By Anubha Garg PhD*

There has been an extraordinary trend toward plant-based diets in the last couple of years. More and more consumers are opting for vegetarian or vegan diets, or becoming flexitarians, reducing their meat consumption, and looking for attractive meat substitutes. In the social-media world, hashtags such as #meatfree or #govegan are among the most popular searches on Instagram, Twitter, and other platforms. Many people are trying to live more healthily and sustainably by re-thinking and re-evaluating their diets. Others are just curious about meat substitutes and are trying out the different products available on the market. It is now easy to spot such products in different supermarkets and the product portfolio for this segment is constantly expanding. These products are not only limited to plant-based burgers, chicken-like products, or minced meat, but there is also a large movement toward pork and fish substitutes.

The role of high moisture extrusion technology

The versatile twin-screw high moisture extrusion technology has made it possible to achieve such a disruption in the food market. As the raw materials, mainly composed of protein concentrates and isolates, are fed into the extruder, the temperature, pressure, and shear conditions present inside the extruder enable restructuring of the plant proteins.

These restructured proteins then flow into the cooling die, which helps to realign the proteins, resulting in fibrous and layered meat-like structures. For research purposes and product development, a small-scale cooling die in the throughput range of 50 kg/h is ideal, such as the PolyCool 50 supplied by Bühler. This level of throughput enables different recipes and process parameters to be explored without requiring enormous quantities of raw materials. It is also useful for prototyping and initial production set-up.

Market growth and demand for scale-up

The exceptional growth increase of this segment has led to a demand for increased throughput from the machines involved. The extruder is already an advanced machine with very high throughput capacity, however the cooling die is a much more recent technology in terms of design. A scaleup is nonetheless required for the cooling die to match the standards of industry-scale production. Bühler’s new PolyCool 500 is a one-of-a-kind cooling die that enables a production rate of around 500 kg/h for different ingredients and novel textures. Its new, hygienic wing door design is easy to clean, operate, and maintain.

The next generation of meat substitutes

There is a great deal of ongoing research and development work, both toward recipe formulation as well as process optimization of high moisture extrusion. As an example, Bühler is engaged as an activity leader in a multi-partner research project under the EIT food umbrella. This project focuses on the process optimization and product development of meat substitutes. In addition to their active engagement in research, Bühler is a solution provider along the protein value chain, starting from grain handling, through grain processing, to the extruded meat substitute. With this holistic process knowledge, reliable machines, and large-scale capacity, Bühler can be seen as the market leader from bean to burger. Bühler’s customers can profit from the state-of-the-art technology and personnel support at their application centers located in Uzwil (Switzerland), Minneapolis (USA), and Wuxi (China) to develop new recipes and processes. Some of the most popular ingredients used for these products include proteins from peas, soy, oats, rice, potatoes, and fava beans. Upcycling opportunities from oilseed’s expeller cakes and side-stream valorization allow for the production of tasty and sustainable meat substitutes. Nowadays, the newer ingredients such as proteins from mushrooms or hemp, as well as proteins from bioreactors, are being scrutinized in terms of their function and potential for forming meat substitutes as soon as these raw materials become commercially available.

The future of food

Currently, it is difficult to obtain a holistic understanding of the market due to the regional nature of data gathering, though some reliable studies predict that around 10 to 25% of the meat market will be replaced with plant-based meat substitutes within the next 5 to 10 years. This indicates a clear shift in consumer behavior. Aside from product and process development, universities and research institutes are also investigating other important factors, such as the digestibility characteristics of these products. In addition, the involvement of restaurants, canteens, and food chains, such as Burger King, is boosting the plant-based movement. Overall, consumers are accepting the meat substitutes with enthusiasm. However, acceptance is highly dependent on the taste and texture of the product. There is a large opportunity for the food industry to invest in this segment. Currently, a plethora of companies, ranging from start-ups to multinationals, are seeking to engage in the development and production of meat substitutes. Therefore, it can be said that there is a clear market need for plant-based meat substitutes, which represent the future of food.

* Author is PhD works with Bühler AG, Uzwil, Switzerland

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