You Want A Meat Alternative But It Doesn’t Taste Right!

A beyond delicious plant based alternative meat cheeseburger with lettuce, onion, pickle, tomato and french fries.
Photo by David Kadlec, c/o www.123rf.com

Meat alternatives continue to be developing at quite a pace. There’s an almost overwhelming number of options available to product developers given the the large range of plant proteins out there. They all seem to come with their own particular set of issues however. One of them is taste. 

In this article we look at the meat alternative development process. We suggest that tackling the formulation of a meat substitute will mean a different approach, modifying the conventional methods of development. One of the steps includes what taste masking might do to help you in creating the right product for that meat alternative. Likewise, we know that flavour enhancement must also play its part too which helps push the right meat-like flavour to the forefront. 

Plant protein based foods have really entered the mainstream of consumer products in the last few years. If its not as a meat alternative it’s simply to satisfy the growing trend for vegetarian and vegan lifestyles.

Plant proteins are rapidly losing that ‘alternative’ feel. Meat alternative foods are also a growing category and they seem to be appearing in all sorts of places of the grocer’s store.  Such foods not only offer a solid nutritional platform which many find highly amenable to their lifestyle but also satisfy current thinking on sustainability and preserving our environment.

What Aspects Of The Meat Alternative Product Need To be Considered?

If you want a meat alternative though, there are a few aspects which need careful consideration. Plant proteins for a start behave very differently to meat proteins. They have a very different nutritional profile which demands careful consideration. Many plant proteins also have a different functionality to meat proteins. In some cases so unique are they that specialist knowledge is needed to exploit these properties.

Processing will also be different – a new vegetable protein will not cook, fry or even freeze in the same way as a meat protein. There are many sad cases of developers trying to reproduce the same frying characteristics and becoming unstuck literally as the food products burns on the pan. Finally taste – this is tricky and attempts to replicate meat flavour require careful manipulation of the non-meat ingredients to hand.

The Challenges Of Formulation Of High Protein Foods

Perhaps the most significant factor is colour rather than taste. It is the first attribute we notice of a product and is still thought of as the main contributor to our overall perception of flavour and thus acceptance (Spence, 2015). Whilst we are not discussing colour here it is still a critical element of your product development process to get right.

Non-meat proteins have their own flavour and taste issues. Whilst this sounds like labouring a key point, consumers need to believe in the product and market research shows that they are not easily fooled.

When consumers are asked to rate a food, flavour is that element which turns it from an ordinarily average and properly ‘coloured’ food into one that makes it delicious. When we think about what makes up a flavour from the development perspective we start with the base sensory components. In the alternative meat case this will be all the ingredients making up the basic recipe – the proteins, texturing ingredients, preservatives etc. Then comes the actual taste and what are called psychosomatic sensations. These are the basic tastes of sweet, bitter, salty, umami and then what is pungent, astringent, cooling, spicy.

Processing contributes another set of flavours. These are produced from the complex mix of reactions which signify various culinary cooking cues. Finally, before you bite there are those volatile aroma compounds that allow the consumer to discriminate even types of meat. 

When consumers describe specific plant proteins they will usually define them in a variety of terms which may not seem easy to interpret. The key sensory descriptors are primarily green, vegetable, cereal, metallic, sour, soapy, oaty, astringent, cardboard, pasta, nutty and so on. Nowhere will you immediately hear anything here resembling a true beef burger.

In a true meat product, all these are thought of as off-notes. They are objectionable to a consumer who wants to believe in a meat-free but meat-like alternative. It’s these sensory attributes and descriptors that flavour houses for example try to overcome using a range of well prepared plant proteins, flavour maskers and enhancers.

Steps In Developing The Meat Alternative

If you want to deliver a fantastic and delicious eating experience then there are some  key elements to be satisfied. The first bite is always with the eye! Try to achieve a realistic meat colour. Developers have been exploring soy leghemoglobin for example because it can create a meat colour which changes with cooking.

Then you need to get that meat-like aroma with some truly authentic meaty notes. An authentic sensory profile is what many developers think is their most important success factor. They have achieved a taste sensation which offers the succulence and richness of meat without compromise on the off-notes as we described them.

The other attribute is creating a realistic texture usually through a balance of moisture  providing the juiciness with some fat to help with bite and flavour release.   

If we consider flavour as our main theme throughout the development process, we are looking to select non-meat proteins which have minimal inherent off-flavour notes. There may be a focus on one particular protein but it’s likely that others will be brought into play. There are many protein blends which compensate and cover off their unique off flavours and serve as flavour maskers in their own right.

You are more than likely to need a particular nutritional profile and that may well be achieving a specific PDCASS i.e. the Protein Digestability Corrected Amino Acid Score. This is a measure of your product’s amino acid content and is usually aimed at satisfying a child’s nutritional needs.

As a developer, make sure you understand your protein(s) functionality simply because of what processing is needed. It’s likely that extrusion may be the route and protein flavour not just behaviour is tested by such extreme processes.

Before embarking on any flavour enhancers, make sure that the formulation is such that any off-notes are reduced if not eliminated. Consult your flavour house for suitable masking agents. They will be very assertive about creating a blank canvas to work on.

Once the base formulation is set out, start building up a meaty flavour  where feasible. Provide additional variety, balance and interest using other flavours, spices and seasonings and what would be best described as cooking cues. 

Flavour rebalancing of the alternative meat food is the next step and a skill in its own right. Reproducing that characteristic meaty note requires patience in formulation. It is a highly nuanced step. The total flavour profiel is rounded out and balanced using a few top flavour notes which provide critical aromas. There will be a few variants along the way where the proportions of ingredients are altered to achieve the best or most fitting flavour profile.

The Development Strategy For Creating That Delicious Meat Alternative

 Lets summarize the product development steps needed:-

  1. We need to define the product specification from the outset. That needs to tally with what makes your alternative meat a winner with the consumer. It usually means focusing on a particular meat product such as a burger or sausage.
  2. Choose a plant protein (just one to begin with) and explore its properties and what works well with it. Look at some other plant proteins too  just to check fitness for purpose and if they can be blended.
  3. Develop the base formula by exploring other ingredients including fat, texture creators, salt, sugar etc.
  4. Look at flavour masking agents which suppress the undesirable notes of the plant protein and provide a canvas which can be built upon.
  5. Add the characteristic flavour notes that make for a convincing meat-like flavour.

Where Are We With Designing A Meat Alternative?

It’s probably fair to say that flavour is the main driving force for anybody wanting to enjoy, to like and believe in their meat alternative food. Product developers need to take an holistic approach right at the beginning with this type of food development. Think about what is important in terms of your meat-free quality Work closely, nay collaborate with your ingredient suppliers at all levels if the meat alternative is to be easily developed with minimum cost and resource.

Masking those plant protein flavours is one way to achieve this so that a tabula rasa (blank slate)  is available upon which the desirable sensory profile can be built. The other complementary angle is to use flavour enhancers that promote any meat flavours in the alternative protein source. Not just  your protein suppliers but flavour houses certainly help here by providing insights and examples right at the beginning of the product development cycle.   

References

Spence, C. (2015). On the psychological impact of food colourFlavour4(1), pp. 21 (Article)

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