By Amelia Levin (August 28, 2020 | Published with Prepared Foods)
Plant-based is here to stay. In fact, it likely will be even more of a wave in the future, due to the growing desire among consumers to cut down on, or completely eliminate meat consumption for health and/or out of concern for the environment.
The numbers back this up: In a 2018 study conducted by Nielsen, nearly 39% of Americans said they were attempting to incorporate more plant-based options into their diets. This year, a study by the NPD Group indicated that figure rose to about 60%. In addition, a study conducted by Ipsos Retail Performance revealed that more than 9.7 million Americans follow plant-based diets, up from just 290,000 in 2004.
At once supporting and driving this surge are remarkable technological advances in crafting plant-based products that mimic the texture of beef, chicken, fish, and dairy. Developers of such analogs are using everything from soy, pea, and chickpea protein isolates and concentrates to hemp-based proteins, mushrooms, algae, nuts, grains — and even tomatoes — to create new products.
But the plant-based revolution is about more than just analogs for animal proteins. Vegetables are moving to the center of formulations traditionally made from processed grains. Examples include such products as pizza crusts, breadsticks, and “rice” from cauliflower and pasta from artichokes and broccoli. Meanwhile, vegetables are increasingly replacing significant portions of traditional items, successfully sneaking their way into frozen desserts, cookies, sandwich bread, and beverages.
Almond milk. Oat milk. Coconut milk. Soy milk. There are plenty of plant-based milks on the market, but the questions for R&D chefs are, can it withstand heat? Does it foam and froth? Does it blend? Some of these products accomplish these goals; others, however, do not. For one research chef, the solution to all three challenges is pea protein-based milk.
“Pea protein-based milk can be a 1:1 replacement for traditional cow’s milk in recipes and it emulsifies great,” says Dan Follese, owner of Food Trend Translator, an independent culinary consultancy. “It also has a neutral flavor, whereas almond milk can have some sweetness to it and oat milk has a little bit of earthiness and can taste like the milk at the bottom of the cereal bowl.”
Textured pea protein is an option that can provide food formulators with a greater range of choices for most applications. Ingredient technologists have developed pea protein systems specifically suited for use in vegetarian/vegan applications, as well as in blended products. They make an excellent extender for meat as well, providing both the appearance, texture, and mouthfeel of meat for consumers who desire the sensory attributes of meat in a plant-based option.
Follese uses pea protein milk in a variety of food and beverage creations. He uses it to add creaminess to salad dressings, for mac n’ cheese, casseroles, creamed mashed potatoes, and dips such as from artichokes and spinach. In gravies and sauces, Follese relies on pea milk more as a neutral-tasting, liquid thickener similar to traditional dairy milk or cream. “Pea protein has an inherent strength in the cellular structure that gives it a lot more functionality than other plant-based proteins, too,” Follese adds. “This means it foams easily. I can heat it for foaming lattes and cappuccinos, or even make a cold foam as a topper for soups and salads. I even use it to make a traditional milk tea because it doesn’t add any off flavors and allows the tea flavors to shine through.”
Although analogs are just a part of the plant-based movement, plant protein is still a critical facet of it. The pea protein market, for example, is expected to reach nearly half a billion dollars by 2025, according to Meticulous Research. Research from Global Market Insights predicts dairy alternatives will top $37B in the same time period.
“The consumers driving sales of products like the Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat products, etc., are those who want something that eats like meat, but is plant-based,” says Webb Girard, MSc, director of research and development for CuliNex, LLC. Girard notes that texture is the first attracting factor, and that the creation of successful analogs has been accomplished through good food science. “But it’s ultimately flavor that keeps consumers coming back for more.”
To maintain the continuous flow of plant-based products, product developers must constantly “think outside the bun.” “Our job as research chefs is to think beyond the form or packaging that the base products usually take and come up with other uses for them,” says Girard. “What else can we do with these new protein formats other than simply make [fake] burgers or chicken tenders?”
When using plant protein-based analogs for more complex formulations, such as entrées, sides, and appetizers, two main challenges arise: flavor and aroma. Some textured and formed plant-based ingredients can have off-flavors and aromas when used as more than a simple replacement on a bun.
“Pea protein can end up with a slightly grassy and bitter taste,” explains Justin Kanthak, research chef and segment director of snacks at Griffith Foods, Inc. “Step one is to get the substrate, step two is to determine the specific off-flavor notes and neutralize them, and step three is to find ways to enhance and build upon the positive flavor notes. There is no one-size-fits all, but following each of these steps will help define and enhance the target taste.”