Cheeseburger in Flexitarian Paradise: How Plant-Based Protein Development is Flipping the Industry
Imagine a classic burger, packed with delicious, meaty umami flavor, joy and familiarity in every bite.
And yet it’s not beef. Or pork. Or lamb. It’s plant-based protein, and it’s so tasty that even discriminating carnivores seek it out. Today’s plant-based alternatives to meat, dairy, and eggs are the result of years of careful research and product development – from source materials to processing techniques, and they’re vastly, well, meatier than what was available 10 years ago.
Some U.S. consumers have completely replaced animal-based proteins with plant-based ones, while others just include them as a larger portion of their diet. Consumers might try plant-based meat because it’s cholesterol-free, or out of concern for the environment, or just ordinary curiosity, but the products create loyal consumers because people think they’re delicious.
True vegetarians make up just 3% of the U.S. population, but 54% of U.S. consumers now report eating more plant-based foods. This new kind of consumer is known as a flexitarian. Amy Marks-McGee, the founder of Trendincite LLC, defines a flexitarian as a person who eats primarily a non-animal-based diet such as vegetables, fruits, grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, instead of meat, poultry, or fish1.
The proteins in our shopping carts have shifted – and it’s changed the way some major food companies do business. Grocery sales of plant-based foods created to replace animal products totaled $1.3 billion in 2021, growing 53% over the last two years. Plant-based alternative proteins have become a trendy investment, both for traditional investors and venture capital groups. In the U.S. alone, investors have poured an estimated $16 billion into plant-based meat alternative companies over the last 10 years – $13 billion in just 2017 and 2018.2
Plant proteins aren’t just replacing meats, either. Plant-based alternatives are taking over a significant and growing section of the dairy and frozen dessert cases. Over the 52 weeks ending July 3, 2021, plant-based dairy alternatives accounted for 15.5% of all U.S. milk category sales.3
As the market for animal-free meat and dairy alternatives grows, so does the number of food companies joining the fray. But manufacturers face an unrelenting set of challenges in sourcing, new product development, and continuous improvement and reformulation. Protein sources that once came only from plant protein isolates or concentrates now include recombinant, cultured, and fermented proteins produced by fungi and even bacteria. But with the right extraction, formulation, and processing techniques, meat and dairy alternatives can be just as appealing as the real thing.
“The flavor, the aroma, the cooking process, how it feels when you bite in – Awesome Burger was designed to be as close to meat as possible,” says CEO Kelly Swette, co-founder of plant-based food manufacturer Sweet Earth (makers of the Awesome Burger). Nestlé acquired Sweet Earth in 2017. “It’s about the whole experience of eating a burger,” Swette says.4
The Awesome Burger, Beyond Meat®, and similar products are made from varying proprietary combinations plant protein concentrates or isolates, starches, and plant-based fats. Naturally colorful ingredients like red beet juice are used to help create the pink, juicy “burger-like” visual experience in meatless products.5
To ensure that products look and taste like the real thing, manufacturers use specialized protein extraction techniques, plus downstream processes like heat treatment and high-moisture extrusion. Improving the meat-like appearance and performance of alternative protein foods means constantly refining formulations, process inputs, and extraction methodology.
Because the performance of these ingredient systems is so crucial to final product quality, manufacturers have adopted descriptive performance measurement systems like PerkinElmer’s Rapid Visco® Analyser (RVA)6.
The RVA is essentially a little programmable robot chef – it repeatably heats, cools, and shears the sample according to a user-designated profile. This means manufacturers can quantify the effects of reformulation, changing process inputs like heat, pH, or shear, or the performance of an individual ingredient or multicomponent mix.
The RVA sample size is small, which means temperature-dependent reactions like protein denaturation, gelation, and starch pasting can happen quickly, and results are displayed and logged via a user-friendly Windows software program.
In the animal-free food space, the RVA has become the industry standard tool for ingredient performance measurement. For more information, visit the Website or contact PerkinElmer’s Food Quality and Safety group at email@example.com.