It wasn’t all that long ago that meatless burgers in fast food seemed like a laughable proposition. But fast forward to 2021 and all bets are off. Consumers are increasingly open to not only plant-based burgers but alternative products ranging from fishless fish to plant-based chicken nuggets.
While the market opportunity is hot and plant-based eating now has growing mainstream appeal, this also means that product formulators have a big challenge to stay on top of trends in this rapidly changing environment, while also meeting rising consumer expectations for these products. They not only have to mimic the original animal-based product’s taste and texture, but also meet growing consumer desire for products that contain high nutritional value and clean ingredients.
It’s a tall order. And product developers are finding that it takes formulation expertise and a complete range of ingredient solutions to achieve these goals. Ingredient suppliers like Ingredion are stepping up to help with an understanding of consumer demands, deep formulation expertise, and a broad plant-based ingredient portfolio to help solve these challenges.
Flavor, texture, and eating experience are all still key challenges for alternative meats, explained Karen Constanza, marketing manager, Meat and Meat Alternatives, for Ingredion. “While the category has made vast improvements over the past few years,” she said, “there is still room for improvement and innovation. Masking beany and vegetal flavors, mimicking chewiness and fibrous texture, and creating a similar-to-meat cooking experience are all challenges for product developers to overcome.”
But initially, it is important to understand why plant-based products have such growing appeal. These consumers are not necessarily vegans or vegetarians—in fact, six in 10 global consumers now say they prefer products labeled as plant-based as opposed to vegan or vegetarian.
So, why are so many consumers buying into the plant-based lifestyle?
They are likely grasping for solutions to help them feel more in the driver’s seat in a changing and fast-paced world. While taste, price and convenience remain top purchase drivers, consumers are turning to plant-based meat for reasons of perceptions around health, and to address concerns about the environment and animal welfare.
For what reasons would you consider plant-based alternatives?
|It is healthier||53%|
|It brings variety to my diet||35%|
|It's better for the planet||32%|
|It tastes better||19%|
Source: Innova Database. Innova Consumer Survey 2020 (average of UK, U.S., Spain, France, Brazil, India, Germany, Mexico, China and Indonesia).
The effect was already underway in 2019, but it gained further traction during the COVID-19 pandemic as eight in 10 consumers changed their eating habits, and nearly one in two felt the pandemic increased need for healthy food in their diet.
This growing consumer acceptance is giving rise to growth for traditional plant-based meat products but also a variety of new meat alternatives. Data from Mintel suggests that nearly half of consumers (47%) want more variety in plant-based meats, and more than half (51%) want to see a variety of protein sources for plant-based meat. A few key formats are gaining ground, according to Constanza, including alternative seafood, plant-based breakfast items, and center of the plate protein sources like alternative chicken, pork, and sausages. “Any product that can help consumers enjoy plant-based items at other mealtimes has potential for growth as well – including snacking occasions with plant-based jerky,” she said.
Though consumers indicate they are receptive to such products, the bar for plant-based meats is also rising. In proprietary research from Ingredion, consumers indicated a range of factors that are extremely important in selecting alternative meat:
Source: Ingredion Proprietary Research, 2019. Sample Source: U.S.
This leaves product developers tasked with replicating taste and texture qualities of animal-based products while using plant-based proteins and clean ingredients. It’s a complex puzzle. “As meat alternatives focus more on whole muscle-type products, texture becomes an even larger challenge to overcome,” Constanza explained. “In addition to getting firmness and bite right, whole-muscle products have a fibrous texture that is challenging to recreate with plant-based ingredients. Additionally, color can be a challenge for formats that are expected to be white or light in color. Alternative chicken and fish products, for example, may need to overcome the inherent color of their plant-based protein source.”
To start, choosing a plant-based protein is critical. “Historically in meat alternatives, soy and wheat were the go-to protein sources for product developers,” Constanza noted. “As consumers look to avoid major allergens and vary the source of protein they consume, we are noticing textured protein sources like pea, beans, and chickpeas being used more often in new product launches.”
One of the best ways to provide the just-right texture and bite in meat alternatives is to use a structured vegetable protein to serve as the base of a formulation. “Unlike powdered proteins that can become pasty or mushy with high-usage levels, structured vegetable protein holds its shape once hydrated creating a chewy, resilient texture,” Constanza explained. “Our VITESSENCE® TEX Crumbles 102 texture protein has great particle integrity after hydration and provides a firm texture making it an easy way to improve the texture of meat alternatives.”
But depending on the product application and formula, there are a number of other ingredients that are critical to reaching these formulation goals. For example, a plant-based burger might require both a textured plant-based protein for texture, bite, chewiness, and protein isolates for added protein content, browning, color and flavor. Textured pea proteins can make up about 20% of an alternative meat formulation, but it will also take protein isolates to achieve the desired protein content level.
VITESSENCE® Pulse proteins are a great way to boost the nutritional content of meat alternatives. “Pulse proteins pair nicely with our VITESSENCE® TEX Crumbles 102 textured protein to provide plant-based protein that is non-GMO, gluten-free, and not a major allergen,” Constanza said.
This type of product might also require starches for binding, structure, cohesiveness, freeze/thaw stabilities and water holding; hydrocolloids for mouthfeel, juiciness, freeze/thaw stability and yield; as well as a fruit or vegetable-based coloring to create the coloring and appearance of a traditional burger. “To deliver a similar cooking experience in meat alternatives, we often pair our plant-based proteins with N-ZORBIT® M maltodextrin for lubricity and a great sizzle during cooking,” Constanza added.
Ingredion believes a whole food systems approach is the best way to address all these variables. “Ingredion takes a holistic approach in formulating meat alternatives, combining our ingredient expertise to deliver on taste, texture, nutrition, and eating experience,” Constanza noted. “We can use our broad portfolio of plant-based proteins as the base of our formulation and combine it with our food system solutions to deliver texture, gelation, water and oil-holding, juiciness, process stability, and freeze-thaw stability.”
The approach is a great way to add certainty when developing meat alternatives, she added. “We take our knowledge of texture, stability, and ingredient synergies to take the guess work out of formulating, which can improve speed to market. Our meat alternative experts have developed food system solutions for a variety of meat alternative formats – and continue to work on new solutions as interest in formats expand.”
 Innova Database. Innova Consumer Survey 2019 (average of UK, U.S., Spain, France, Brazil, India, Germany, Mexico, China and Indonesia).
 Szejda K, et al. “Accelerating consumer adoption of plant-based meat: An evidence-based guide for effective practice.” The Good Food Institute. February 2020. https://gfi.org/images/uploads/2020/02/NO-HYPERLINKED-REFERENCES-FINAL-COMBINED-accelerating-consumer-adoption-of-plant-based-meat.pdf
 International Food Information Council (IFIC). 2020 Food and Health Survey
 Ingredion Proprietary Research, 2021.
 Mintel Reports U.S., Plant-based Proteins, 2020.