Plant-based foods in the spotlight: unveiling how the new generation of plant-based foods is made
The new generation of plant-based foods is vast and quite realistic. Have you ever wondered how is it possible to mimic eggs or meat without using any ingredients from animals? Let’s uncover how the food industry is making this possible.
Plant-based foods are alternatives to animal-based foods such as meat, fish, eggs, and dairy products (e.g. milk, yogurt, and cheese). These products are often made from cereals/pseudocereals (e.g. wheat, barley, rice, oats, and quinoa), legumes (e.g. beans, peas, soybeans, faba beans, and lentils), and seeds/nuts (e.g. hemp seeds, rapeseed, and peanuts). Plant-based foods are not that new since traditional products like tofu (from soybeans) and seitan (from gluten) have been part of the Asian diet for centuries. These traditional products are made from whole grains or less processed ingredients but do not resemble the taste or appearance of animal-based foods.
In the past, only vegetarians and vegans used to consume traditional plant-based foods. But, today this has changed. More consumers are also willing to adopt a plant-based diet due to environmental, health, and animal welfare reasons. Currently, it is estimated that approximately 34% of the total global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions come from the production of food, contributing to climate change. In the food system, the production of livestock leads to more GHG emissions, land and water use, and deforestation than cultivating crops for direct consumption.
The consumer’s willingness to eat more plant-based foods has been a driving force for the food industry to change towards plant-based options. This has motivated the search for more sustainable food solutions, such as using ingredients from plants and processes that are less harsh to the environment. Yet, pleasing consumers who still eat animal-based foods is not an easy task because they want alternatives that are similar in taste and appearance to the animal ones. Achieving this is quite challenging since plant and animal ingredients have different characteristics, properties, and nutritional compositions. This challenge has pushed food scientists and manufacturers to innovate and develop new plant-based products and, thus, to improve existing technologies or create new ones. These products are known as the new generation of plant-based foods aiming to mimic the taste, texture, and sensation of eating animal-based products. A few examples of these products are burgers, sausages, chicken strips, bacon, minced meat, eggs, cheese, and, yogurt.
The selection of ingredients and food processes to make the new generation of plant-based foods will vary according to desired characteristics like texture, flavor, and nutritional composition.
Generally, there are three major steps needed to turn crops into plant-based foods:
The first step is to select the crops and how to process them into valuable ingredients. This means using a crop as a whole or processing it to separate undesired components. For instance, to develop a product rich in proteins, legumes are often preferred due to their high protein content. For this reason, there are methods to extract the proteins from the legumes, thus removing/reducing other components. The outcome is a range of protein-rich ingredients: protein flour (< 60%), concentrate (60-80%), or isolate (>88%). The protein content will vary according to the extraction method. The selection of crops is often based on functionality, cost, availability, and sustainability.
For functionality and sensorial purposes other ingredients are used to compose a final food product. In this case, additives are also used to improve texture, taste, aroma, appearance, safety, and shelf life. These additives are extracted from plants or synthesized. But, the current trend is to use more natural ingredients to meet consumers’ demands. A few examples of other ingredients used in plant-based foods are:
• Fat and oils: used to enhance flavor or texture. Examples of fats and oils used are sunflower, canola, corn, and soy oil.
• Biding agents and thickeners: it binds to water and fat and is important for the texture of the product, such as plant proteins, gums, or fibers.
• Flavors and taste enhancers: used to mimic the aroma and taste of animal-based foods. Also used to mask undesirable tastes present in plant-derived ingredients. It can be natural additives like herbs and seasoning and yeast extracts.
• Color agents: in products like meat color is an important attribute for consumers. One example of a natural additive used to mimic the reddish color of meat is beetroot extract. Another example is the use of curcumin or carotenoids to mimic the yellowish color of eggs.
• Micronutrients (vitamins and minerals): vitamins and minerals are often added to improve the nutritional composition of plant-based foods. For instance, calcium and vitamin D are added to plant-based milk to simulate the nutritional composition of cows’ milk.
After the selection of ingredients, the next step is to choose the food processes needed to get to the desired sensorial properties and quality.
Usually, the food industry applies mechanical forces and/or thermal treatments to make plant-based foods. Here are a few examples of processes used:
• Homogenization: used to mix immiscible liquids like oil and water into an emulsion or to improve the stability and mouthfeel of the product. It is usually applied to make plant-based milk.
• Filtration: uses membranes to separate and concentrate particles based on their dimensions. Can be used to reduce undesirable components, such as antinutrients, or to concentrate plant-based milk for the production of yogurt.
• Extrusion: the most common process applied to make structures like in meat products. Is a process that involves mixing, heating, and structuring plant proteins to turn them into fibrous structures. Extrusion can also improve the nutritional quality of plant protein-rich products.
• Shear-cell: is a batch process that applies high temperatures and mechanical forces, like extrusion, resulting in fibrous structures. Shear-cell helps create meat analogues like whole cuts.
• 3D printing: is a process that makes structures and shapes based on a template by assembling layer upon layer of material at a specific location.
• Fermentation: a process that changes the properties of the food by the activity of microorganisms (i.e, yeast, bacteria, fungi). Fermentation can create new flavors or remove undesirable ones, and reduce antinutrients. By this, it is possible to improve the sensorial and nutritional quality of the food. This process is used to make yogurt and cheese alternatives.
By matching the right combination of ingredients and processes, is possible to turn plant-derived ingredients into more attractive and sustainable foods. Despite all the progress, the taste and health attributes of plant-based foods are still debatable. Thus, is indisputable that the large variety of products available in the market is helping consumers transition towards a more plant-based diet.
- GFI, T. G. F. I. (n.d.). Global Food System Transition is Necessary to Keep Warming Below 1.5°C.
- Grossmann, L., & McClements, D. J. (2021). The science of plant-based foods: Approaches to create nutritious and sustainable plant-based cheese analogs. Trends in Food Science & Technology, 118, 207–229. https://doi.org/10.1016/J.TIFS.2021.10.004.
- Kyriakopoulou, K., Dekkers, B., & van der Goot, A. J. (2018). Plant-Based meat analogues. In C. Galanakis (Ed.), Sustainable Meat Production and Processing (1st ed., pp. 103–126). Academic Press. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-814874-7.00006-7
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