While companies in the plant-based space roar about their animal-free products, ingredients manufacturers unlock the science to achieving the mouthfeel, texture and taste consumers love
Close-up of woman's mouth eating a piece of meat

In the UK, consumers are going mad for products that look, smell, and taste like meat – the frenzy goes to such extent that the meat alternative sector grew 33% annually between 2016-2019. But, why is this the case when they can just have the real thing?

Consumers want a product that resembles meat in its construction, taste and texture, and they can find products in the market that even bleed artificially! To understand this phenomenon properly, the plant-based market needs to be put in context.

Not so long ago, many people perceived plant-based diets as gimmicky and expensive. Veganism was reserved either for those who had genuine, deeply held philosophical convictions or for the edgy boulangeries in London’s Chelsea and Islington rather than it being a seriously practical option for the masses.

This mindset is no longer the case. Plant-based products have gone through a revolution – the speed and scale of which is staggering.

Such rapid uptake lies in the fact that the consumption of plant-based products is universally increasing across all demographic groups, but why?

There are three main pull factors:

  • Ethics. For many people, not consuming animals or animal products is a deeply held philosophical belief – even veganism is now enshrined in law. Statistically, this accounts for the smallest number of those who follow plant-based diets.
  • Environment. The environmental documentary Cowspiracy is among the several media contributing to growing concerns and negative publicity around the environmental impact of mass production of meat. This is a factor that will continue to influence purchasing decisions, particularly among the younger generations.
  • Health. Most people are now well versed in the risks associated with heavy consumption of processed meats – health issues including obesity, heart disease and even some cancers. Plant-based (or reduced meat) diets can lead to significant improvement in health – a benefit that will become even more appealing.

With more information at people’s fingertips than the human brain can process, consumers have increasingly strong and polarised opinions. This polarisation has led to increased scrutiny over the provenance and transparency of foods.

A perception of veganism as ethical, sustainable and healthy provides a near-universal appeal to the movement, which is compelling to many consumers. Be rest assured, plant-based diets are no fad.

The obsession with mimicking meat

There are three fundamental reasons the vegan/plant-based sector is concerned with replicating meat.

  • Taste. Vegans still like the taste of meat, but they choose plant-based products based on factors other than taste. Therefore, it is not an issue with the flavour of meat products.
  • Convenience. As well as vegans liking the flavour of meat, the convenience of simply replacing one ingredient in a recipe with another without changing the cooking process is a strong pull factor.
  • Tradition and habit. Psychology is crucial in buying habits. Meat plays a large part in most people’s culinary psyche – the tradition and familiarity of meat are comforting to many people and is a key factor in the fixation with replicating meat products.

Are we in a transition period? 

The plant-based space is still young and has yet to develop the stature in our culture that the meat sector enjoys.

By developing products that are so close to meat in their taste, texture and cooking, manufacturers are both appealing to the largest number of people while bridging the gap between meat-lovers and non-meat eaters.

This is a conscious starting point to wane consumers off excessive meat consumption.

New eating experiences

The natural progression of mimicking meat is creating new eating experiences. As meat consumption drops, consumers will become less accustomed to the texture and taste of meat, and less dependent on it as the main texture in a meal.

This transition provides plant-based companies with massive opportunities and freedom to deliver new textures, flavours and eating experiences to an ever more adventurous consumer market.

In this context, the challenge is on developing plant-based products.

Ingredients to the rescue

Now that the foundation for the plant-based revolution has been established, the focus is on developers and manufacturers to improve the taste, texture and mouthfeel of their products.

Running parallel with the development in plant-based products has been the development of new ingredient technologies dedicated to these specific applications.

Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to plant-based products. Each application brings unique textural and structural challenges that require a detailed understanding of the constituent components of the applications, the right functional ingredients, and the knowledge on how to apply them.

Let’s take a look at some examples of the context and the challenges companies face when developing meat alternatives.

Vegan meat substitutes

  • 1/3 of UK shoppers are actively trying to reduce their meat consumption.
  • Vegan and flexitarian meat alternatives bring with them unique textural and structural challenges.
  • Consumers want a product that mimics the eating quality of meat, therefore manufacturers must provide a succulent product with an open texture, giving a ‘meatier’ bite and mouthfeel.
  • Increased competition in the sector, coupled with the fast-moving nature of the market, means manufacturers need to be proactive in their new product development (NPD).
  • Ingredients and ingredient technologies are rapidly being developed to satisfy an ever more demanding customer base.

Non-dairy drinks

  • In the period between 2016-2019, NPD in dairy alternative drinks tripled.
  • Consumers are demanding both an indulgent product, but one that is also healthier.
  • Nutritional profiles are a big consideration, including fat, sugar and calorie content.
  • The addition of functional ingredients like proteins and fibres to make front-of-pack claims is a further consideration.
  • Consumers are also wanting additional functional benefits, such as gut health claims and better-for-you formulations.

The challenge for these plant-based products is ensuring they have the body and mouthfeel to compete with the indulgence of conventional dairy products while also satisfying the ever-growing list of consumers’ demands. 

Plant-based cakes and muffins

  • 15% of all UK bakery launches were vegan in 2019.
  • Egg is a highly functional product in a variety of applications, but cakes specifically.
  • Developers must understand the exact function of the different proteins in egg and how they impact the different properties of cakes.
  • Eggs are required to aerate, emulsify, enhance rheological properties, and provide gel systems for texture – all critical functions to make a cake.
  • Vegan consumers often demand health and sustainability from the products they buy, hence reformulation needs to be transparent, based on clean label and allergen-free 

What does the future hold? 

Despite their surge in popularity, plant-based foods are still at a nascent stage in the development process. 

As ingredients manufacturers like Ulrick & Short develop their knowledge further and occupy different spaces in the market, the comparison between the quality of plant-based with conventional products will narrow and eventually disappear.

It is unlikely that the global population will quickly switch to an exclusively vegan diet en masse. However, as more is discovered about the fragility of the planet’s ecosystems and climate, there will be an increasing shift towards sustainable eating. 

The real gains in the plant-based space will be made when the mass of moderate consumers embrace an overall reduction of meat consumption as commonplace and viable.

Date published: 25 August 2020

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