Nearly every other week another brand enters the meat analog space. Some products boast garden-grown goodness, with visible whole food ingredients such as legumes, diced vegetables, nuts, seeds and grains. Others used advanced technologies to manipulate plant proteins and fibers into resembling animal muscle, while infusing them with succulent fats and meaty flavors and colors.

Take Beyond Meat, El Segundo, California, which uses 22 ingredients to make the Beyond Burger look like raw ground beef, cook and sizzle like it, and have a beefy flavor and texture. This meat analog and similarly processed meat alternatives continue to grow in popularity as consumers gain awareness of the sustainable benefits of plant-based diets.

“Our goal is to perfectly replace animal meat with plant-based options,” said Dariush Ajami, chief innovation officer, at a June 4 presentation in New Orleans at IFT19, the Institute of Food Technologists’ annual meeting and food exposition. “We want to be as clean as possible. I know the ingredient list is way long, but sometimes we have to add those functional (ingredients).” The hope is to make the ingredient list shorter and more understandable. Currently Beyond Meat makes soy-free and GMO-free claims.

“Traditionally it has been easier to imitate white meat, such as poultry or pork. The juicy aspect of red meat had remained a challenge,” says Gilles Maller, vice president, sales and international, Clextral, Tampa, Florida. “But today much research and development is being done in this area, combining extruded fibers with other ingredients in order to make the finished dish with the characteristics that will entice consumers.”

Vegan versus flexitarian

Meat analog processors must develop a product that meets consumers' nutritional needs.Different product formats appeal to different consumers. Most vegans have no desire for a product designed to simulate meat. These products are being sold in the refrigerated meat case and at burger restaurants, not a vegan’s typical destination.

“The flexible protein enthusiast is a consumer who is looking to improve health and wellness by consuming a variety of animal- and plant-based proteins,” says Ashly Koenig, director of customer experience, marketing and innovation, ADM, Chicago. “Within this consumer group, there are two types. The first type is looking to reduce their intake of animal proteins and substitute with plant-based proteins. They are interested in products that mimic the taste and texture of meat but have the nutritional benefits of plant-based ingredients.”

The other consumer type is adventurous and curious. It’s someone looking for new taste and texture experiences that do not resemble meat. These are also the types of products that the vegan or vegetarian seeks out.

There are several key development considerations for meat alternatives, explains Dina Fernandez, manager of plant protein development at ADM.

“In addition to taste, texture, cost and appearance, it’s also important to understand how solubility, water binding, gelling capacity, emulsification capacity and protein quality impact the final product,” she says.

Consumers typically expect meat analogs to be savory and succulent. To achieve this, sources of umami are often added. This includes yeast extracts, mushrooms and tomatoes. If a vegan claim is not necessary, cheese and even egg may be added.

Product developers can approach the formulation of analogs in a number of ways. Identifying finished product nutritional and positioning claims upfront is paramount for ingredient selection.

“One method is to match the key nutritional targets of a meat-based product. This includes calories, fat, saturated fat, protein and sodium,” says Melissa Machen, senior technical services specialist, Cargill, Minneapolis. “Another approach is to create a product that differs from a traditional meat product, with saturated fat and calories that are significantly lower than a conventional meat product.”

Extrusion technology assists in the production of meat analogs.

Complete protein

Protein quality is one of the biggest issues with formulating meat analogs. Animal protein is complete. It contains all the essential amino acids the body requires for proper functioning. Most plant proteins are limited in specific amino acids, and therefore, proper protein blending is required to deliver a complete protein.

“The optimal process to develop a meat or poultry analog begins with characterizing the structure, functional properties and textural attributes required,” says Julie Emsing Mann, global innovation and marketing strategy for plant-based proteins, Ingredion Inc., Bridgewater, New Jersey. “Nutritional specifications should be defined. Total protein content, fiber content, and vitamins and minerals can provide strength to your brand. Additional considerations include ingredient sourcing restraints, such as non-GMO and free-from allergens, clean flavor targets and cost in use.”

Maller adds, “Plant fibers have many different attributes and it is important to have a good understanding of how they react in various processing scenarios.” That’s where extrusion technology may assist. Clextral’s expertise is in meat analogs made by twin-screw extrusion with high moisture content.

“The twin-screw extruder processes plant proteins at a moisture level over 50 percent,” Maller explains. “The first step is to debundle the proteins and create a gel. Then, in a precisely thermal-controlled die, the mix is cooled, leading to the formation of fibers created by hydrogen bonds between the proteins.”
Emsing Mann adds, “Meat proteins tend to be fibrous while plant proteins tend to be globular. This leads to a very different product texture.”

Extrusion allows for the manipulation of those proteins. The final extruded and formed product has a texture that mimics meat muscle. Extrusion technology can be employed to produce the actual meat analog.

Twin-screw extrusion consists of two intermeshing, co-rotating screws mounted on splined shafts in a closed barrel. There’s a wide range of screw and barrel designs to allow for varied product shapes and sizes.

“We can compensate for or alter fibrous attributes by applying the correct shear and temperature profile during extrusion,” Maller says. “In some instances, it is necessary to inject liquid ingredients into the extruder barrel at different stages of the cooking and fibration process.”

Re-creating the meat structure typically relies on the addition of ingredients that contribute texture. The goal is to deliver a fibrous quality and achieve a structural bite and chewy texture, according to Emsing Mann.

“The use of functional binders and starch-based texturizers can deliver elasticity cohesion and moisture release in a burger patty or other formulated matrix,” she says.

Product challenges

Patties and nuggets tend to be the easiest to develop. Breaded coatings assist with appearance and flavor. Burgers, in particular, are a forgiving format, as they are usually served on a bun with condiments and other toppings to add flavor, texture and juiciness.

“Hot dogs are a very difficult format to re-create based on the existing consumer expectation,” says Ross Wyatt, meat application scientist at ADM. “Consumers want a product that is elastic with a bite, as well as the taste to match. Though there are strategies to achieve texture, the taste aspect is still difficult to develop. You must have the right blend of proteins in your matrix to meet customer acceptance.”

Regardless of the product or the approach, textured soy protein is the most economical and versatile plant-based protein for meat analogs, according to Machen. It can be used alone or with other plant proteins.

Plant-based products continue to pop up all over the market.“This versatile ingredient is available in numerous shapes, sizes and even colors, enabling formulators to mimic meat’s natural fibers,” she says.

Textured wheat protein is MGP Ingredients Inc.’s answer to formulating plant-based meat analogs. The Atchison, Kansas-based company offers the ingredient in granules, chips and shreds, with and without color.

“Neutral taste and firm, fibrous texture are the two properties of textured wheat protein that set it apart from other textured plant-based proteins,” says Michael Buttshaw, vice president of ingredients sales, marketing and research and development. “No masking flavors are needed when formulating with textured wheat protein.”

Textured wheat protein will marinate much like an animal-based protein. This makes it easy to incorporate flavors.

“Granules are hydrated at a ratio of one-part textured wheat protein to three parts water, with optimum hydration occurring after 20 to 30 minutes,” says Ody Maningat, vice president of ingredients research and development and chief science officer. “The hydrated granules are mixed with other ingredients and formed into the intended shape.”

Chips require less water to hydrate but may take up to 40 minutes. Hydrated chips require a mixer or bowl chopper to release the fibers.

“Textured wheat protein in shreds does not require pre-hydration,” Maningat says. “The shreds are incorporated directly with other ingredients and water with hydration occurring simultaneously during the different steps of processing.”

For product developers wanting to make a soy- and wheat-free claim, pea protein is currently one of the more popular options.

“Both pea protein powder and textured pea protein can be used to formulate meat analogs,” Machen says. “Pea protein delivers quality protein and functional product performance similar to soy.”

Cargill has partnered with Minneapolis-based Puris to meet the growing demand for plant-based protein. Produced from yellow pea seeds, the ingredient is gluten-free, non-GMO Project Verified and available certified organic.

“As we make more progress on new product development and ingredient technologies, consumers will demand finished products with a shorter list of ingredients and with cleaner label positioning.” — Frank Truong, Corsuca Inc.

Cosucra Inc. North America, Chicago, provides three pea-based ingredient solutions for meat and poultry applications. They are pea protein, functional pea fiber and instant pre-gel functional pea starches. At IFT19, the company sampled a burger made with all three ingredients.

“We advise product developers to use all three in the formulation, as all three provide unique technical benefits when combined as a system,” says Frank Truong, general manager. “The protein has excellent emulsification properties in addition to providing high protein content and a fibrous structure. The fiber assists with water-holding capacity, fat binding, juiciness, shape control and stabilization of the emulsion.”

The pea starch provides gel strength. In certain applications, this assists with sliceability.

Also at IFT19, PLT Health Solutions Inc., Morristown, New Jersey, sampled vegan pizza. It was made with meatless sausage crumbles made with chickpea protein.

Circling back to Beyond Meat’s use of 22 ingredients versus a burger made from simply beef, one must question the importance of clean and simple labeling in the analog space.

“Processors are placing a higher importance in meeting consumer demand for meat analog products that accentuate how their ingredients can have a less negative impact on the environment and deliver a significant improvement in taste profile,” Truong says. “To achieve these two requirements, it has been a challenge for product developers to have the shortest and most clean label ingredient statement as evidenced by finished products in the marketplace today.

“As we make more progress on new product development and ingredient technologies, consumers will demand finished products with a shorter list of ingredients and with cleaner label positioning,” Truong says.

This is happening in real time. With each new rollout, the formulation dynamics are changing.