Once dismissed as a specialty niche, plant-based proteins have moved dramatically into the mainstream, fueled by massive investment, revenue increases, and new product development.
In the first half of 2020 alone, venture investments in plant-based proteins internationally hit $1.1 billion, more than double the $534 million for 2019, according to the FAIRR Initiative, a collaborative investor network. Revenue for the global dairy alternatives market is projected to grow from $21.4 billion in 2020 to $36.7 billion by 2025, a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 11.4%, while the global plant-based meat market will increase from $4.3 billion to $8.3 billion during the same period, a CAGR of 14%, according to B2B research provider Marketsand-Markets. In the United States, dollar sales of frozen and refrigerated meat substitutes in total multi-outlet channels (grocery, drug, mass market, military, and select club and dollar retailers) skyrocketed 54.8% to $994 million for the 52 weeks ending Dec. 27, 2020, reports market research firm IRI.
It all adds up to a fertile field for plant-based food companies, with dairy and meat alternatives in the forefront. Meat processors, both large and small, are plowing support into new or expanded plant-based items, including Smithfield Foods’ soy-based Pure Farmland brand of patties and meatballs, for example, or JBS USA–owned Planterra Foods’ new OZO Burgers and Ground products made with pea and rice protein. More modest startups are debuting innovations like Take Two Foods’ Take Two Barleymilk (see sidebar on page 50) and New Wave Foods’ mung bean protein–based shrimp.
As consumers sample the growing array of plant-based foods and beverages, formulators are balancing a unique mix of benefits and challenges presented by these alternative proteins. Taste, texture, nutrition, and functionality issues crop up with many plant-based protein ingredients, from soy, the market leader, to pea and other pulses such as chickpea, lentil, and fava bean, to grains like wheat, quinoa, and barley.
“The secret to a good [plant-based protein] formulation is understanding not just the key ingredients but how they work together and impact the overall targets of flavor, texture, and nutrition,” says Mark Cornthwaite, marketing lead–meal solutions at DuPont Nutrition & Biosciences. “Lack of expertise in this field can lead to a vicious and frustrating cycle getting further away from key targets.”
Most of the time, plant-based proteins are added to replace functionalities delivered by animal proteins, says Supun Fernando, R&D scientist at The Annex by Ardent Mills. “It’s important to understand the specific applications or finished product properties you’re trying to achieve and work back from that to find the right protein ingredients that will consistently perform at the level of inclusion in the formula,” he says.
For example, “globular plant proteins make it challenging to formulate meat analogues that have a meatlike texture,” says Fernando. “[And because plant proteins mostly consist of globulin types], this leads to challenges in beverage applications due to low solubility and phase separation. Plant proteins also have lower gelling properties than animal proteins, which can lead to problems in dairy applications.”
Taste is tops among consumers for “extremely important” attributes of meat alternatives, according to a 2019 proprietary study by Ingredion, and delivering it is a common challenge for all types of plant-based protein products.
“Plant proteins often bring along earthy notes and other off-flavors. Even within the same protein source, there can be significant differences in flavor profiles,” says Melissa Machen, senior technical services manager at Cargill.
Formulators can eliminate the characteristic tastes and off-flavors that accompany plant-based proteins through advanced masking or by incorporating them in formulations with closer flavor characteristics and aroma, recommends Ozan Kahraman, food process engineer at Applied Food Sciences.
“One way to overcome taste issues is to find a congruent flavor concept in which the flavor of the base protein can contribute to the final formula,” agrees Angel Aponte, senior account executive/protein brand manager at AIDP. “Earthy or beany notes work well with nut flavors, such as peanut butter, baked flavor like caramel pretzel, or with a chocolate flavor. Astringency can work with citrus flavors as it enhances the flavor. Green notes can provide an added effect with jammy berry flavors that lack greenness to create a balanced strawberry flavor.”
Bitter notes can blend into chocolate or coffee flavors, Aponte adds. “Alterna-tively, bitterness can be muted by increasing the intensity of the sweetener system or modulating the perception of sweetness through suggestively sweet aromas,” she says.
Plant-based protein ingredients that don’t need masking can simplify formulation issues too. Merit Functional Foods’ new Peazac 850 pea protein doesn’t require any masking ingredients and has protein levels that exceed the majority of the market, making it one of the easiest plant proteins to work with, says Ryan Bracken, co-CEO.
“We’re particularly excited about the potential Peazac 850 has to revitalize the pea protein market in applications such as RTM (ready to mix) and plant protein bars,” says Bracken. Merit Functional Foods is currently building a 94,000-square-foot pea and canola protein production facility in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, that will be the first and only commercial facility with the capability to produce food-grade canola protein.
Product structure and texture depend on the ability of a plant-based protein to sustain its texture over time and have high functionality to provide the intended benefits of including protein in the formulation, explains Dina Fernandez, global director, protein nutrition solutions at ADM. “When a formulation requires plant protein levels of 5% or less, sensory attributes are much easier to accommodate,” she adds.
Plant-based meat alternatives, dairy, and beverages can present some of the toughest texture challenges. “Tradition-ally formed products like burger patties and meatballs are easier to achieve versus replacing whole muscle meats,” says Jenny Palan, senior strategic marketing manager, plant protein at Kerry Taste & Nutrition. “The challenge of matching animal protein muscle formation using plant proteins can be achieved by leveraging technologies like extrusion to encourage plant proteins to behave like animal proteins at the microscopic level.”
Hydrocolloids can also help replicate some of meat’s textural properties, while carrageenan can be used as a binder to help create desired textures, says Cargill’s Machen.
A number of plant-based protein ingredients launched last fall are designed to help overcome texture challenges in meat alternatives. ADM expanded its protein portfolio with highly functional protein solutions that can improve the texture and density of meat alternatives: Arcon T textured pea proteins, Prolite MeatTEX textured wheat protein, and Prolite MeatXT nontextured wheat protein. Axiom Foods rolled out VegOtein TX Texturized Pea Proteins, which also enable cleaner, allergen-friendly labels by reducing the need for gums and stabilizers such as soy and wheat gluten, plus carboxymethylcellulose. Green Boy Group announced the launch of Plant-Meat Protein, a functional, non-GMO, plant-based powder that comes in four different types of protein made from pea, mung bean, fava bean, and chickpea. It enhances mouthfeel, enlarges the textured aspects, and boosts nutritional properties in plant-based meat products.
In June, PLT Health Solutions and its manufacturing and technology partner Nutriati LLC launched Artesa Textured Pulse Protein, a proprietary combination of Nutriati’s Artesa Chickpea Flour and yellow pea protein. “With Artesa Textured Pulse Protein, plant-based meat producers can create great products without the need for wheat gluten, eggs, or methylcellulose that are common in many formulations today,” said PLT Health Solutions chief operating officer Devin Stagg in a company news release.
Achieving acceptable textures in plant-based dairy and beverage products can be problematic because a large majority of available plant proteins aren’t entirely soluble in water. “Manufacturers looking to add proteins to highly aqueous products will need to use stabilizers such as hydrocolloid gums or modified starches [that] can help suspend protein molecules and any other nonprotein ingredients for a smoother mouthfeel,” says Aponte.
Some plant proteins deliver large particle sizes that affect grittiness and thickness in plant-based beverages, says Jacqueline Finegan, business development manager, North America-proteins at Kerry. “One solution by Kerry involves developing smaller particle size. Another solution . . . is to develop a dairy/plant hybrid beverage,” she says.
“In dairy and beverage applications, solubility becomes a concern,” agrees Machen. “While processing technology has improved solubility, at high usage levels, negative textural attributes like grittiness or sandiness can develop in these products. To combat the problem, processors should look for more soluble plant proteins like soy or pea.”
No single plant protein can fully replicate the rich, creamy mouthfeel of dairy, but pea protein comes close, says Machen. Label-friendly ingredients such as native starches, chicory root fiber, and pectins also can help build back the mouthfeel that consumers expect, she says.
AIDP introduced three new pea proteins last year: Peasipro Creamy in a fine mesh with a smooth taste profile ideal for milks and protein shakes; Peasipro Sol’N, highly dispersible with reduced foaming characteristics for all beverage types; and Peasipro TX, a textured protein with gelling properties that works well in meat alternatives, bars, and baked goods.
Soy is the only plant-based protein that is nutritionally complete based on its PDCAAS (protein digestibility corrected amino acid score). But mixing and matching proteins (including animal proteins if acceptable) can result in a more complete protein—although sometimes at the expense of other plant-based nutrients, which may require formulation compromises.
“Novel processing technologies such as nanoemulsions and encapsulations are quickly becoming popular options to overcome plant-based protein formulation challenges,” says Applied Food Sciences’ Kahraman. “However, due to loading, many of these technologies require the protein to be an isolate. Isolating protein alone misses out on much of that extra value . . . [of] the added nutritional benefits found in the ‘whole food’ that may include healthy fats, fiber, and additional mineral content.”
Plant-based milk that doesn’t deliver protein in high enough quantity or quality is another issue, says Kerry’s Finegan. “Plant-based milks are often based on plant proteins that are incomplete, and therefore the beverages don’t match the nutritional profile of dairy beverages,” she says. “One solution developed by Kerry is blending plant proteins in order to elevate the protein quality to match or surpass that of dairy.”
In December, Prinova rolled out a range of nutrient-rich premixes for dairy replacement products. The plant-based milk premix, made from Prinova’s 85% pea protein, provides 15% of the recommended intake of vitamin B12 and 50% of vitamin D in a single serving of the recipe with 25 mg of the premix.
Pulse- and/or grain-based proteins are attracting more attention thanks to their health halo and increasing availability, and these proteins also can offer some functionality advantages.
“Beyond the protein content (55% to 60% protein on a dry basis), plant protein concentrates sourced from peas, lentils, and fava beans offer excellent water-holding and emulsification properties, plus the ability to control expansion in extruded snacks,” says Janelle Litel, content and communications manager at Ingredion, which recently announced a partnership with several other organizations to commercialize new technology to improve the functionality of pulse-based ingredients, starting with yellow peas.
“Lentils have really good emulsifying properties. . . . I see a lot of potential with lentils in plant-based milks and dairy alternatives,” agrees Janelle Courcelles, senior manager of food innovation and marketing at Pulse Canada. “We’re really interested to see research coming out [on deflavoring technologies] that will help them shine in some of these applications.”
Ingredion’s new HOMECRAFT Quinoa 112 flour, launched in December in the United States and Canada, is milled from a proprietary waxy variety of golden quinoa that provides more amylopectin for improved freeze/thaw stability, says Litel. The flour can replace other gluten-free grain products such as rice and corn, with five times more fiber than rice and all nine essential amino acids.
Looking ahead in the plant-based protein marketplace, the only constant will be change, say industry observers.
“Plant-based protein is a category that is evolving fast,” says Kahraman. “Product manufacturers should pay close attention as many ingredients that were once considered inferior due to their color, texture, or taste are having renewed interest thanks to the improvements in extraction and refinement.”
The availability of new botanical sources of plant proteins and blending/mixing cereal and pulse proteins are two promising areas, according to MGP Ingredients’ Ody Maningat, chief science officer and vice president of ingredient solutions R&D, and Tanya Jeradechachai, vice president of ingredient solutions R&D.
Rick Ray, director of food technology at Axiom Foods, sees an expansion of plant-based protein sourcing ahead. “New functional plant protein varieties are in the pipeline, with a few launching each year,” he says. “New proteins are both from current plant sources, including rice and pea, but also newer sources from pulses, grains, seeds, and berries. As the original, less functional versions of the common plant proteins have become commodities driven by price over quality, new value-added versions along with new plant sources are increasingly in demand.”
Expanding nutritional value and functional properties from the ground up through plant breeding is part of the strategy at The Annex by Ardent Mills, says Angela Ichwan, senior director technical lead. “A great example of this is our breeding program for quinoa and other grains we are progressing in our pipeline development,” she says. “These proprietary breeding programs will give us the leverage of identifying the right variety for final application from the early stage.”
“We already understand that some of the challenges [with plant-based protein ingredients] come from the fields,” agrees Kerry’s Finegan. “So, better-tasting crops will be selected, and agricultural processes will be improved.”