Everything is better with bacon. Even plant-based-centric consumers appreciate the smoky, crispy, fatty sensory experience of a fried slice or two of the vegan alternatives designed to mimic the piggy product.

“Love of bacon is expanding into new frontiers with all sorts of variations, as well as unique meats coming into play, such as lamb, duck and boar,” said Shannon Coco, strategic marketing director, Kerry, Beloit, Wis. “Consumers are also looking for products with natural claims, no artificial ingredients or added preservatives, free from/low claims, and more often now, with ethical sourcing, authenticity and transparency.”

Retail bacon sales were almost $6.5 billion for the 52-week period ended July 31, 2022, according to IRI, Chicago, having a 22.5% share of all processed meat dollar sales. This represents a slight decrease from its 23% share a year ago but remains higher than its 21.8% pre-pandemic market share. Innovation keeps shoppers interested in the category, making bacon much more than an accompaniment to eggs at breakfast.

“We see several trends impacting the bacon category, including ready-to-eat convenience and snacking, keto formulations with no added sugars, and a strong interest in candied bacon for that added indulgence,” said Michelle Tittl, product development manager with Seattle-based Culinex. “Think blueberry candied bacon or a dill pickle bacon snack.”

Going clean label

When it comes to bacon, the biggest clean-label trend is in curing ingredient selection. A September 2022 proprietary survey from Corbion, Lenexa, Kan., showed that nitrates and nitrites are one of the least desired ingredients on the label.

“Typically bacon is produced using sodium nitrite (cure) and sodium erythorbate or sodium ascorbate (cure accelerator),” said Coco. “Both serve specific functions in bacon. Sodium nitrite is used to produce the expected color, flavor and shelf life. Sodium erythorbate or sodium ascorbate aids in increasing nitric oxide formation, which improves color development, color stability and greatly reduces the formation of nitrosamines in the finished product.”

These synthetic ingredients are being replaced by natural plant-based ingredients that provide similar functions. Sodium nitrite, for example, may be replaced with a celery-based ingredient or another vegetable source, where the naturally occurring nitrate is converted to nitrite via fermentation.

“The use of celery or other ingredients, like beet powder or parsley, among others, which have high naturally occurring nitrates and nitrites, are a key to delivering a claim of ‘no nitrates or nitrites added,’” said Tittl. “Uncured bacon can also be created when internal salt brine concentration is 10% or more. This would be a very salty finished product that often is blanched or soaked before cooking to remove salt from the meat. The cured color from sodium nitrite would not be present in salt-preserved bacon.”

Coco added, “Sodium erythorbate or sodium ascorbate are not allowed to be used if sodium nitrite is not used. For natural claims, they are commonly replaced with acerola cherry powder, a source of naturally occurring ascorbic acid. Ascorbic acid functions in a similar way, accelerating nitric oxide formation and stabilizing the pink color of bacon.”

Processing parameters may be adjusted to achieve good color without the use of acerola cherry powder. Common adjustments include a longer curing hold time to allow for more nitric oxide conversion before cooking.

Love at first taste

Datassential, Chicago, reports that 82% of consumers like or love bacon. Classic smoke and barbecue-type flavors dominate, especially applewood, hickory, peppered, hardwood smoke, mesquite and cherrywood, according to Nielsen, New York. A touch of sweet flavor, in the form of brown sugar, honey and maple, is gaining traction, with ultimate sweet and savory combinations emerging from the candied bacon sector.

“Combination flavors are expanding bacon and bacon analog development,” said Jonathan Kahn, chief executive officer of AgriFiber, Mundelein, Ill. “We are seeing expansion with fruits, such as apple combined with spices and multiple types of smoke flavors. Peppers or chili powder laced with mango or dark berries round out several new flavor concepts.”

Ron Ratz, senior vice president of Wixon, St. Francis, Wis., added, “We’re also seeing innovation bringing heat to this category in terms of unique designer chili peppers, from jalapeño and chipotle to newer peppers, such as ancho chili and poblano. As true with most food categories, the intensity of heat is increasing in bacon product innovation.”

Wixon developed an encapsulated maple flavor specific for bacon. It was created to help sustain the flavor and aroma of maple through thermal processing and through the sizzle, according to Ratz.

Molly Shea, customer marketing for culinary-North America, Nourish, IFF, Union Beach, NJ, agreed that the bacon market is ripe for flavor innovation. Some recently developed concepts include apple cinnamon, blackberry pepper, jalapeno honey, mango chili, orange peppercorn and peach brandy.

“Consumers want nature-inspired, celebratory and permissible indulgence,” said Shea. “By moving away from the staple flavors present in the market you can enhance any bacon product to the next level.”

There are multiple approaches to adding flavors to bacon. Some flavors will include visual pieces, others will be strictly aromatic.

“The desired final product flavor, appearance and processing capabilities help determine when and how flavors, seasonings or condensed natural smoke are added to the bellies,” said Coco. “Flavors such as maple or honey are usually added by injection to allow for more consistent flavor delivery throughout the slice. Condensed natural smoke can be added internally via injection, topically via drench prior to the initiation of thermal processing, or during thermal processing by way of atomization.

“Topical seasonings, such as pepper, can be applied to the surface of the belly before cooking and is more of an artisan approach to making bacon, as it requires more labor to add these seasonings,” said Coco. “In some cases, the topical seasonings are added post thermal processing in the package.”

Amr Shaheed, technical service manager-food applications with Innophos, Cranbury, NJ, said, “If the flavors or seasonings are insoluble, there may be issues. By adding phosphate solutions that can impact the water-holding capacity of the meat, we are able to positively affect the solubility of the bacon and allow it to retain flavor and seasonings.”

Blackberry, maple syrup, and peppersTaking bacon products to the next level means new flavors beyond the current market staples. (Source: Jiri Hera, Valente, Gresei - stock.adobe.com)


Faking bacon

Plant-based bacon production resembles the technology used to make turkey bacon, where protein and fat get formed into a loaf-type product that may be cured, smoked and seasoned much like pork belly. It is then sliced and packaged for market. Instead of chopped turkey, the plant protein of choice is used, along with a highly saturated plant-based fat.

“A very straightforward functional format might consist of vital wheat gluten to foster texture, and nutritional yeast for flavor, mouthfeel and browning,” said Ratz. “Continue by adding salt, brown sugar, maple syrup, liquid smoke, canola oil and smoked paprika for both color and flavor.”

Andrea Weis, scientist with AAK, Arlington Heights, Ill., said, “In traditional bacon, fat comprises an average of 40% of the finished product weight. Achieving a similarly high fat content in plant-based meat is difficult due to the hydration requirements and oil-binding capacities of plant proteins and stabilizers. A lower total fat content can result in sub-par flavor delivery and decreased overall flavor perception. Therefore, it’s critical that the plant-based fat system optimize flavor release and delivery, even when used at lower levels than found in the traditional meat.”

AAK has two plant-based pork lard alternatives. They were developed to optimize flavor delivery, as well as meet nutritional requirements and other sensory attributes. They were developed to closely match the functional properties of traditional animal fat, including melt and sizzle.

“Sizzling is a reaction that occurs when oil and moisture are combined in the presence of heat,” said Weis. “The oil component is either naturally present in a food product, melting out or releasing during cooking, or is added directly onto the cooking surface. As a food cooks on the hot surface, the moisture that’s present in the food comes into contact with hot oil, causing the moisture to instantly transform into steam. The sizzle is the result of water vaporizing within the hot oil, creating both a sizzling sound and an oily sputter.”

Binding systems that hold all of the ingredients together are paramount. They must also bind moisture and keep fat in its place until it’s time to sizzle.

“The texture must hold over time and not continue to dry out,” said Kahn. “A smooth texture along with use of fiber ingredients that can emulsify will help create improved mouthfeel along with improved shelf life. The overall nutrition profile can be enhanced by the use of fiber combined with lower fat content.”

Helge Nielsen, principal designer with Nourish, IFF, said, “IFF has two new patent-pending versatile binding solutions for meat alternatives, such as plant-based bacon. They are designed to gel vegetable oils/fats, as well as vegetable proteins at both high and low temperatures. This allows food manufacturers to make all kinds of plant-based products look and taste just like meat products. With our binding solutions, plant-based bacon can be made in existing meat plant setups.”

This summer, Hooray Foods, San Francisco, rolled out an improved version of its namesake plant-based bacon. Using proprietary emulsion-foaming technology, each strip now features a variety of crispy and chewy bits. New natural flavors further the fatty and meaty flavor. Compared to pork bacon, the product provides a better nutritional value at 40 calories per strip, which is 65% fewer calories, 75% less fat and 40% less sodium, while still being allergy friendly.

“Since our debut in late 2020, we’ve been focused on reaching meat eaters and flexitarians because they are a key demographic in driving our mission of creating a healthier planet going forward,” said Sri Artham, CEO and founder. “Taste has always been the greatest barrier to people trying plant-based meats, so from the moment our original bacon hit stores, we knew there was more work to be done.”

Patrick Dziura, food scientist at Hooray Foods, added, “We’ve spent more than a year and a half testing a variety of ingredients to improve our texture, researching flavors to create a rounder flavor profile and conducting a comprehensive color analysis to elevate the appearance of the product. The end result is a winning combination that delivers the full sensory experience of cooking and eating bacon.”

When it comes to adding flavors and seasonings to plant-based bacon, it is best to add them to the mix. This will ensure even distribution and prevent loss in the cook step.

“First you want to mask off notes often associated with vegetable proteins,” said Chance Hilbelink, food scientist-protein division with Wixon. “The plant proteins are hydrated with water that contains the masking system. Flavors and colors are then added to the hydrated vegetable protein.”

Flavors must be designed to withstand processing and cooking temperatures. The entire sensory experience must be considered. This includes flavor, aroma and mouthfeel.

“We offer solutions that improve the water-holding capacity of the product, which helps to improve the texture of the product and retain flavor,” said Shaheed.

Bacon analog bits and pieces have been around for a long time as an economical flavorful topper. Visually they are much easier to produce than a strip or slice trying to sizzle like the real deal.

“We start with a plant-based formulation that uses a neutral or savory protein source,” said Kahn. “Our fiber ingredients help hold the product together and make a smooth paste that is then heated into bacon bits.”

“Jerkified” bacon

All types of bacon may be “jerkified” into a snack food. Although it is named after traditional jerky, bacon jerky is not prepared the same way as other meats such as beef, poultry or venison.

“Traditional jerky is usually whole cuts of meat, which are marinated and dried,” said Ratz. “Bacon jerky is smoked and dehydrated.”

Jerky lends itself to a range of topically applied seasonings. Concepts from Wixon include black garlic truffle, honey sriracha, maple poblano and seven pepper.

“Consumers want to see more variety in plant-based meat alternatives,” said Shea. “Plant-based jerky could be offered with a more nutritious profile — no saturated fat, zero cholesterol, fewer calories, etc. — as a healthy on-the-go snacking option.”

Whatever your next bacon innovation, it is best to start the project with a set of formulation boundaries. This enables organoleptic optimization within the ingredient and process parameters.

“The key is aligning on the labeling claims before formulation begins,” said Tittl. “We often find a fresh start is needed instead of a tweak when removing critical ingredients from a formula.”