KANSAS CITY — Three primary investigative paths are open to food and beverage companies as they strive to improve the taste of plant-based protein products.
One, consider protein sources, like almonds, that already have favorable flavor characteristics. Two, learn how certain protein sources, including soy and pea, are grown and then processed into ingredients with flavor in mind. Three, add other flavors to “mask” undesirable, off-flavor notes associated with plant protein. Traditional flavors like chocolate, vanilla and fruit are options.
The market for plant-based protein keeps surging. U.S. retail sales of plant-based food stood at $3.4 billion in April 2017 and then increased 31% to reach $4.5 billion by April 2019, according to data from the Plant Based Foods Association and The Good Food Institute. London-based Technavio forecasts the global plant-based protein products market to have a compound annual growth rate of 9% from 2019-2023.
Avoiding taste issues like beany and grassy notes becomes a priority when formulating with plant-based proteins. A protein segment study by Archer Daniels Midland Co., Chicago, found more than half of consumers reported that taste is not ideal in plant-based food and beverages, and it is the No. 1 barrier to purchase, said Jacquelyn Schuh, product marketing director, alternative proteins for ADM Nutrition.
“This is because plant proteins may have flavor off-notes such as beany, earthy, ‘malty’ or sulfur-like flavors,” she said. “While specific formulations require flavor optimizations on a case-by-case basis, ADM’s vast portfolio allows us to leverage complementary ingredients to correct off-note flavors.”
Almond protein from Blue Diamond Almonds Global Ingredients Division, Sacramento, Calif., comes in an ultra-fine powder form and works in applications such as protein and nutrition bars, breakfast cereal, protein smoothies and shakes, and nutritional supplements, said Laura Gerhard, director of strategy and marketing.
“Almonds have a naturally subtle flavor that allows them to blend well with other ingredients,” she said. “Blue Diamond almond protein powder, specifically, has a clean flavor profile that needs no masking and makes it a standout choice for consumers and product developers alike. Additionally, while almonds are one of the firmer nut types, the powder produced from almonds is milled to the finest granulation, providing a smoother mouthfeel compared to other plant-based proteins.”
In protein blends, almond protein has been shown to dilute undesirable flavors like “earthy” notes in other forms of plant protein, she said.
“Additionally, blending different types of protein can help formulators create products for specific dietary segments and free-from categories,” Ms. Gerhard said. “As a dairy-free, soy-free, gluten-free and non-G.M.O. ingredient, Blue Diamond almond protein powder appeals to a broad range of dietary needs and allows for greater versatility in formulations.”
When choosing soy as a protein source, growing conditions, processing and storage conditions come into play.
“The soy protein flavor profile is one of the least challenging to formulate with when compared against other emerging plant protein ingredients at the same level of protein content,” said Dina Fernandez, global protein development manager for ADM Nutrition. “Beany, grassy and/or earthy off-notes can be minimized by sourcing high quality soybeans, conditioning appropriately, and ensuring appropriate processing and storage conditions. The food developer should pay special attention to avoid temperature abuse and choose the best flavor solutions to minimize beany flavors.”
Puris, Minneapolis, achieves a neutral taste with its pea protein ingredients. The company processes the pea protein without the use of hexane or other chemical solvents. The company also uses yellow pea seed varieties sourced through direct grower relationships and a vertically integrated supply chain.
Cargill, Minneapolis, last year invested $75 million in Puris that will help Puris produce pea protein ingredients at a 200,000-square-foot facility in Dawson, Minn. The facility will allow Puris to more than double its pea protein production.
Masking agents available
Added flavor attributes like sweet, spicy, nutty and toasted may give plant-based protein items a more pleasing taste.
Since the plant-based protein industry is in its infancy, flavor profiles are largely familiar: vanilla, chocolate, berry and tropical fruits, according to Virginia Dare, Brooklyn, N.Y. Combinations, like chocolate chili or dirty chai, are options, too.
Malt Products Corp., Saddle Brook, N.J., offers flavor options in oat extracts and malt extracts. The company uses technology to deliver nutty and lightly toasted notes to OatRite, an oat extract that has been shown to improve flavor in plant-based protein applications like liquid beverages, meat alternatives and yogurt alternatives, said Amy Targan, president of Malt Products Corp.
Malt extracts offer sweet and “malty” flavors with light caramel and nutty/toasted notes, she said. MaltRite helps mask and improve flavors of plant-based products, including those associated with beany/bitter notes.
“Malt and oat are flavors that have positive, nostalgic and healthy associations with consumers,” Ms. Targan said.
Some categories, including dairy alternatives, bring specific taste issues.
“We grow up utilizing dairy products in a variety of ways: chocolate milk, strawberry milk, vanilla ice cream, etc.,” said Michael Levine, director of strategic product development – flavors for Glanbia Nutritionals and based in Chicago. “When you try to replace those types of products with plant-based products, there is a level of unfamiliarity there that can be challenging. The taste expectations are oftentimes too high for what the plant product can deliver in conjunction with the traditional flavors that we are used to.”
Ready-to-drink beverages containing plant protein bring challenging flavor profiles as do prepared foods, he said, and processing methods may contribute to off-notes.
“With most food and beverage applications there is an extra processing step involving heat, which can bring out the off-notes even more,” Mr. Levine said.
Glanbia Nutritionals has designed a line of masking agents/flavors, each designed for specific flavor challenges. One masking agent works with a multitude of plant-based ingredients.
“Others within our masking platform are best applied for either sweet or savory applications,” he said. “Others are application specific while some of our maskers manage for additionally added ingredients such as bio-actives and specific vitamins.”
Choosing the right flavor profile for the specific application is key, Ms. Fernandez of ADM Nutrition said.
“Strong flavored and highly spiced applications have fewer challenges than applications with very clean flavor profiles,” she said. “Chocolate, berry and tropical flavors have been successful for some applications, and vanilla profiles have worked well in low- to medium-protein solutions.”
Some applications require more clean flavor protein ingredients than others, Ms. Fernandez said.
“Beverages, dairy, dairy alternatives and meat alternatives are particularly suited for proteins with minimum impact on flavor,” she said. “Vanilla beverages, for example, are more susceptible to highlight plant protein off-notes than chocolate drinks. On the other hand, meat alternatives that entirely rely on plant protein for structure usually have higher inclusion rates.
“Products with higher protein inclusion rates are more susceptible to show the flavor notes coming from plant proteins. Every protein ingredient is different, and most plant protein innovation is driven by soy protein, followed by pea protein.”