In today’s enlightened world, consumers actively look for products that are good for them while also embracing the well-being of humans and animals as a whole.
Plant-based foods had a golden era in 2019 and 2020. As the industry tried to cater to growing demand for plant-based food, they targeted flexitarians who wanted to reduce meat consumption for ethical, animal welfare, environmental or health reasons—kicking off the race to make plant-based food that was indistinguishable from meat.1 Flexitarians would alternate between animal and animal-free products, and that’s where the challenges lay. They struggled with comparing the plant-based product to conventional meat or dairy, and most customers found that the plant-based products didn’t quite do justice to the thing being imitated—despite claims like "almost real." Then when the meat alternatives tended to cost more than meat and nondairy cheeses failed to provide the same nutritional value as conventional cheeses, customers tended to not be repeat buyers of the plant-based products.2,3
But technological advancements have allowed for incredible innovation in the plant-based product market. Whether genetically engineering compounds critical to animal protein or using precision fermentation to turn cells into protein-making machines, the industry has come a long way. Early on, some alternative meat companies could mimic "heme"-like compounds found in blood. Now some dairy alternative companies claim to have successfully created "casein"-like protein modeled after that in animal milk that gives stretch to cheese products. And now there are hybrid products—between meat and plant-based—that can give consumers the best of both worlds.
Product Development Challenges and Solutions
Flavor and texture play crucial roles when it comes to repeat sales. If developers claim that something is "chicken," consumers want to see the juicy muscles and taste the white meat. If they claim they created "cheese," buyers want to see it stretch and brown, and they want that cheesy mouthfeel.
Masking the Undesirable
One of the biggest challenges faced by companies producing plant-based products is off notes, some of which are inherent to plant proteins. Whether it’s bitterness, astringency, chalkiness or just generic beany and earthy protein taste, developers want to eliminate these and make the desirable flavor notes shine. Luckily, taste modulation tools like off-note maskers can create a neutral playing field that lets the desired flavors overpower the off-notes for a consumer-pleasing taste.
Making It Juicy and Mouthwatering
Turning a soybean into a meat fiber-like structure is quite a task. As plant proteins are made to look like "meat" through extensive processes like extrusion, the resulting product tends to be very dry. Dryness is one of the major problems faced by companies producing vegan products, so ingredient developers have devised modulation technologies to combat that issue and make these products more juicy, succulent and enticing.
1. Osaka, Shannon. (2023, January 19). The big problem with plant-based meat: The ‘meat’ part. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-solutions/2023/01/19/plant-based-meat-failing/2. Rebuilding Plant-Based Meat. (2023, February 1). Food Technology Magazine, Vol 77:1. https://www.ift.org/news-andpublications/food-technology-magazine/issues/2023/february/features/1-rebuilding-plant-based-meat3. Craig, W. J., Mangels, A. R., & Brothers, C. J. (2022). Nutritional Profiles of Non-Dairy Plant-Based Cheese Alternatives. Nutrients, 14(6), 1247. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu14061247