A new frontier: the push to bring mass appeal to plant proteins

Start-ups are scrambling to create a realistic mouthfeel for a range of products, from meat alternatives through to dairy.

11 July 2018
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The race is on to make plant-based proteins functional, scalable and achieve that all important mouthfeel.

But these proteins aren’t just useful replacements for meat alternatives. As Food Spark has reported, pea protein is muscling up bakery goods, while sweet proteins from fruit are potential sugar replacements.

Now, the latest round of research is looking at the next generation of plant proteins to apply to everything from dairy to pasta.

Straight to the sustainable source

While texture has been a key development area for Spanish start-up Foods for Tomorrow, their initial decision to move into this innovation area was based on ethical ideals.

Founder and CEO Marc Coloma said the group wanted to tackle the challenge of sustainably feeding the world, amid an increasing demand for protein.

Farming livestock is inefficient, said Coloma, and rather than using beef – where producing a kilo requires 20kg of cereals and legumes in feed – he wanted to go straight to the protein source in the plant.

Its product Heura is made from soy, but its meat-like texture and ease of cooking are unique, according to Coloma, as these factors are the main barriers to growth in plant-based alternatives. Heura is also gluten-free, contains no added sugars, is low in saturated fat and is a source of potassium, magnesium, fibre, iron and vitamin B12.

Made by extracting protein from soybeans, it is then mixed with filtered water to create a dough.

“Achieving a fibrous texture was the biggest challenge and objective we had. We overcame it by a high moisture extrusion. At the end, in this process is three key parameters: pressure, temperature and humidity. Heura is produced by a specific formulation of those, and using soy protein concentrate and water we get a texture, which we cut and marinate with different flavours,” Coloma told Food Navigator.

“For us the key was to find a unique bite in each piece. At the end, the objective was to create a plant-based protein with layers and fibrous texture very different from the fluffy and gummy textures of tofu or tempeh. We wanted to give a totally new approach from all perspectives, with the picture in mind that this is the best way to accelerate the introduction of plant-based proteins products in mass market diets.”

Foods for Tomorrow aims to enter the retail market in the UK in the next six to eight months, with a plan to launch a new flavour and a fillet format.

Coloma said a key focus was developing products that offer convenience, as products like tofu are often seen as difficult to prepare, cook and marinate. With Heura, it can go from pan to plate in five minutes.

Clean feel and flavour

Mouthfeel has been key to Virginia-based company Nutriati and its development of a new chickpea-based protein. It has no grittiness or earthy taste, according to the company, and is also white, odourless and neutral-tasting.

Functionality – a challenge that continues to hold the market back – has also been addressed, said Nutriati co-founder Michael Spinelli.

It delivers superior water- and oil-binding qualities, boasts freeze/thaw stability and solubility, is clean label and could also be used by manufacturers of plant-based 'milk.' Chickpea drink anyone?

Spinelli said the fine, consistent particle size of the chickpea protein is unique for plant proteins.

“If you drop it into filtered water and look at taste, texture, aroma and acceptability, it eclipses all the other plant-based proteins and lines up nicely against whey protein. It has a very clean flavour profile that you don’t get with yellow pea, hemp or rice or soy. It’s as close to dairy as any plant protein we’ve tested,” he said.

“It also works better than other plant-based proteins in low moisture bars, cookies and dry blended powders and nutrition supplements. Plant proteins can be very challenging to work with due to the variable particle sizes, whereas we’re offering predictability and sustainability.”

Dairy alternative and beyond

This chickpea protein could also be a good replacement for dairy proteins and reformulations are being investigated for plant-based cheese, yoghurts and mayonnaise, along with meat alternatives, snacks, crisps, cereal, bars, baked goods, pasta and noodles.

And while chickpeas have been used to make everything from crisps to hummus, there is no company currently producing the protein in commercial quantities, yet they are widely grown and relatively cheap compared to other sources, Spinelli said.

Nutriati has also created a chickpea flour from the protein process, which has been used to make goodies like chocolate chip cookies and gluten-free crackers.

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