KANSAS CITY — The plant-based meat alternative category gushes with sales. Demand for products perceived as clean label remains a steady and strong stream.

For the two trends to converge, food companies may seek to eliminate certain chemical-sounding ingredients like methylcellulose and whittle down the ingredient list by finding ways to avoid using flavor-maskers and flavor-enhancers.

“Plant-based products still enjoy a halo, regardless of what’s on the ingredient statement,” said Melissa Machen, senior technical services manager for Minneapolis-based Cargill. “Long ingredients lists and unfamiliar ingredients have not stopped the meat alternative space from posting phenomenal category growth. That said, the industry isn’t standing still. Many customers would like to reduce the number of ingredients in their formulas and replace less-familiar ingredients with options that consumers will recognize.”

Data show clean label potential in plant-based meat alternatives. Allied Market Research, Portland, Ore., forecasts the global meat substitute industry to achieve a compound annual growth rate of 7.2%, increasing to $8.82 billion in sales in 2027 from $4.51 billion in 2019. Research from FMCG Gurus, a market research company based in St. Albans, United Kingdom, showed 83% of flexitarians said it’s important meat substitutes are 100% natural.

Sixty-nine percent of consumers said simple, recognizable ingredients influence their purchasing decisions, and 66% said they are looking for labels with the shortest ingredient list, according to ADM’s Outside Voice research.

“This demonstrates how attentive consumers are to the ingredients used in plant-based offerings as they look for reassurance that what’s listed on product labels is real and authentic,” said Ross Wyatt, manager, product development and applications for Chicago-based ADM. “It also underscores the importance for product developers to use as few ingredients as possible that are also recognizable in plant-based meat alternatives to entice and appeal to flexitarians.”

Ingredients to omit

Ingredients that may not be considered consumer-friendly include methylcellulose, sodium acid pyrophosphate, potassium chloride, modified food starch, xanthan gum and modified cellulose, said Brock Lundberg, PhD, president of applications and R&D for Fiberstar, Inc., River Falls, Wis.

“However, the one ingredient that many meat alternative companies are trying to replace is methylcellulose,” he said.

No one-to-one ingredient replacement exists for methylcellulose because of its unique functionalities, but Fiberstar offers a Citri-Fi citrus fiber system, which uses a process free from chemical modifications, Dr. Lundberg said.

“The Citri-Fi portfolio includes the 100 series, which provides water-holding and emulsification properties,” Dr. Lundberg said. “This creates juicy and succulent meat substitutes. Moreover, there is the Citri-Fi TX line, which is a texturizing citrus fiber. The coarse granules provide cold binding in addition to meat-like texture and bite. These citrus fiber products can be used with other ingredients, including native starches, functional proteins and enzymes to create clean label meat alternative products.”

"A huge hurdle plant-based meat producers face when going up against the animal meat industry is moving from frozen, where shelf life is easier to achieve, to refrigerated, where finding a decent shelf life is far more challenging." 
— Natasha Dhayagude, Chinova Bioworks

Consumers are not familiar with methylcellulose and do not understand its function in meat alternative formulations, Ms. Machen said.

“Methylcellulose has unique properties that allow for a firm, heated texture and soft, uncooked texture, just as you would experience with a meat or poultry product,” she said. “Cargill and many other ingredient suppliers are working to find viable alternatives to this highly functional ingredient, but it is a difficult task. Replacing methylcellulose will almost certainly require a blend of different ingredients to replicate its functional properties.”

Ready-to-cook products like a raw burger patty will present more challenges than thermally processed options where processors have more control over cook temperatures for better ingredient gelling, Ms. Machen said.

“Despite the obstacles, we are making progress,” she said. “We continue to experiment with combinations of modified starches, fibers, hydrocolloids and high-gelling plant protein powders to create systems that form firm gels when hot, but soften when cooler.”

An ingredient potentially perceived as more natural is offered by Chinova Bioworks, Fredericton, NB. Chiber may be called “mushroom extract” or “white button mushroom extract” on the ingredient list, said Natasha Dhayagude, chief executive officer of Chinova Bioworks. It has been shown to replace artificial preservatives like sodium benzoate and potassium sorbate, according to the company. Chiber provides broad spectrum protection against bacteria, yeast and mold, and it has no sensory impact on final products, according to the company.

“This is an attractive label positioning for brands to use as it is transparent and easy to understand for consumers compared to artificial preservatives that are not label friendly, hard to pronounce and complicated,” Ms. Dhayagude said.

Chinova Bioworks has tested Chiber in a variety of meat alternatives ranging from sausages to burger patties to chicken alternatives.

“A huge hurdle plant-based meat producers face when going up against the animal meat industry is moving from frozen, where shelf life is easier to achieve, to refrigerated, where finding a decent shelf life is far more challenging,” she said. “Chiber is an effective solution that works to extend the shelf life of refrigerated plant-based meats while also improving quality and freshness.”

Other possible applications for Chiber include dairy products, plant-based dairy alternatives, sauces, spreads and dips, and beverages. Chinova Bioworks plans to expand into baked foods as well.

Improving plant protein taste

The quality and characteristics of the plant protein source affect how much formulators will need to rely on flavor maskers, texturants or mouthfeel enhancers.

“Creating plant-based meat alternatives is much like putting together a puzzle, and targeting appealing consumer attributes like clean labels with short and recognizable ingredients is an important piece,” Mr. Wyatt of ADM said. “To ensure we’re mitigating formulation challenges and long ingredient lists, we first start with high-quality, neutral-tasting plant proteins. By leveraging these sources, we are able to avoid the off-notes that can be created when working with plant proteins.”

A trained sensory panel has evaluated ADM’s pea protein powder for aromatic and other flavor off-notes, including undesirable grassy and earthy, bitter, and sulfuric off-notes.

“Moreover, our beans and pulses are high-quality, and we use a unique processing technique that maintains the integrity of the clean bean flavor to prevent off-notes,” Mr. Wyatt said.

Cargill offers Puris pea protein with a clean flavor profile, Ms. Machen said.

“We’ve worked with customers who were adding so much flavor masker to overcome plant protein flavor shortcomings, they were using twice as much seasoning as they’d use in a similar meat product, along with high rates of flavor enhancers,” she said. “Using a higher-quality plant protein allows developers to balance out those flavor systems, resulting in a much better-tasting end product.”

Scott Cowger, vice president and national sales manager for Cereal Ingredients, Inc., Leavenworth, Kan., said he has noticed the improved taste of plant protein sources. CII sources plant protein isolates and concentrates to create its texturized vegetable protein ingredient.

“We have done some experimentation with flavor masking, but for the most part most of our suppliers have done a pretty good job through the concentration or the isolation process of eliminating a lot of the extra aftertaste or leftover flavor profiles,” he said. “It’s getting a whole lot better, and I think a lot of it has to do with just time and experimentation. Ideally what we want to provide is some type of extruded texturized product that has no flavor and just let our customers flavor (their products) accordingly so they don’t have to spend a lot of time trying to cover up the flavor.”

Plant-based burger made with functional native starchesSome extraction agents used to create pea isolates are high in sodium, thus elevated sodium levels in the final product, Mr. Cowger said.

“We’re working with a supplier on the different extraction processes to lower the sodium content in the pea isolate,” he said. “Hence, make it a cleaner label.”

Color selection may assist in clean label formulation as well, said Marty Gil, key account manager for GNT USA, Tarrytown, NY.

“Selecting natural colors that are bright and vibrant is one way to potentially reduce the number of ingredients in a plant-based meat alternative because a dynamic shade will hold its own and eliminate the need for additional ingredients to boost color and entice the consumer,” he said.

Non-GMO ingredients that are familiar to consumers such as vegetables, fruits and other edible plants may replace ingredients that might not be perceived as clean label.

Dr. Lundberg pointed to ingredients that provide multiple functionalities, including water-holding, emulsification, texturizing and cold-binding.

“There are plant-based functional fibers such as Citri-Fi citrus fiber that can provide most of these functionalities,” he said. “Fiberstar, Inc. has optimized solution sets using citrus fiber to keep ingredient labeling clean and short while minimizing any off flavors from additional ingredients.”

Vitessence Tex crumbles from Ingredion, Inc., Westchester, Ill., add chewy texture while increasing the protein content of plant-based meat alternatives, said Karen E. Constanza, marketing manager, meat and meat alternatives for Ingredion. The company’s Novation functional native starches provide texture and stability in meat alternatives.

“Additionally, our meat alternative experts have developed food system solutions that provide a range of functionality based on ingredient synergies such as gelation, binding, water-holding and freeze/thaw stability,” Ms. Constanza said.