Q&A: Critical issues, gaps & being mindful during the protein transition

As the food industry moves through the protein transition from animal sources to plant-based and other alternative proteins, it’s important to do so mindfully, says Holger Doering, category director culinary, snacks & pet food EMEA at MANE, in his presentation at Bridge2Food‘s June 2021 Exhibition Plant-Based Foods & Proteins Europe.

Holger DoeringMANE is a family-owned, 150-year-old company based in France that provides the food industry with the highest quality flavor and taste solutions.

Doering answers four questions, below, from his presentation at the exhibition, noting the most critical issues, major gaps, and the taste and texture interlink.

1) What are the 5 key learnings from your presentation?

Whenever we are concerned about the protein transition, we have to define what we want to achieve, both to what extent and with what means and results.

  • Would we like meat analogue products, meat substituting products or both?
  • Do these meat alternative products really have a better environmental balance and is the goal to completely substitute meat? Or is the goal to reduce meat consumption to a reasonable level?
  • Are these products of equivalent nutritional quality?
  • What about the ingredients? Can vegan and vegetarian products be developed and manufactured in natural or organic quality without excessive use of additives at acceptable costs?
  • What are the socio-economic consequences of the “Protein Transition” on a regional and global level?

The food industry, as well as governments and legislators, have to be clear about this, and the flavor industry has to find its place in the overall structure if we want the result to be positive and we want to avoid going from bad to worse.

2) What are the most critical issues the plant-based food industry faces related to clean-label products?

This is, of course, mainly a problem when we are talking about meat analogues, which are intended to be as identical as possible to the meat-based products, be it hamburgers, sausages or cold cuts.

While the texture of meat products is achieved by processing the raw meat appropriately according to what is intended to be achieved, in vegetarian and even more in vegan products it is necessary to apply texturizing agents. Meat is a complex raw material that brings not only the protein but a lot more, whereas plant proteins are isolated and processed and therefore denatured, which changes significantly the properties and is responsible for the need to add texturizing agents. Unfortunately, most of them are to be declared as additives with E-numbers.

Meat brings along everything that is necessary to generate a maillard reaction when heated. This maillard reaction transforms the bland taste of raw meat into the appreciated taste of heat-treated (cooked, grilled, braised, etc.) meat. To have this taste in vegan and vegetarian meat analogues, flavors are required. The most authentic meat taste can be achieved by adding thermal process flavors, but those are not natural. When natural flavors are required, the flavor industry must be more innovative and this means in general higher cost.

Meat also brings along its own umami and the taste that derives from naturally occurring vitamins (e.g. vitamin B1, which is a potent precursor for flavor generation), naturally occurring phosphates and other minerals. All this is not present in the vegetable protein TVPs, isolates and concentrates and must be added via flavors. This could be done by non-natural or natural flavorings, of course, but at different cost still. Besides this, the vegetable proteins often have taste profiles that are not appreciated and named therefore “off-notes.” So, the task for the flavor industry is to develop natural flavorings providing authentic meat taste and/or are capable to mask non-wanted “off-notes.”

The best would be if in the ingredient statement of the finished product the word flavoring could be avoided, but this is currently not possible, which means natural flavorings will be for still quite some time the best compromise.

3) What are the major gaps in terms of science and technology knowledge industry/academia should focus on?

The consortia industry/academia should focus on two things:

  1. Clean label texturizing solutions, meaning ingredients that are acceptable from how they must be declared for consumers and consumer associations. This means consumers should not be concerned reading their names. They should not feel that the presence of these ingredients is alien to the finished product. However, the texturizing ingredients should provide the performance required to produce authentic textures similar to those of meat-based products.
  2. Taste solutions that are natural and stable during the different processing treatments, cost effective and authentic. These flavorings should provide most authentic meaty notes, cooking cues and masking properties, and be perfectly adapted to the different protein matrices, regardless the source (vegetable proteins, mycoproteins, insects, etc.)

4) How do you interlink taste and texture? How do you connect as a flavor house with protein ingredient producers and texturizer suppliers? Any potential room for joint development?

Taste and texture cannot be disconnected. The texture has already visually an effect on the taste expectation. A vegan hamburger that does not look like a meat hamburger, and this is related as well to the color as to the granulometry, will not be evaluated as similar.

This will be the case even more during eating if the mouthfeel is different. The flavor industry needs to collaborate with protein ingredient producers and suppliers of texturizers. Only by doing so it is possible to add the correct flavor dimensions and to mask others to achieve the most authentic and appreciated taste. The flavor industry is the industry that has the leading capacity in sensory analysis and description, which is important to understand where it is necessary to add flavor in order to compensate for taste gaps and where intrinsic taste of raw materials has to be reduced or eliminated.

Open-minded cooperation is necessary to be successful in the shortest possible development cycles. This is also a possibility to reduce the development cost, as existing expertise can be leveraged and does not have to be acquired.