Three challenges in meat alternative innovation

A look at flavour, texture and audience issues with plant-based meat alternatives.

12 November 2019
indianingredientsmeat alternativemushroomsNPDplant-basedprotein

We’ve come a long way from the bean burger in the last five years. From ‘bleeding’ meat to complicated blends of mushroom and pea proteins, innovations with plant-based meat alternatives continue to come thick and fast, and we’re expecting plenty more examples to arrive across 2020.

But meat alternative innovation is far from a simple game. The process of creating a viable product is fraught with potential issues ranging from aesthetic to flavour. And with a potential audience stretching from ‘hardcore’ vegans to long-time carnivores looking to cut down their weekly meat intake, the challenges become more than simply making a product look the part.

To understand three of the main issues with meat alternative innovation, Food Spark spoke to two different innovators. City Spice of London’s Brick Lane launched what they claimed to be the UK’s first meat alternatives Indian menu in September, with founder Abdul Ahad explaining the problems he faced when mixing plant-based alternatives and Indian cuisine.

Mock, meanwhile, have just launched into foodservice with both lamb and chicken alternatives (made primarily from soy), with their founder Harpreet Gill highlighting not only the tech race with meat alternatives but also the difficulty in producing a product that ticks the vegan box as well as the free-from one.

The Inconceivable Thali from City Spice

Flavour

The first and most important point for Gill is that an alternative taste good. Once that’s been achieved, he will think about whether its porous, versatile and aesthetically appealing. But its not always that simple.

“Sometimes you have to do a lot of work to make it taste right. Oumph! do an extraordinary amount to their protein, for example,” Gill tells Food Spark.

“It’s difficult; sometimes two companies can use a pea protein and one won’t work as well as the other because of the difference in technology – in terms of binding the product and the end flavour. It can often come down to the machinery and the process you’re using. Pea protein hasn’t got a great flavour, generally, but it can taste good. Lazy Vegans have a product that’s great!”

Gill notes that the advancement in technology over the years has enabled companies to take some plant-based alternatives back to the drawing board and improve them at a base level. 

In the creation of their meat alternative menu, City Spice had to change some of the seasonings they use in recipes because soy meat doesn’t absorb the flavours the same way as regular meat.

“We’ve tried a few [meat alternatives] and some just don’t work with Indian cooking methods,” says Ahad. “They go all rubbery or they don’t work with the spices.”

For example, City Spice have begun using very fine coriander powder for the soy meat, in order to approve absorption.

Mock lamb on the menu at Erpingham House
image credit: @meg_a_vegan

Texture

To make a lamb substitute, Mock add mushroom stems to their base soy protein, which not only makes the product chewier due to the longer protein strands, but also makes it browner (and aesthetically more like the original).

“It’s not easy to replicate meat,” continues Gill. “It’s a natural product and it takes time and effort. Things like Beyond are incredible and products have evolved so much over the past few years. There was no demand before, but that’s changed.”

Mock wanted to use mushroom for their chicken substitute, but they decided against it as it “would take the product in the wrong direction” in terms of mimicking the texture and colour of chicken. Counteracting this would have meant the use of artificial ingredients and the complication of the process.

Ahad of City Spice says that his kitchen has also struggled with texture. Marinating the ingredients helps to increase the aromas but can also negatively impacts mouthfeel.

The restaurant’s experiments have found five to six hours to be an optimum time for flavour absorption using their soy meat – outside this range, the chefs risk creating something that’s too soggy or rubbery. Even a few minutes can make a huge difference, according to Ahad.

Inconceivable Cassia at City Spice

Audience

Vegan orders have gone up from 10% to 25% in the past year at City Spice and Ahad estimates that this will rise to half and half next year.

“For every table of four, there will be one vegan,” he says of guests dining at his restaurant.

But a big problem with meat alternative creation is finding a product that everyone likes.

“You get really varied feedback, especially in retail,” notes Gill. “For the hardcore vegans, who normally just eat veg and salads, a type of meat alternative might be a big step up for them. But then the carnivores looking to cut down might find it completely inedible!

“We’re trying to break habits that have been around for hundreds of thousands of years. So, first off, it’s got to be satisfying and tasty. To hit the mainstream, you need good flavour profiles, texture, colour, chewiness, strength, shapes and convenience. To trick the mind really.”

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