Alternative proteins power up

The popularity of protein rich diets has prompted sustained efforts to identify new sources – but understanding the characteristics of these alternative ingredients is essential for successful product formulation and consumer acceptance. Carole Bingley, Technical Specialist for Reading Scientific Services Ltd (RSSL), reviews some of the latest developments

Consumer perception of protein is undergoing a transformation. Over recent years, health and environmental concerns around animal protein consumption has prompted a rapid rise in exitarian, vegan and vegetarian diets, as well as a renewed focus on plant-based alternatives.

For food and drink manufacturers, this represents a clear opportunity – plant based proteins, for example, now represent more than a third of the global protein market – but also brings new challenges in terms of product development.

Achieving balance

From a nutritional perspective, it is important to recognise that animal proteins contain all the essential amino acids and are considered complete, whereas vegetable alternatives are often deficient in one or two. This means that formulation may require a blend of different proteins to reach the desired profile.

Pea protein, for example, is now a familiar plant-based ingredient but is low in certain amino acids (cysteine & methionine) so, if a complete profile, is required then it needs to be used in combination with other protein sources to compensate for the deficient amino acids. This approach is already evident in the UK, where products such as noodles and breakfast cereals have recently been launched which contain both pea and wheat as key plant-based sources of protein.

Of course, creating an equivalent protein pro le may not be an important positioning platform for the product – many consumers simply want to reduce or cut out animal products and will make up the protein elsewhere in the diet. Rice and oat dairy alternatives, for example, tend to be a lot lower in protein than cow’s milk but may be preferred on the basis of taste to high protein soya equivalents.

Yet, with growing consumer awareness of the importance of protein and concern around the potential health consequences of moving away from animal products, choosing to create products which tick more than one box may prove an effective strategy.

Proteins in action

As with all product development, taste is a priority when it comes to consumer acceptance and this is an important focus for protein alternatives – particularly when it comes to vegetable sources with distinct flavour profiles. It is a challenging process but, working with flavour houses to mask the less desirable notes can be a route to deliver positive results; with different flavours evaluated and blended to create the optimal taste profile.

With regards to vegetable protein-based crispies, the extrusion process used to produce them can help to improve the flavour. The added advantage of these ingredients is that they also add a crispy ‘granola type’ crunch to breakfast cereals and are particularly useful in snack bars which, if made with conventional protein powders, risk being quite dense, chewy and heavy. And while this may not be such a problem for dedicated sports enthusiasts, for a mainstream audience it could be a barrier to purchase.

So too is sedimentation in beverages, which is a particular drawback of using vegetable sources to boost protein in beverages. But again, there are methods to address their poor solubility. Adjusting the pH, reducing the particle size or processing the protein in a different way can all help to resolve it. Addition of stabilisers can help to suspend protein particles as well as adding creaminess and mouthfeel. Alternatively, a solution may also be reached by screening a number of different proteins to identify the best source or blend on a case- by-case basis.

Beyond meat

One category that has been grabbing the media headlines recently is the so called ‘meat free burger’. Together with the US-produced Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger, the recent launch of Moving Mountains B12 Burger in London’s vegetarian and vegan restaurant Mildred’s marks a clear move to target a new generation of consumers; a group who actively want to cut down on their intake of animal protein but expects any replacement to deliver the same look, taste and texture.

Interestingly, this is in contrast to more established meat substitutes. Quorn, for example, appears to be less concerned with replicating the exact look of meat and much more focused on conveying positive messaging around health, the environment and an enjoyable eating experience.

So what is striking about these vegetable-based products is that they are going head-to-head with the traditional burger – arguably, the epitome of a meat-eater’s diet – and demonstrating a new way of thinking about formulation with alternative proteins.

Re-creating the fibrous texture of meat is key and ingredient suppliers are doing a lot of work to improve the performance of vegetable proteins in this respect. Blending different vegetable proteins can be useful when trying replicate the bite and succulence of meat.
Certainly in these first commercial products, these general principles appear to have been translated effectively. The Beyond Burger uses just one source of pea protein, whereas the other two products take a blended approach; namely, wheat, potato and soya protein in the Impossible Burger, while the Moving Mountains B12 Burger features a combination of pea, wheat and soya protein.

Equally important, however, is the visual appeal of these products and careful ingredient additions help to replicate the expected pink colour of beef; the Moving Mountains B12 Burger, for example, uses beetroot in an attempt to mimic the burger ‘bleed’.

Animal options

Alongside the strong push to develop plant-based options, work is also ongoing to explore viable new animal options. Despite facing major consumer acceptance issues in some quarters, the need to find more sustainable solutions to feed an ever-expanding global population continues to drive these developments.

In this category, insect protein does seem to be gaining traction in some quarters, as well as widespread press attention. As an ingredient, it is a complete protein with a good amino acid pro le and relatively high protein levels – crickets, for example, are 60-70% protein. These positive attributes have helped encourage producers to push traditional boundaries and create new snack products which are now available across Europe in select online and high-end retailers.

Exactly how successful this emerging category will prove to be in the long term remains to be seen. In practical terms, as you would expect, there are a number of issues to take into account. First of all, regulatory discussions are ongoing with the European Commission regarding Novel Foods in relation to purified insect protein. Currently, you cannot extract the protein as that is not the format in which insects have been consumed historically; it has to be used in either the whole insect or the whole insect ground into flour. There is also the distinct umami taste to contend with, which needs to be considered when selecting applications and is perhaps the reason for the focus on crackers, crisps and snack products.

Also worthy of note is research into lab grown meat which, although signi cantly behind insects in terms of its potential commercialisation, may be something for the future. Identical in its chemical make up to meat, the product starts with muscle stem cells which
are then grown under optimal conditions in the lab. Of course, consumers are likely to be wary of any ‘chemically produced’ food product – particularly in view of the macro trend for all things natural – but the wider issues of sustainability may balance out these concerns. In any case, with an estimated ve to ten year timescale before being launch-ready and Novel Foods approval yet to be secured, lab-grown meat is not something that we expect to see any time soon.

Future planning

One thing is certain, however, with consumers eager for greater variety, the protein trend looks set to go from strength to strength. Already we are seeing interest for new sources such as hemp, chickpea and algae. Although early days, further investigation and analysis will identify the best way to incorporate them into appealing food and drink products.
At the same time, it is important for manufacturers to be in a position to respond and this demands a forward-thinking approach due the very nature of the ingredients in question.

With vegetable protein in particular, sourcing can become a challenge due to the time limitations of the crop cycle. This means that product developers need to be working closely with suppliers to ensure that the volumes of protein will be available so that growing demand can be met successfully.

The challenges the industry is facing to develop consumer acceptable protein rich foods and to use a wider selection of vegetable protein sources in products are all challenges that the RSSL product development team are supporting industry with.

Carole Bingley,
Technical Specialist, RSSL Product & Ingredient Innovation

About Carole Bingley

Carole is a Senior Associate Principal Scientist working in the Product and Ingredient Innovation Team at RSSL. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Food Science and a Master of Science in Nutritional Medicine. Carole has worked in product development and ingredient evaluation across many food categories during her 25 years in the food industry.

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