The increasing popularity of, and consumer demand for, plant-based foods has created a whole new set of challenges for product developers. Whether creating plant-based foods that eat like their animal protein counterparts or developing great tasting standalone plant-based products, the obstacles can be significant.
Formulating with plant proteins requires a juggling act when it comes to balancing the functionality, sensory impact, nutrition profile, regulatory status and cost impact of the various ingredients. Two main challenges unique to plant proteins include perfecting functional and sensory attributes.
Animal and plant proteins are very different in their structure and functionality. While animal proteins are fibrillar and fibrous and play primarily a structural role, plant proteins are less organized and are globular and play more of a functional role. This results in differences in analytical measures such as oil- and water-holding capacity, emulsion capacity/stability, and foaming capacity/stability along with corresponding functional differences in gelation, emulsification, water/fat retention, matrix formation, viscosity, etc.
Protein content and quality also differ significantly between animal and plant proteins. Animal-sourced proteins are complete—containing an adequate proportion of each of the nine essential amino acids. Plant-sourced proteins—with the exception of soy—typically are not complete proteins and must therefore be strategically blended with other complimentary proteins to achieve the desired amino acid composition.
In addition to structural differences, plant proteins each have their own unique flavor volatiles that often require masking or manipulation. These volatiles can include earthy, grassy, beany, “green,” hay, cardboard and “dirty,” just to name a few. Texturally, plant proteins can differ significantly, with some being dry and chalky, and others being described as gritty or sandy.
In terms of adding flavors to plant proteins, one faces not only the challenges of masking the undesirable flavors mentioned above, but also is challenged with the flavor “dampening” (binding) effect that plant proteins have. Plant proteins will require bolder and more impactful flavors (and possibly a higher usage rate for seasonings and flavors) to compensate for this dampening effect.
While the increasing popularity of food products made with plant proteins does present some new and unique challenges to the product developer, there are flavors, functional raw materials and processing methods that are available to successfully work through these challenges. Given the rapidly increasing consumer demand for new plant-based food products, flavor and functional ingredient suppliers are responding, and are constantly developing new solutions for food and beverage manufacturers.
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