Posted: August 11, 2020 Author: Zak Otto, Senior R&D Manager
A Trend with Growth Potential
Before COVID-19, we saw increasing levels of development around plant-based alternatives and how to mimic the taste of real meat products. The pandemic has brought health to the forefront and manufacturers of meat alternatives have increased opportunity to target consumers looking for sustainable and plant-based substitutes. Once out of the pandemic, I expect meat alternative flavor innovation to ramp up further, as consumers continue to add plant-based protein into their diet and seek new flavor and format options.
It’s All About Texture
Truly outstanding meat alternatives start with a quality, meat-like base. Ground meats (taco, chorizo, etc.) are the easiest to mimic, as they are highly-colored, highly-flavored and high-sodium products. Products called “textured vegetable proteins” give the appearance of ground meat – whether it is a taco crumble or a ground meat patty. At Wixon, we work with many different stabilizers, gums and starches to ensure the product will remain intact through the cooking cycle and eat like a traditional ground meat product.
It is a significant challenge to get plant-based product to look and taste like whole muscle products (e.g., pork tenderloin, ribeye, chicken breast). Textured proteins are smaller pieces. To get whole muscle alternative products to hold together, it requires fat, lean, protein extraction, shear and time. This type of development is still in the works – with the goal of making something that cuts, looks and tastes like a NY strip steak. It will undoubtedly utilize flavor masking systems, along with flavor top notes associated with grilled meats. With the way technology is advancing, I anticipate manufacturable alternative whole muscle development is not that far in the future.
Fine-Tuning the Taste of Meat
The dominant taste profile in meat is umami. With the consumer preference for food products without MSG, developers need to have impactful alternatives in their arsenal to achieve meat-like umami. Wixon has multiple products that will impart this umami effect on plant-based proteins. We use different products depending on the different proteins and flavor profiles (sweet vs. savory) we are formulating with.
The biggest challenge in formulating plant-based products is masking off-notes that are inherent in alternative proteins. This requires a very careful balance of flavor masking technology, flavor impact and sodium contribution. Many times, we find flavor needs to be increased two to three times in meat alternatives to mask off-notes and get the desired taste. Obviously, ground meats, with elevated flavor loads, are significantly easier to flavor and mask off-notes.
The appetite for animal-based meat protein is still strong in the United States and across the world. My hope is the continued shift to plant-based alternatives will encourage meat companies to be more creative in their flavor profiles in order to “keep up with the Joneses” of flavor innovation. There is a growing opportunity for flavor innovation in this category, and we see many meat companies taking advantage of new products, and create more “flexitarian”-type products.
Wixon’s Meat Alternative Capabilities
Our heritage grew out of creating flavor systems for meat products. This decades-long experience guides our flavoring of plant-based products today. Wixon’s state-of-the-art pilot plant gives us the ability to function like a small operator, with the same batching, grinding, stuffing and cooking, we observe in the industry. Our pilot plant, 100+ years of aggregated R&D experience, and knowledge of spices, flavors and flavor modifiers allows us to accommodate the unique needs of our meat alternative customers.