply is an enormous challenge. The more plant proteins that can be sustainably sourced, the better equipped the food industry will be to make nutritious food accessible to all.
Different Plant-Based Protein Sources
Several plant-based protein sources have been identified over the past few decades to be used in plant-based meat and dairy analogs; of which, we believe soy, wheat, pea, nuts and chickpea are the most widely used. The key factors that drive the selection of a protein source include but are not limited to, protein content, amino acid composition, supply, sustainable sourcing and ease of use in product applications. When vetting protein sources by these criterion, soy and pea protein seem to be the most popular.
Soy protein has been used for several decades and extensively studied to optimize for taste and texture in meat analogs. Soy protein is the only vegetable protein identified thus far with a PDCAAS score of 1 and contains all 9 essential amino acids. PDCAAS is the way to measure the nutritional quality of a protein. Soy protein is also very convenient to use in meat and dairy analogs in the form of textured protein or soy flour.
As the variety of food ingredients are increasing, so are concerns for food allergies and GMO ingredients. Several plant-based food companies aim at keeping their products non-GMO, allergen free, gluten free and “clean label.” For such products, pea protein is a great alternative to soy. Pea protein has proven to be a versatile ingredient that can be used across several plant-based meat and dairy analogs. With a PDCAAS of 0.94, pea is the closest to soy in protein digestibility. Although pea is not a complete protein, it can be supplemented with other protein sources to achieve a complete protein nutrition. The amount of leucine, an amino acid important for muscle protein synthesis, is also higher in pea protein than soy. Pea protein also has a higher land yield and lower resource consumption when compared to soy.
Appearance, Taste and Texture
The key factors that drive consumer acceptance of plant-based meat and dairy analogs are appearance, taste and texture. The difference in texture between soy and pea proteins is due to the ratio of globular and fibrous proteins as well as gelation functionality of these proteins. As Kalsec continues to explore soy and pea-based product applications, we face different challenges for both proteins when optimizing color and flavor for these applications.
– Ajita Sundarram, Senior Scientist – Protein Innovation
Appearance of plant-based meat analogs is one of the main drivers for consumer acceptance. With more plant-based brands launching in the retail market, color seems to be one of the most critical factors that would drive a consumer to purchase plant-based products. Plant-based meat products must look like the meat product they are mimicking in their raw and cooked forms to appeal to flexitarian diets.
There are a few key factors to consider when developing color solutions for plant-based meat analogs. The composition of the final product is important to establish characteristics of the color solution – powder, liquid, oil or water dispersible. Challenges in developing color solutions change with the nature of protein used as well. In our experience, we found that it is easier to color pea protein than soy protein. This may also vary among the same protein from different suppliers.
The processing parameters like temperature, pressure and pH also play a key role in selecting a color solution. For example, a burger needs color transformation from raw to cooked form; whereas, a hot dog requires maintaining the same color throughout the cooking process. Finally, color solutions are also dependent on the desired appeal of the final product. Color targets can vary with the type of animal protein that the final product is mimicking. A chicken analog would be light/white colored, whereas a beef analog would need to be pink colored in its raw form. A few other factors to keep in mind are shelf life, storage (refrigerated versus frozen) and the nature of the packaging.
When creating products using plant-based proteins, not only do the products need to look similar to animal-based proteins, but they need to taste similar as well. There is little room for error in this effort, and with the category growing globally, the sources of protein are growing as well (soy, pea, chickpea, etc.). We started to see success with developing plant-based analogs for burgers and quickly moved on to chicken nuggets, pulled pork, tuna salad, and beyond.
– Chef Anna Cheely, Senior Scientist
Flavor expression does vary with the raw materials that you use. You can use the same extract-based seasoning, at the exact ratio, and achieve a very different flavor expression between a soy-based patty or mince and a similar product made with pea. The flavor will also differ depending on the quality of your plant-based raw material. It is wise to always test the seasonings and not make assumptions when working across different matrices.
There are also many concerns with lingering ‘after-tastes’ of these products and other challenges such as bitter, metallic, and ‘beany’ flavors.
As it comes to the continued innovation of plant-based analogs, the amount of possibilities are yet to be discovered. This protein source can easily blur the lines of restaurant, home-cooking, and ethnic cuisine when it comes to optimization. For example, one could fuse a flavor blend with a burger base to create a very comforting but flavorful double cheeseburger with pimiento cheese. The meatiness and crafted burger flavor brings the dish together; you have texture and color with the juicy, meaty, and beefy flavor notes to satisfy your traditional brew pub diner taste in a cook-at-home product.
Kalsec Plant-Based Protein Solutions
Kalsec has naturally sourced vegan solutions to improve color and flavor for plant-based proteins while meeting consumer demand for clean and clear labels. Backed by our extensive analytical and sensory capabilities, we identify ways to improve the quality of products using qualitative and quantitative measurement techniques.
Learn more here: Plant-Based Protein Solutions
About the Authors
Ajita Sundarram is part of Kalsec’s protein innovation and food protection team working on alternative protein products. After graduating with a Master of Science in Food Science from Purdue University, she joined JBS USA as a trainee and went on to work for their subsidiary, Swift Prepared Foods (previously known as Plumrose) on their R&D team as an Associate Food Scientist. In her current role as Senior Scientist – Protein Innovation, she develops new alternate protein products to showcase color, flavor and food protection solutions and test their efficacy across plant-based protein products.
Chef Anna Cheely works in the Taste and Sensory Innovation department finding culinary-based solutions for customers, from seasoning and sauce manufacturers to CPG companies. She began her career in culinary school and worked in New York restaurants, followed by a Master of Science at the University of Georgia in sensory and food science. In her current role as Senior Scientist – Taste Solutions & Sensory, she combines the world of culinary techniques and knowledge with food science to give customers multifaceted solutions.