6th June 2023 Content supplied by: MJ Kinney, FareScience LLC
Emerging R&D Priorities for Product Developers of Plant-Based Meat
MJ Kinney, Founder and Principle Consultant at FareScience has a wealth of experience in helping new product development teams bring plant-based meat products to market. Here, she shares some insights on what makes a plant-based product truly innovative, including insights on nutritional composition, ingredients, and approaches to reduce risk before launch.
The decisions surrounding which products are created, how they're defined, and which exist on grocery store shelves is a fairly siloed system with surprisingly less involvement by scientists than it is the combination of C-suite, marketing professionals, and buyers.
Innovation has become an all-encompassing term used to describe nearly anything that is considered a new company offering — whereby 'new' can mean previously offered but reformulated, that it hasn't previously been available for sale by that particular company, or merely serves as an interchangeable term for R&D. In the world of food and beverage, it seems a rare occasion for innovation to mean not only new, but novel, and further, to be worthy of the perceptions that go hand-in-hand with innovation — such as 'breakthrough' or 'discovery.'
The popularity of plant-based products, namely those replacing center-of-plate and traditional, animal-derived protein sources, has led to numerous rapidly-created consumer packaged goods. While some of these brands aim to address concerns around environmental impact, animal welfare, and nutrition, many seem to fall short of at least the universal rule in product adoption: taste. Therefore, it should not come as a surprise that our lofty goals have met the reality we now find ourselves: where outlooks on plant-based meat's growth lean overly optimistic — sales have stagnated, manufacturing facilities have abruptly shut down, significant staffing cuts have happened, and many companies in the plant-based meat space are actively in a state of wide-scale reorganization.
Plant-based meats are at an inflection point. As a food scientist and product developer, I'm optimistic about future creations in this space, but I believe it requires an innovation life cycle that works more closely with how scientists are thinking about and approaching the concept of alternative meat. To reframe the obstacle: If plant-based meat is aimed at the flexitarian consumer (as opposed to vegetarian or vegan), and the most significant driver for repeat purchase is taste, why aren't we being more intentional about our comparison with the animal origin?
Below I've identified what I believe to be priority considerations and potential guardrails as a part of the product development process for plant-based meat. These areas lean on a logical, scientific approach that values a holistic understanding of what meat is and why people consume it.
1. Key Nutrients: Protein and Micronutrients
Animal-derived protein sources, specifically cuts of whole muscle, are a composition of mostly protein followed by fat, water, and various vitamins and minerals. When mimicking protein content, this is on several levels: content (how many grams per serving?), quality (PDCAAS by way of calculation or chemical analysis), and percent daily value (how many grams of complete protein per serving, divided by the 50-gram daily value for adults).
If developing a chicken breast utilizing alternative, non-animal protein sources, the guardrails for product developers aiming for nutritional mimicry would begin with these calculations:
Protein: 32.1g (rounds to 32g)
% DV: ((32g x 1.0) / 50g = 0.64 → 64%)
Protein: 27.2g (rounds to 27g)
% DV: ((27g x 1.0) / 50g = 0.54 → 54%)
Protein: 32.1g (rounds to 32g)
% DV: ((32 x 0.95)g / 50g) = 0.61 → 61%)
Protein: 27.2g (rounds to 27g)
% DV: ((27 x 0.95)g / 50g) = 0.51 → 51%)
Note: The above Nutrition Information is based on 100 grams of skinless, boneless chicken breast, as found in the USDA Food Database: "Chicken, broiler or fryers, breast, skinless, boneless, meat only, cooked, braised" (FDC ID: 331960, published 4/1/2019). Reputable literature supports a PDCAAS of 0.95 - 1.0 for chicken breast meat. A PDCAAS of 1.0 or higher is common in animal-derived meat sources, though can vary based upon cooking methods among other factors.
* PDCAAS - Protein Digestibility-Corrected Amino Acid Score
The merits of a plant-based diet have helped us come a long way in demystifying the conversation on what the human body requires nutritionally, and where it can source these nutrients. It is an undeniable reality that much of our understanding of what is nutritious or 'healthy' leans on influential marketing campaigns that have largely supported the growth of animal agriculture. However, there are still nutrients only animal-derived products can deliver and limitations on what the human body requires through diet.
Some common examples of these limitations include essential amino acids (which are not synthesized in the human body and therefore achieved only through intake), as well as the presence of Vitamin B12 (available in plants, but only in trace amounts unless fortified), or heme iron (which is known to be better absorbed by the body than non-heme iron from plant-based sources). The considerations continue for every nutrient we thought we understood, but upon closer examination, it yields more questions and special considerations that have merit and an advantage when implemented in plant-based meat R&D.
2. Ingredient Blends
Plants with Plants
Plant-derived protein sources at their raw material level, are a composition of mostly carbohydrates followed by protein, fat, and various vitamins and minerals. When mimicking the nutritional content and texture of an animal origin reference, there will be inevitable compromise due to at least carbohydrate content.
Currently, the compromise ranges between 80-85% protein content for plant-derived protein isolates (sometimes as high as 90% on a dry matter basis). This still gives product developers a feasible opportunity to work toward protein content goals but often requires a synergistic blend of multiple plant-derived protein sources to reach quality and percent daily value levels for protein mimicry.
For example, pea protein's PDCAAS is less than 1.0 due to its limiting amino acids, methionine and cysteine. However, a combination of pea protein with adequate amounts of certain grains (that contain these limiting amino acids) can improve quality; some examples include rice, hemp, and sunflower seed-derived flours and concentrates. The reality of these combinations has become more realistic in recent years given the advances made in protein purification for raw material sources like fava, chickpea, hemp, and sunflower seeds. A blend presents the ability to balance off color, flavor, and aroma through a higher composition of neutral plant proteins. Keep in mind, the 'blank slate' sought of plant proteins is highly process-specific and will vary by supplier.
Plants with Mycelium
Plant-derived protein sources, namely isolates, concentrates, and flours, follow a lengthy amount of processing that generally involves milling cleaned and dried seeds into flour, which is then further separated for increased protein purity, and may be further treated for unique functional properties. Once this is accomplished, plant protein sources typically pass through a twin-screw extrusion process in order to form a texture that mimics meat — the settings of this extrusion process can yield an array of grounds or whole muscle alternative meat formats.
To bypass this overwhelming series of processes in the quest of creating a texture that mimics muscle striata (signature of the traditional meat products we aim to replicate), mycelium can be an effective solution. Mycelium goes by many names; for clarification, mycelium and mushrooms are separate and not interchangeable terms. Mycelium is the root system of fungi (sometimes referred to as 'mushroom root' for simplicity). It has a filamentous structure that can be grown in controlled environments (vaguely referred to as fermentation) that proliferates bundles of these branching fungi filaments, forming a whole form of protein that is then pressed of excess water (before being combined with other ingredients apart of creating plant-based meats).
Not too much is known of mycelium outside the companies that do the hard work of producing the raw material. In other words, this ingredient is at-best limited or simply, not available for B2B purchases at this time. In that way, it's not certain this ingredient is truly a complete protein, and in cases where it may be, it's also unlikely that it's a universal status regardless of mycelium spore type being proliferated, the inputs/feed for the mycelium, and the various processes along the way.
That aside, it's also a possibility that it may not deliver on the protein content expected by consumers, or be at a level sufficient to compete with others in the alternative protein market, let alone the animal origin. For these reasons, protein fortification by means of plant-derived proteins may give mycelium the bump it needs nutritionally for protein content and quality, and possibly, functional properties it can't achieve alone — whether that's in plant-derived protein or fat ingredients, or simply natural flavors and spices.
3. Sensory Analysis
Sensory evaluation data is often used as the basis for decision-making due to its ability to mitigate risk in the space between a promising prototype and commercial launch. There are many approaches, but they ultimately fall within two broad categories of tests utilized in sensory analysis: analytical or affective. The method(s) selected relies on clearly defined objectives for the project. With many plant-based meat brands falling short of taste, it may be that their R&D lifecycle does not include sensory analysis outside the core, internal team at that company — exposing the company to bias, influenced opinions, and a very small population size (hardly mitigating risk in terms of consumer adoption).
When sensory analysis is conducted, it seems plant-based meat companies may only be using affective methods where company products are compared to competitor products, or across multiple company prototypes where formulations differ (by cost, flavor, a combination, or a variety of other ways). It seems a rare case for analytical methods to be implemented in a way that measures differences and similarities (across appearance, aroma, flavor, and texture) between a company's product and the animal origin itself. If the intentional comparison with an animal origin became a true benchmark for internal sensory analysis, I believe R&D would have a more clear way to approach iterations for improved formulation, avoid the sensitive nature of subjective tasting evaluations, and stand a chance at widening the adoption by consumers who want the taste and versatility of traditional meat, absent of its myriad of negative compromises.
About the Author
MJ Kinney is the Founder and Principal Consultant at FareScience, specializing in plant-based product development with a focus on commercial scalability. Her years of experience span alternative protein creation in the b2b, b2c, and non-profit sectors throughout the food industry, and her work continuously seeks synergies between ingredient innovations and applications in scalable, novel products (e.g. meat, egg, and dairy alternatives). MJ spearheads and actively maintains formulation development, ingredient procurement, and manufacturer selection capabilities for food companies ranging from startups to established brands grossing over $500 million annually.
Date Published: 6th June 2023
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