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[Plant-based Meat Analogues] 4 Formulation Problems and What Food Technologists Do

Are you a food technologist faced with a new project of making a plant-based meat analogue recipe from scratch? Do you feel uncomfortable with yourself as this is totally new territory, very different from your comfortable scope of work?

If you are feeling panicky over the potential formulation problems you may face while researching on the perfect plant-based recipe, fear not! Read on and you may find some relief for your anxiety.

The Route to Creating Meat Analogues Is No Different

The process of inventing brings in questions and a need for trial and error. The route to creating meat analogues is no different.

The expansion of plant-based alternatives to traditional meat brands are just starting to explode now. If you are a food technologist suddenly thrown to research for an alternative meat substitute recipe of your company’s signature chicken nugget, it can be very hard to know what to do in this situation.

Making Meats From Vegetable Proteins

Let’s begin by looking at what defines a “meat analogue”. Created from vegetarian raw ingredients like soy, peas, and rice proteins, meat analogues are food products designed to mimic the taste and texture of typical meat products.

We are going to discuss the common challenges in plant-based meat alternatives formulation so that you can come up with a more structured plan in this plant-based recipe journey.

Problem #1: Mimicking meat textures and behavioral changes during heating

What is most unique about meat is that when it is cooked, it tenderizes and toughens over a set range of temperatures. Once this feature of a particular meat type is well comprehended, you can start your design process!

To create a believable meat substitute, the texture must be able to mimic that as well as its aroma and appearance. As plants do not have muscle tissue like animal protein, meat textures are very difficult to recreate with plant-based ingredients. The elasticity and stretchability muscle fibres are the opposites of plant fibres in which the cell walls give a crunchy rigid texture.

This also explains why vegetable patties in some burgers have a crunchy or mushy bite. To solve this texture need, a recipe will usually require different types of hydrocolloids, textured vegetable proteins, natural texturizers using transglutaminase enzymes, seaweed alginate and calcium- based binders and a high-performing plant-based emulsifier which can improve and allow the characteristics to be more elastic and chewy.

Other than the formula itself, processing techniques are form part of the answer puzzle to achieving the right texture profiles. Techniques including “High moisture extrusion” and “shear-cell technologies” are common methods of transforming the plant product to the meat analogue. These techniques aid in the process of minimizing the layered fibrous build of meat. Each has its own benefits as high moisture extrusion creates a product that resembles meat better, whilst shear cell processing has the benefit of energy efficiency.

As for the choice of vegetable proteins — Soy, with its extensive track record in vegan applications, is still the most popular choice to deliver the familiar taste and texture or meat. However, pea is quickly growing because of its heartiness and complete amino acid profile, which a lot of other options lack.

Problem #2: Mimicking the color of its meat counterpart

Different natural products are usually sourced to color the meat analogues. To mimic the color of beef, beets and pomegranate powder are a popular choice. Reducing sugars are sometimes used to produce maillard reactions during the cooking process to produce a meat-like browning effect.

Factors to consider in choosing the type of colorant to add would include:

  • The original colour of the protein source
  • pH and temperature tolerance of the specific colorant
  • The various colour changes that usually accompanies the meat product and how to achieve a close replication to the color variations

Challenges come with sourcing something that would mimic the effects of the meat product in the process of going from raw to cooked. Food scientists have managed to achieve life-like “bleeding” burgers with the use of unique heme-structures produced in plants. Other sources include beta-carotenoids in radishes to red lycopenes from tomatoes.

It is industry knowledge that the success of a new vegan product will depend on how “real” it can look. The eye gives a first judgement on how good the food will taste. Any color or visual that is too far off the tangent of the usual look will not go down well with consumers.

Problem #3: Flavoring with Meat Satiety as the End Goal

Flavor is another challenge that food researchers have to navigate. Due to the lack of saturated fats, the vegetable substitutes often lack that flavor that fats in meats provide. Thus, researchers have to find an alternative for that richness and juiciness that meats naturally carry. Some of the alternatives are using plant-based oils like sunflower seed or even lab growing fat cells.

In general, saturated fats in conventional meats have higher melting points and are solid at ambient temperatures. These characteristics have to be analysed to select a blend of different plant oils which can simulate similar organoleptic profiles under different conditions.

Structured fats in a plant-based vegan meat is a complex formulating challenge that is considered a new area in food ingredient technology. Currently, only biotechnology companies well versed in vegan solutions are able to step up to the demanding needs faced by food technologists.

Flavouring agents are also needed to combat natural plant protein-associated odors or beany profiles. Certain proteins have been developed to mask off distinct legume flavors in the recent technological advancements.

The main issues arise when the different plant ingredients and textures are combined for the first time, even common texturizers using transglutaminase (TG) enzymes will reduce the flavours or visual colors of the final products. In such cases, texturizer blends that are able to combat the loss of important colours and flavours are the best options.

Problem #4: Is Your Plant-Based Meat Formular Healthy?

Nutrition Facts Of A Plant-based Burger

Lastly, navigating the health effects of meat analogues is important. Although its naturally high fiber and iron recipes are the main attraction for vegan lovers, formulating these products often require high amounts of sodium.

Consumers groups with high blood pressure may have trouble reconciling this with their fiber desires. Therefore, low sodium recipes for vegan meats are now high in demand. Achieving taste, textures and stability parameters with less salt will require specialized researched vegan additives like enzymes or alginate binders from biotech manufacturers experienced in vegan solutions. Also, certain macro and micro-nutrients like iron, zinc and amino acids are less readily absorbed from plants than meats.

As we can see from the above challenges, to have a simple formula with natural ingredients only is a tall order for a new product developer. Hence, it is important to source for high quality natural additives that are multi-functional and powerful but certified safe with long experiences of use in the food consumer market.

Being able to fully substitute meat products with meat analogues certainly require more research and reformulation to figure out the best method to formulate for a larger audience of people.

Knowing the problems are half the battle won

Plant-based Formulation Tips

It has been amazing in the last few years to track the growth of plant based meats. Science is constantly innovating to make meat analogues more desirable to the public. Soon enough, with enough support the creations might be able to fool everyone of its true nature.

Are you excited to embark on your plant-based meat formulation adventure now?

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