A high proportion of US shoppers value reducing animal-based foods in the diet over increasing consumption, though most make no specific effort, according to research from New Hope Network, Boulder, Colo. Older generations are much more active in restricting or reducing animal-based products, specifically red meat. Further, there’s a noteworthy decrease in older consumers viewing red meat as being central to the diet.
“Younger consumers are not as decisive in these behaviors,” said Arthi Padmanabhan, market research manager, New Hope Network, during the “Discover Meat & Meat Alternatives: Trends & Innovative Products” session at Natural Products Expo West Virtual on May 24. “They have much more similar rates to opting in and opting out of both (plant and animal) relative to older generations.”
She cites personal health as the driver among older consumers, who grew up with meat being center of plate. Down is the only direction for them to go in an increasingly plant-based world. For younger consumers, they have always had both options.
“Meat analogs have come a long way,” said Adrienne Smith, senior food business reporter at New Hope Network. “They have become so similar to the real thing in taste and texture that they are no longer being purchased and enjoyed only by those who have given up meat.”
Dan Curtin, president, Greenleaf Foods SPC, Chicago, owner of the Field Roast and Lightlife brands, said, “The plant-based category is on fire. People want cleaner, healthier, more delicious options. They also want to understand what they are eating and the impact it has on their environment.
“And it’s not only vegans who are driving the growth in this space,” Curtin said. “Our research shows that 93% of people coming into this category are flexitarians. We are seeing more and more people interested in a balanced diet that includes both animal protein products and plant-based protein products.”
The challenge – and the opportunity – is to focus on improving their nutritional value. High protein, low sodium and improved fat profiles are the new frontiers.
Claims to fame
Advancements in ingredient technology and processing are fueling meat-alternative innovation. Whereas early entries into the plant-based meat space may have disappointed meat-loving consumers, the next generation of products are doing a much better job of delivering on sensory expectations. They have also progressed into providing value-added propositions to better connect with today’s health-, wellness- and sustainability-conscious consumers.
Formulators are avoiding the long ingredient labels and oftentimes unappealing Nutrition Facts that some of the original plant-based meat manufacturers had been scrutinized for in recent years. Clean and simple is the future in this space. Marketers are using labels to call out how their products are different from the competition.
“Label claims are valuable real estate on the products,” said Scott Dicker, market data analyst, SPINS, Chicago.
The fastest-growing label claim in the plant-based meat space is “sprouted/pastured,” which is valued at $20 million, for the 52 weeks ended April 18, 2021, according to SPINS analysis of IRI data. This is an increase of 37% from the previous year. Non-GMO is the most popular label claim ($884 million, +28%), followed by vegan ($838 million, +26%), organic ingredients ($306 million, +18%) and allergen friendly ($7 million, +17%).
“While labeling allergen friendly is very small, we expect that to be a driver going forward as the category evolves,” Dicker said.
When it comes to allergies, a growing number of formulators are avoiding wheat ingredients in order to make such a claim, according to Dicker. A key “additive” ingredient trend, however, is including enough protein to have parity with animal versions. SPINS data show that high-protein (more than 10 grams per serving) products are growing at double the rate of products with less than 10 grams of protein per serving. Overall, there’s a lot of room for improvement in terms of nutritional value and product quality. Marketers are up to the challenge.
Recent product innovations
Greenleaf Foods, a Maple Leaf Foods subsidiary, used the pandemic as a time to reboot its Lightlife brand by removing all unnecessary ingredients in order to provide consumers some of the cleanest meat alternatives in the marketplace. Ingredients removed include carrageenan, maltodextrin and eggs.
“Reformulating an already-celebrated product using fewer ingredients – yet improving the quality and taste – is far more difficult than creating a brand-new item from scratch,” said Jitendra Sagili, chief research and development and food technology officer at Greenleaf Foods. “We’ve done a considerable amount of consumer testing that shows the taste, texture and nutrition all outperform previous versions of these Lightlife products.”
Greenleaf Foods also introduced a range of new products, including the Field Roast Signature Stadium Dog, which is the first pea protein-based hot dog in North America. It is double smoked using maple hardwood chips and a combination of steam and dry heat. The plant-based dogs offer the same amount of protein per serving as most traditional hot dogs without cholesterol or nitrates.
“This isn’t just another hot dog. A lot went into creating a truly unique product,” Curtin said. “Our dogs are smoked in a real smokehouse.”
Nestlé USA-owned Sweet Earth Foods, Moss Landing, Calif., now offers a vegan jumbo hot dog made using a pea and potato protein base. The brand also updated its burger by adding hemp and fava bean protein to its original pea protein base. The use of these proteins allows Sweet Earth to deliver a beefier texture and more authentic burger experience, all while now being non-GMO Project verified, according to Sara Wheeler, general manager.
At the beginning of the year, Field Roast Plant-Based Pepperoni rolled out to retail and foodservice pizza chains. Made with pea protein, the product offers the same protein per serving (6 grams) as traditional pork pepperoni. It also has characteristic fat marbling and delivers an authentic, bold pepperoni taste, crafted with fresh spices, including whole pieces of fennel, cracked black pepper, garlic and paprika.
There’s been a lot of activity in the plant-based chicken space, as ingredient suppliers and processors improve technologies to recreate the fibrous texture of real chicken. San Francisco-based Nowadays is rolling out namesake chicken-style nuggets, which are said to be crispy, juicy and packed with flavor, with no added sugar, thickeners, binders or artificial flavors, and comparable in size, taste and texture to animal-based chicken nuggets.
Sold frozen, the nuggets are made using non-GMO yellow pea protein grown sustainably by US farmers; whole wheat flour for the crunchy breading; sunflower oil for the fried, crispiness and golden color; plant-based fiber for texture; and extracts of both yeast and mushroom for that rich, meat-like umami flavor. One serving boasts 13 grams of protein with only 120 calories, no saturated fat, no sugar and only 140 milligrams of sodium. A gluten-free version will be available later in the year.
Daring Foods, Los Angeles, replicates the fibrous texture and succulent mouthfeel of whole muscle chicken by using high-moisture extrusion processing to transform five non-GMO ingredients – water, soy protein concentrate and sunflower oil, along with natural flavoring and spices – into Cajun, lemon herb and original pieces. The frozen line includes a seasoned breaded product that resembles a premium chicken tender.
Sweet Earth Foods is expanding its Mindful Chik’n Strips line with ready-to-eat seasoned offerings made with globally inspired marinades. One serving of the vegan products contains at least 13 grams of protein. The new flavors are carnitas, chipotle and Korean-style barbecue.
The Lightlife brand rolled out plant-based chicken tenders and chicken fillets. The refrigerated products are made using advanced high moisture extrusion technology to create a taste, color and pull-apart texture that mimics traditional white meat chicken. The three key ingredients of the non-GMO Project Verified, vegan certified products are coconut oil, wheat gluten and pea protein.
Heura, a popular Spanish plant-based meat brand, yet to be made available in the United States, developed a burger with 85% less saturated fat than beef. It uses an innovative fat analog that transforms extra virgin olive oil into a solid fat to provide the texture and bite of beef.
“When we visualize the fat from a burger or the coconut oil in the supermarket, they are solid,” said Lorena Salcedo, new product development manager. “This is because they both have high contents of saturated fat. We had to reproduce that with an oil that is liquid (monounsaturated) and minimize its use to reduce the amount of fat on the burger.”
There’s a new alternative fat technology known as EPG that reduces calories from fat by 92% for each unit of fat replaced. From Epogee LLC, Indianapolis, it is made from GMO-free rapeseed oil. The technology involves splitting the triglyceride into its components – the glycerol backbone and three fatty acids – and inserting a food-grade propoxyl link, which resists digestive enzyme action, to reconnect the glycerol and fatty acids. It is currently labeled as: EPG (modified plant-based oil).
“From a functional and quality perspective, EPG performs just like any other traditional solid fat, because it is made from fat,” said Tom Burrows, chief executive officer and president.
A plant-based patty that typically is 16% fat can have total calories cut in half when 78% of the fat is replaced with EPG, yielding a patty with 3.5% fat. Like other neutral plant-based fats, EPG takes on the flavor of the product. It is environmentally safe, as it decomposes like other fats and oils.
Brands have started going beyond the burger with ground items, making it easier for home cooks to use in their favorite recipes. Many come seasoned for international dishes.
Before the Butcher, San Diego, for example, offers Italian, taco, chorizo and original “beef” grounds. The newest product is Breakfast Grounds and is seasoned to resemble pork sausage. The soy-based products include coconut and canola oils.
Speaking of breakfast, Alpha Foods, Glendale, Calif., saw a void in plant-based offerings for the morning daypart and is in the process of rolling out five heat-and-eat frozen breakfast sandwiches and burritos made with savory meatless protein, dairy-free cheese, plant-based eggs and taste bud-awakening spices.
Spices, along with umami flavor, are critical ingredients in plant-based meats. There are seasonings to mask the earthy taste of soy and the green, slight bitterness of pea protein. There are also seasonings to add a fatty taste and others that mimic a salt cure. It’s also not a one-size-fits-all situation. The seasonings vary by protein being mimicked, as well as overall composition.
“Creating the perception of meat-like products from plant proteins offers food innovators several flavor development challenges,” said Ron Spaziani, chef and culinary research and development manager, Nu Product Seasoning Company, Oakland, NJ. “If an innovator is trying to create a plant-based beef burger, they may want to use mushrooms and/or walnuts to help recreate that meaty bite along with a variety of hydrolyzed vegetable proteins, yeast extracts and flavors that support a ‘beef patty’ profile and eating experience.”
A new non-GMO enzyme from Amano Enzyme USA Co., Elgin, Ill., was designed to deliver umami flavor to plant protein products. It provides a similar taste as monosodium glutamate, as well as the sensation of richness and complexity from kokumi.
“Umamizyme Pulse is an animal-free enzyme formulation optimized to produce high glutamic acid and cysteine levels; and less bitter flavor in proteins, including pea, soy, almond and rice,” said Keita Okuda, technical services team lead. “It is comparable, or better than, traditional ingredients for producing a rich, savory flavor in proteins, providing customers with a vegan-friendly, clean label product.”
This exo-type protease enzyme is considered a processing aid, as it is deactivated once it breaks down proteins into flavorful short peptides and amino acids. As a processing aid, it typically does not need to be included in the ingredient statement. Further, use may eliminate the need for other flavorful compounds and seasonings. This allows for a shorter ingredient statement.