Asim Syed, Director, Food Applications R&D, Brenntag North America
The global food industry is going through a major life-changing event with the explosion of plant-based foods and a shift from animals as the primary source of proteins. This shift is expected to be almost as consequential and as transformative as the domestication of animals and the invention of agriculture.
Driving Forces Behind the Plant-Based Meat Alternative Revolution
Sustainability: The main driving force behind the plant-based foods revolution of today is the serious nature of the global sustainability concerns: the growing challenge of ensuring sustainable food supply for the exploding human population, and the depletion of arable land and freshwater.
Global Warming: According to studies, about 25 percent of all greenhouse gasses are generated by the animal farming industry. Removing animals from the food chain will significantly cut down the release of these greenhouse gasses.
Health: Clinical studies are linking animal protein-based diets with multiple ailments like heart diseases, obesity, and cancer, the primary concern being around red meat, saturated fat, cholesterol, as well as antibiotics and artificial growth hormones that might be injected to cattle for higher productivity.
Animal Welfare: Consistent work of animal-welfare organizations has contributed immensely to the growing awareness about the unimaginable and needless suffering that animals endure to satisfy our craving for animal meat, poultry, and dairy.
Conscious Carnivores: Also termed as Flexitarians, the primary market segment for plant-based meat analogs are traditional meat-eaters who are looking to reduce meat consumption due to health reasons. They love the taste of meat and will try meat analogs if it is close to the taste, texture, and nutrition of real meat.
Earth Warriors: This consumer segment is inspired by environmental sustainability and over all health of the planet.
The biggest ingredient innovation that has unleashed possibilities in the plant-based meat innovations is textured protein
Their inspiration comes from the environmental studies showing animal farming to be a major emitter of greenhouse gasses such as methane and nitrous oxide, as well as tremendous amounts of toxic manure that pollutes waterways and impacts health of aquatic like in freshwater and the oceans.
Animal Lovers: These are committed ethical crusaders who strongly believe that all animals are sentient beings like humans, and they all deserve to live natural lives in their natural environment. These people are against the abuse of animals in any form, whether it is for meat, milk, hide, transportation, sports, animal clinical studies, zoos, etc.
Interestingly, vegans and vegetarians are not a key consumer for these products. They are happy with their lifestyle of preparing meals using vegetables, legumes and grains at home every day.
Recent Innovation Impetus
The concept of plant-based meat analog has been around for a long time. However, the target market comprised primarily of religiously vegans, vegetarians, and a niche population inspired by heath and animal welfare.
The current movement towards plant-based proteins has been driven by the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and visionary investors, out of the commitment to radically push against the effects of global warming, which has put the very existence of human civilization in jeopardy, not to mention mass scale extinction of the number of animal and plant species.
Challenges and Opportunities
Plant-based meat analogs are getting so close to the physical and organoleptic qualities of real meat that even the very term ‘meat analog’ is becoming somewhat obsolete, the new term being ‘plant-based meats.’ Just like most transformative innovations in history, vested interests in preserving the status quo will try to block the progress and challenging what can and cannot be called ‘meat.’
Technologies in Play
Creating a plant-based meat requires an understanding of all the components of animal meat structure and nutritional profile. Lean meat is roughly 70 percent water, 20 percent protein, 5 percent fat. Meat tissue, in combination with connecting tissue, cartilage, gelatin, fat and blood provide the flavor, aroma color, texture and mouth feel characteristics.
Proteins: The biggest ingredient innovation that has unleashed possibilities in the plant-based meat innovations is textured protein. Proteins from soy, pea, wheat, etc. are isolated and processed through a high pressure, temperature and time-controlled extrusion process that modifies the protein structures and creates a continuous gelled strand form which is then cut into desired bit sizes.
Protein Isolates: Since TVPs generally contain only 50-60 percent protein, there may be a need to boost the protein content of the product. This is achieved by adding plant protein concentrate or isolate powders, which may have as high as 80 to 90 percent protein. Most common commercially available protein isolates include soy, pea, lentil, chickpea and fava bean.
Fats: Lean beef muscle meat contains about 5 to 10 percent fat. This fat has an essential role in providing the fatty and indulging mouthfeel and the lingering taste impact. To mimic this fatty mouthfeel of meat coconut and palm oils are blended with liquid oils to achieve the right organoleptic properties.
Binders: In animal meat, connective tissues, gelatin and fat work together to bind the meat and hold the moisture. In plant-based meat, hydrocolloids are used for this purpose. These hydrocolloids include starches (corn, potato, rice, tapioca), gums (xanthan, guar, gellan, tara, cellulose), fibers (bamboo, potato, apple, carrot, cellulose, inulin), gelling agents (agar, pectin, alginates, carrageenan, konjac, methylcellulose).
Color: An endless array of vegetable and fruit juice powders is now available for this application. Beet, carrot, pomegranate, cranberry, cherry, raspberry and other fruits and vegetables high in the red pigments are now available in dried form.
Flavor: A number of flavor companies have developed vegan sourced flavor and aroma compounds that can be used to mimic raw or cooked meat taste profile or come very close to it.
2050 Long Term View
With the way that the global sustainability concern is becoming part of everyday life, and the way that consumers are getting more and more comfortable with the idea of consuming plant-based meats, it is not out of reach that by 2050 plant-based meat will be the dominant form of protein on the shelf
The plant-based food revolution is not limited to meats. New plant-based milk, butter, cheese, egg products are being developed every day, and the quality of products is improving at an unimaginable rate.