Formulating plant-based meats for flexitarians

The diversity of consumers who are interested in plant based foods presents a challenge to product developers who have many potential consumers and priorities to satisfy. Karen Formanski, Research and Analysis Manager, The Good Food Institute, said, “Getting more consumers to eat plant-based foods more often requires improved taste and texture to compete with animal products, more product diversity, and greater affordability and accessibility.”

This is why innovators are smart to formulate products with a target consumer in mind. Currently, market trends suggest that it’s the flexitarian, the consumer trying to reduce intake of animal-based products but does not necessarily avoid them. When it comes to plant-based meats, the flexitarian appreciates when the alternative looks, cooks and tastes similar to the real deal.

Why Crumbles

“The goal of alternative meat is to satisfy consumers, specifically meat-eaters, in terms of taste, texture and appearance,” said Megan Passman, Global Insights Manager. “Unlike steak and nugget forms, consumers find ground/crumbles as an entry point due to its ability to mimic the taste and texture of ground meat and poultry.”

This format works in all types of recipes, in particular convenient comfort foods, such as chili, meatballs, tacos, casseroles, pizza, etc. According to IRI, ground/crumbles captured 23% of the plant-based alternatives’ volume sales in 2021, behind links, and continues to remain strong in volume and dollar sales year-over-year.

Crumbles also tend to be more forgiving when enjoyment is a priority. Sauces, gravies, spices, etc., assist with delivering on flavor and familiarity. When used as a pizza topping, crumbles contribute plant protein while melding in with the tastes and textures of other ingredients.

Flexitarians are always looking for convenient ways to include plant-based proteins in their diet. The big caveat: they are not willing to compromise on enjoyment or quality. A clean, simple label is also becoming paramount. All of the same considerations that go into manufacturing animal-based meats must be part of plant-based meat product development.

Fully cooked crumbles have their own unique challenges because of all the exposed surface area,  And, they have to provide enjoyment immediately when the package is opened

“With products like pizza toppings, where often a vacuum may not be pulled to help protect the shape and size of the crumble, it becomes even more important to have antioxidants to protect flavor,” said McCoy.

“A major challenge with manufacturing fully cooked products is that heat is a catalyst for oxidation ,” said Amber Beckett, Senior Business Development Manager-Savory. “Implementing an antioxidant solution as early in the process as possible can help prevent or delay this irreversible oxidation cascade and preventing associated off flavor development  and unwanted color shifts before the time it gets to the customer

Corbion, Lenexa, Kan., offers a range of ingredient solutions to assist plant-based meat processors with delivering on these traits. Corbion’s Origin™ portfolio which includes plant-based extracts, such as concentrates obtained from acerola, and rosemary, are examples of natural preservatives can extend shelf life by either preventing undesirable microbial growth or maintaining desirable color and flavor.

Upsell to Fresh

With most food categories moving from the frozen case to the fresh case, manufactures and marketers have opportunities for premiumization in their plant-based offerings. However, this doesn’t come without challenges.

Fresh ground beef and poultry products often include ingredients to assist with maintaining color and preventing oxidation/rancidity. Fresh Plant-based offerings may experience a similar breakdown, shortening the shelf life in the refrigerated section. Solutions may vary; impacted by product formula, distribution and retail format.
“Similar to fresh meat, color stability of fresh plant-based products impacts consumer purchasing decisions” said Garrett McCoy, Senior Manager, Research and Development. “When it comes to ready-to-eat or prepared plant-based offerings, flavor protection becomes much more important.”

Corbion offers a number of ingredients to address these issues. Verdad® Powder AC 34, for example, can help protect and maintain the color customers desire in fresh applications. Verdad® Powder RO2 can help protect the desired flavor of the plant based food all the way through the supply chain to ensure the customer receives a quality, delicious product.

“In refrigerated plant-based products, the pH is typically higher than that of traditional meat products. This can lead to accelerated spoilage. Corbion’s lactic acid can help regulate pH in the formula and assist with this challenge.” “Plant-based meats sold as fresh can often times necessitate the use of an antimicrobial to extend shelf life and protect that product in open oxygen packaging,” said McCoy.

To extend shelf life, Corbion offers products such as Verdad® powder N20 and other ferments that can control spoilage microorganisms without sacrificing flavor. This means that plant-based products can remain on the shelf longer all while having a simpler label and delivering on consumers sensory expectations.

Functional but not Label Friendly

As consumers are becoming more focused on nutrition, one purchase block they may run into while reading the label is sodium. The caveat is that sodium in plant-based is often used for function and flavor.

A challenge in sodium reduction is that water activity increases as salt levels are reduced during formulation. This increase in water activity can to lead to accelerated growth of spoilage microorganisms and pathogens. “The use of organic acid based antimicrobials can offset this change in water activity, and provide inhibition of target microorganisms.” said McCoy.

“Another challenge that may arise when reducing sodium is changes in flavor,” said Beckett. Sodium provides so many functions including positive flavor attributes as well blocking bitter notes in foods. “Consumers are looking for savory or umami notes that sometimes get lost when removing sodium. Fermentation is a natural technology that has been found to increase the savory and umami sensory profile in foods, without relying exclusively on sodium to confer this organoleptic character. With our Verdad® Ferments you can remove a portion of the added sodium while naturally adding that flavor and spoilage/food safety protection back.”

Plant-based consumers are searching for more accessible and diverse offerings that still deliver on their sensory expectations. This means that manufactures need to look for ways to maintain product quality while extending shelf life in both fresh and frozen offerings. Through use of natural antioxidants and antimicrobials Corbion can help deliver solutions to solve unique challenges in every application.