How to: Optimize plant-based proteins for beverage functionality

How can food scientists boost plant-based proteins, which often lack the same gelling or foaming properties as dairy proteins, for specific functionalities in beverages? They must explore solutions to create a desirable mouthfeel and texture without sacrificing functionality.

Benjamin Voiry, Roquette

June 26, 2024

3 Min Read

At a Glance

  • Challenges faced by formulators of plant-based protein beverages include boosting protein, managing viscosity and more.
  • The pH of a protein-fortified plant-based beverage also significantly influences the product’s taste.
  • Thanks to advancements in plant-based protein ingredients, the gap between plant- and dairy-based beverages is closing.

Consumers are increasingly looking for convenient, protein-packed options that support their health and wellness on the go — and plant-powered protein beverages are perfectly suited to fill this gap. Demand for ready-to-drink high-protein beverages is expected to grow, moving from the niche sports nutrition category into the mainstream market.

As plant-based protein shakes gain popularity, the challenge is boosting their protein content without sacrificing the creamy texture and mouthfeel traditionally provided by dairy proteins.

One of the primary hurdles in formulating high-protein plant-based beverages is managing viscosity. Plant proteins often increase the thickness of beverages, making it difficult to achieve a smooth, drinkable texture at high protein levels.

Solubility is another critical issue; the product needs to maintain a consistent texture throughout its shelf life to ensure an enjoyable drinking experience. Addressing these challenges requires a detailed understanding of how different plant proteins interact with other ingredients and conditions in food matrices.

The science behind the sensory experience  

For formulators, striking the balance between desired protein content and optimal functionality is the most pressing yet elusive challenge. However, plant-based protein solutions that offer high solubility while maintaining a low viscosity are coming to the market. This is an important breakthrough for beverage manufacturers, as it allows them to boost protein levels to match or exceed the dairy equivalent without compromising the drink's smooth texture.

The pH of a protein-fortified plant-based beverage is also a key consideration, as it significantly influences the taste of the finished product. Plant proteins can impart bitterness, particularly at certain pH levels, which can negatively affect the overall flavor profile. By carefully selecting and processing plant proteins, such as pea and fava bean isolates, formulators can minimize these off-flavors and achieve a more neutral taste. This neutrality and improved functionality brings beverages one step closer to mimicking the high-protein dairy-based drinks that consumers have come to know, love and expect.

Ingredient interaction is integral

Formulators should also consider the behavior of other ingredients outside of plant-based proteins. Fats play a crucial role in mirroring the creamy mouthfeel of dairy proteins. Therefore, the selection of the right type of fat is essential, as it also affects other sensory qualities and the stability of the beverage. For instance, coconut fat is rich in saturated fatty acids but solidifies at lower temperatures, making it less suitable for chilled applications. In contrast, sunflower oil remains liquid at these temperatures, providing a more appropriate option for maintaining the desired texture in cold beverages. Understanding the complete range of ingredients and their potential behaviors is vital to finding the ideal mix for the desired plant-based beverage.

Every beverage formulation is unique, requiring a tailored approach to meet specific consumer expectations and product requirements. Oftentimes, customized solutions are the only way to meet exacting specifications and standards. By working in collaboration with ingredients companies, manufacturers can find the winning combination of protein grades and complementary ingredients, turning their vision into reality.

A strong start for plant-based protein drinks

Whether formulators are looking to create an indulgent but healthy vegan milkshake or a quick-mix protein drink for active lifestyles, optimizing plant-based proteins for beverage applications is a complex process that involves a multifaceted approach.

Ultimately, the aim is to create a formula that delivers consistent texture, desirable protein content and delicious taste. Fortunately, with advancements in plant-based protein ingredients, the taste and texture gap between plant- and dairy-based beverages is shrinking. By remaining agile, open and experimental and adopting a collaborative mindset, formulators can pave the way for a broader acceptance and increased consumption of plant-based protein beverages.

About the Author(s)

Benjamin Voiry

Roquette, Head of Marketing Plant Proteins

With a master’s degree in science and engineering, Benjamin Voiry has spent more than 15 years working in the B2B food and nutrition ingredient manufacturing space.

He joined Roquette more than 7 years ago, and as Global Plant Protein Market Leader, he is focused on promoting plant-based ingredients worldwide. In this role, he spotlights the company’s initiatives to inspire innovation and enables manufacturers to improve plant-based gastronomy with tasty, healthy and sustainable food formulations. He is located in France.

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