Getting texture for plant-based proteins right
SGInnovate’s latest Insights Paper Flavourful Food: A Taste of Things to Come, explores the latest technologies changing the way we create and consume food. In this blog, we take a closer look at how Givaudan is using emerging technologies to shape the future of plant-based proteins.
Plant-based food is more than just a trend. Globally, the plant-based food market is expected to grow to US$162 billion in the next decade, or more than five times its size in 2020, according to a 2021 Bloomberg Intelligence report. Meat alternatives will represent a big chunk of this market, potentially increasing in size to US$74 billion in 2030 from just US$4 billion in 2020, with demand driven by decreasing prices and a growing awareness of the health and sustainability benefits of these products.
There’s just one problem: many consumers find the texture of most meat substitutes unappealing, and a lot of currently available market products are perceived as dry and lacking the juiciness and succulence of real meat, said Elisabetta Lubian, Category Plant Leader, Plant Proteins at Swiss multinational manufacturer Givaudan.
“When you eat, there are parts of the experience that are notable—the appearance, the aroma you sense before you eat it, the taste of the first bite, how it feels as you bite into it. All of these work in harmony and often, in the product, they affect each other,” she said. “Texture can have a number of effects on taste. For example, the thickness of food can affect its taste by slowing the rate at which the flavour exits the food. If that same food is melted into a liquid, however, it will taste much stronger.”
To overcome this barrier, Givaudan is collaborating with customers and companies and deploying cutting edge food technology to get the texture of plant-based proteins just right. In 2021 year, the company opened a Protein Innovation Centre, operated together with Buhler in Singapore, as well as a Protein Hub at their Zurich innovation centre.
Although the company has tested many different kinds of plant-based protein, it does not actually sell these to its customers. What it does offer are the ingredients and tools that their customers — businesses in the food and beverage industry — need to create healthy and appetising plant-based products. These include flavours, colours, kitchen ingredients, functional ingredients, tools, and technologies.
Balancing the delicate interplay between flavours and texture
Perfecting the recipe, however, can be challenging.
“Understanding all the flavour and taste nuances of proteins and how to address them is complex; when you add texture and other attributes to the mix, the complexity expands quickly,” said Lubian.
Teams at Givaudan are developing research to analyse the taste attributes of many different plant-based proteins. One of their biggest milestones was when they were able to gain an understanding on how the protein behaves during the extrusion process as flavours are applied. The company found that the design of the flavour influences texture. Armed with this key finding, they have been able to guide their flavourists to make sure that flavour concoctions are designed to work well with the processes used to produce meat substitutes. This knowledge allows the company to mask off-notes in a manner that balances taste, texture, functionality, nutrition, and cost.
This has also led to Givaudan creating “the largest, most comprehensive collection of data related to plant proteins and taste ingredients in the industry,” says Lubian.
Mimicking animal fat cells to create juicy plant-based protein
One of the biggest complaints from consumers is that many plant-based products are dry. As Givaudan conducted extensive experiments to figure out how to up the ‘juicy factor’ in plant-based proteins, what eventually yielded promising results was a study involving fat, inspired by the company’s interactions with students at the University of California, Berkeley.
Explained Lubian, “Fat in animal products is present in fat cells that are retained during cooking and start bursting as the product heats up from 55°C to about 80°C. This is why a well-done steak can feel dry. Current plant-based products replace fat cells with oils that melt below 40°C and largely leave the product to accumulate in the pan, resulting in a dry eating experience.”
An effective workaround was encapsulating “a fraction of the vegetable along with the flavours in a matrix that mimics the function of the animal fat cells. [This ensures] that a large portion of the vegetable oil remains in the product and is released during eating, greatly improving the food experience,” she said. This innovation not only improves juiciness but also reduces fat by 7% and calories by 30%.
Using emerging technologies to create plant-based products of the future
The future of plant-based proteins may lie in emerging technologies more familiar in laboratory or factory settings.
Givaudan partner company Redefine Meat, for instance, is harnessing 3D printing technology to print food that mimics the fibrous layers of meat. This method lets producers create thicker cuts, unique shapes, or even personalise products by printing names.
With the understanding that plant proteins are part of the solution to mitigate humans’ negative impact on the planet, our ambition is to work in collaboration with other like-minded partners in the industry to drive a dietary shift in the mainstream population while addressing the barriers of consumption. This new segment is a big opportunity in terms of revenue, but we also see it as part of our responsibility as a company and global citizen.
Other technologies showing significant promise include cell-cultured meats, which refers to meat products grown in labs, or shear-cell technology, which uses heat and shear to texturise plant-based meat. This is a nascent technology, but is already helping Givaudan understand how to apply flavours and colours throughout the production process. The company is also an active member of the Plant Meat Matters consortium based at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, which is working on further enhancing this technology.
“We have seen enormous progress in this field in the past few years, with a number of start-ups announcing the launch of their products in 2022. As regulatory requirements vary from place to place, it is hard to say precisely when consumers will begin seeing such products on the market,” said Lubian, who noted that Singapore became the first country to approve the commercial sale of cultured chicken product in 2020.
What’s next for plant-based proteins
There is much to be done, especially in terms of understanding ingredients that make up new types of plant-based products. Soy and pea are currently the most dominant ingredients because they are cheaper and more readily available than other alternatives, but we may see proteins based on microalgae, chickpea, lentils, and fava in the near future.
Beef, chicken, and fish also remain the most popular flavours, but new products such as pork, duck, and other types of seafood are emerging, opening up possibilities for new flavour profiles and product innovation in terms of cut and texture.
Making these proteins simpler (with fewer ingredients), more affordable, and more nutritious is another priority area. This is especially important in Asia, where Givaudan’s research revealed that health benefits are the main reason people choose to buy plant-based proteins.
But these new food alternatives also tackle a broader problem. Explained Lubian, “With the understanding that plant proteins are part of the solution to mitigate humans’ negative impact on the planet, our ambition is to work in collaboration with other like-minded partners in the industry to drive a dietary shift in the mainstream population while addressing the barriers of consumption. This new segment is a big opportunity in terms of revenue, but we also see it as part of our responsibility as a company and global citizen.”
We delve into how companies are using emerging technologies to reshape other aspects of the food experience, including flavour development and nutrition, in our latest Insights Paper Flavourful Food: A Taste of Things to Come. Download the paper to find out more about the technologies that are driving the opportunities in this space.
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