CHICAGO — New brands and styles of meat and dairy alternatives continue to steal retail space from the animal-based products they try to simulate. This is due to advancements in ingredient technology to deliver cleaner, simpler and more authentic analogs.

“Consumers are attracted to many of the attributes associated with products made with plant proteins, but taste still drives repeat purchase,” said Melissa Machen, senior technical services specialist – plant protein, Cargill, Minneapolis. “Emerging plant proteins can bring along flavor issues, including astringency and bitterness. Even within the same protein source, there can be significant differences in flavor profiles.

“Pea protein can serve as the foundation for both dairy and meat alternatives. With functional attributes similar to soy, it’s a good choice for brands aiming to keep major allergens off product labels. Plus, there’s the added attraction of a more neutral flavor profile than many botanical proteins, including soy.”

In vegan cheese applications, plant proteins with mild flavors and white color more easily mimic traditional dairy cheeses. Some specialty pea proteins even have a milky flavor that contributes a pleasant taste, while the water-binding and emulsification properties provide critical texture benefits.

“For meat-alternative applications, we offer a textured pea protein format with a firm bite,” Machen said. “This is a huge advantage, especially for frozen ready-meals, where products go through multiple cook cycles, frozen and reheated. We’ve also had great success using it in stand-alone applications such as a hydrated crumble, as well as blended with other binder ingredients to make a burger.”

Jennifer Williams, marketing director, California Walnut Board and Commission, Folsom, Calif., said, “The simplicity of formulating plant-based proteins with walnuts makes them a viable and usable ingredient in consumer packaged foods, as well as ready-to-eat products for foodservice operators. The main benefit of using walnuts as a plant-based ground meat is the ability to formulate clean label proteins with simple ingredients that consumers are familiar with. All you need are walnuts, a legume, such as black beans or chickpeas, and a seasoning blend, and you get an exceptional plant-based ground meat that can be used for tacos or frozen entrees such as lasagna.”

The texture of walnuts – not too hard nor too soft, with a pliability that mimics meat without the need for additives and fillers – makes it well suited for use in ground meat alternatives. Walnut ground meat can be kept frozen or refrigerated.

“The versatility of walnut ground meat is endless, as walnuts have a unique ability to soak up flavors in a formula,” Williams said. “This gives manufacturers the ability to create a base walnut ground meat that can incorporate different seasoning blends to be used in Italian, Mediterranean, Latin or American foods.

“Consumers have grown to accept plant-based ground meats, and now they are looking for products that are clean label and carry nutritional value. This nutritional value is a main selling point in walnut ground meat, as walnuts are the only nut that is an excellent source of plant-based omega-3 alpha-linolenic acid, with 2.5 grams per oz. The inclusion of omega-3s adds an additional benefit to both walnut protein ingredients.”

Travis Green, vice president of wholesome food ingredients, ADM, Chicago, said, “As flexitarians seek out plant-forward dairy and meat products, many are looking for specific plant protein sources. In fact, our research shows that the type of plant protein is important to 88% of global plant consumers and 92% of US plant consumers. On top of that, consumer perceptions of factors like the taste of plant proteins vary and are often connected to awareness levels of the plant protein type and ingredient label expectation. Nuts and seeds have the most positive plant consumer perceptions, with beans coming in a close second.”

ADM’s lineup includes ingredients from more than 30 distinct plant-based sources, including beans and pulses, such as navy, black, small red and pinto beans; chickpeas; green and red lentils; peas and more. These versatile ingredients come in raw or pre-gelled powders, meal, grits or whole formats to meet different plant-based alternative formulation and texture needs.

“With similar nutritional benefits among our bean and pulse ingredients, product developers can make selections from our portfolio based on color, functionality and taste,” Green said. “Specifically, our navy bean and chickpea are color-neutral, don’t negatively impact taste and have a high degree of functionality, making them a flexible option for a variety of plant-based applications. Additionally, we have incorporated our navy bean and chickpea ingredients with pea protein to offer complete texturized solutions for meat alternative products, which helps our customers get to market quicker with offerings that tick all the sensory and nutritional boxes.”

The company also offers ancient grains and seeds, including chia, flax and hemp seeds, as well as amaranth, sorghum, quinoa and other grains. These come in raw, pasteurized, roasted, crisp or powder forms.

“Our ancient grains, seeds, beans and pulses add the right texture, flavor, functional enhancements and pack a nutritional punch with protein and added benefits of fiber, vitamins and minerals,” said Jacquelyn Schuh, product marketing director of protein nutrition solutions at ADM. “Whether it’s a mix of beans and seeds for crunch or grains for depth of chewiness, we help deliver whole food nutrition and diverse layers of texture, flavor, color and functionality for the perfect bite.”

Kerry, Beloit, Wis., offers functional oat powders for a range of applications. They are readily soluble and assist with emulsification.

“After sourcing our oats, they are steeped in hot water to create a mash,” said Kyle Kamp, director of business development for dairy. “This process emphasizes texture control, bringing out the natural sweetness of the oats while eliminating sliminess and grittiness. The result is no separation, no waste product, 100% of the oat is utilized and the quality maintained. The oat mash is taken through a gentle heating and dehydration process to prolong its shelf life in application.”

Some suppliers produce dairy and meat alternatives direct for use in commercially produced meals, as well as foodservice. Kerry, for example, manufactures vegan cheese sauce for use with macaroni and other prepared foods, as well as a vegan cheese powder for snack applications.

Planteneers GmbH, Ahrensburg, Germany, has developed plant-based meat, dairy and deli alternatives for food manufacturers around the world. The company’s products include burgers, salami sticks, pepperoni, hot dogs, bologna, bacon, fish, milk, yogurt, cheese, ice cream, protein shakes and egg patties.

“For meat alternatives, different extrusion processes offer the possibility to bring vegetable proteins into a form whereby the texture and mouthfeel comes very close to that of meat products,” said Brian Walker, global commercial director. “We have numerous functional systems for companies to produce their own meat alternatives. This includes systems for binding, texturizing, coloring and flavoring. We work here with vegetable proteins, focusing not only on soy-based solutions, but also numerous other vegetable raw materials, such as sunflower.”

The company offers alternative dairy ingredient systems made from vegetable proteins and starches. These products allow for the manufacture of a range of cheese alternatives, from standards such as slices and grated pizza toppings to specialties such as vegan alternatives to cream cheese, cottage cheese and feta.

“Each component of the system fulfills a specific function,” Walker said. “This includes adjusting the melting behavior, shredding ability and elasticity of the end products. The actual manufacturing process of the plant-based cheese alternatives takes place in a mixing system with heating capability and high shear force, which is relatively simple to implement if the right ingredients are available.”

An area that is garnering attention in both the United States and Europe is the use of upcycled plant-based ingredients.

“There are some really interesting concepts emerging,” Walker said. “We are working closely with a startup company in The Netherlands that is focusing on closed-loop sustainable ingredients to feed back into food products. Basically their model is to harvest waste streams from vegetable materials created by retailers selling ready-cut offerings. Fibers and other functional ingredients are extracted from the waste stream and we help the startup create recipes using these ingredients for private-label products for the retailer. The benefit is the retailer can make enhanced sustainability claims on such finished products as currently such waste streams are mainly incinerated creating carbon emissions.”