Consumer expectations are growing when it comes to meat alternatives – and convincing texture is crucial for success

Until a few years ago, people who opted for a meatless lifestyle had to accept sacrifices in terms of indulgence when it came to meat alternatives. The market was limited – not least because those who lived a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle for animal welfare reasons were not necessarily looking for a “meat-like” sensory experience and were happy with a nut roast. Today, however, subjects like factory farming, with all its ethical and environmental implications, have had an impact on what most consumers put on their tables. As a result, those who actually enjoy eating meat and, as flexitarians, occasionally consciously abstain from animal products, want more from their meat substitutes. In particular, the texture must be right and it must provide a meat-like bite. With BeneoPro W-Tex, BENEO has developed a textured wheat protein that satisfies these demands and delivers authentic imitation meat. 

The market research company Global Data predicts compound annual  growth of 5.3 percent for this product category in  Western  Europe  over  the next five years. Bolognese sauces made from textured wheat, burgers from pea protein and sausages from tofu: products based on alternative vegetable protein sources are booming. Recent studies show that one in three consumers in Germany, France and the United Kingdom regularly choose imitation meat products. They perceive vegetable proteins as being natural and healthy. And it’s true: they are low in LDL cholesterol and saturated fatty acids, but extremely rich in vitamins.

Match with high sensory demands Crucially, how the category will develop in the future depends on whether or not suppliers are able to deliver products that meet the high expectations of consumers. At the moment, it is still the case that much of what is on the market  could be improved in sensory terms. But if the offer of products that taste really good and have a natural, meat-like texture, grows, consumer demand  will grow too. Food ingredients manufacturers are therefore researching and developing at full speed in order to be able to provide brand owners of imitation meat products with ingredients that meet the highest sensory demands. Vegetable proteins from different raw materials can be used in meat replacement products. However, wheat protein is currently the most popular. With its good sensory properties, it is the first choice for many manufacturers. Its taste is significantly milder than that of other vegetable protein sources.

Regional Sourcing

A consumer survey conducted on behalf of BENEO also shows that the term “wheat protein” has positive connotations. Around 50 percent of those questioned said that wheat protein sounds “natural or very natural” as well as “healthy or very healthy”. Another important consideration is the origin of the protein source. Wheat is cultivated in large quantities in Europe and is therefore seen as a local product by European consumers. In contrast, soy often comes from the USA, Brazil or Argentina and is associated by many consumers with genetic engineering or rainforest destruction.

On A Par With Meat

The food industry has been using textured wheat proteins for many years, but the demands placed on these products are different today. Olivier Chevalier, Senior Product Manager Functional Proteins at BENEO, explains: “Compared to a few years ago, we now face different production challenges. In the past, texturized wheat proteins were primarily used to partially replace meat in order to save money. Today, they are used for completely different reasons: Textured wheat is designed to give imitation meat a taste and, above all, a texture that is on a par with real meat. It’s all about the highest possible sensory quality, and that’s why these ingredients are so difficult to develop.”

A Question Of Texture

Plant-based proteins need to be juicy yet firm to have a convincing sensory impact in products like burgers, nuggets and Bolognese sauces. The extrudate must be neither too hard nor too soft, and to achieve this ideal consistency, all process parameters must align perfectly. As with any natural raw material, wheat is subject to natural variations. But even the smallest deviations in raw material quality, for example in the amount of gluten, can lead to undesired results. 

If the extrudate is too hard, it will not react properly within the given hydrogenation period and an unpleasantly hard core will remain. If it is too soft, its water absorption capacity will be enhanced, and the resultant texture will  not  be as stable or firm to the bite as desired. This fine balance between complete hydration and the ideal texture is what makes producing the perfect imitation meat so difficult. 

“The permitted fluctuations in the production process must be minimal,” continues Olivier Chevalier. “So, when we receive raw materials from a new crop, we test these first in a pilot plant to make sure that there are no unpleasant surprises in how the components interact. Any necessary adjustments are then made before we transfer the process to the full-scale plant.” 

In addition to the raw materials, the design of the extruder plays an important role in the quality of plant-based extrudates.  During  the development of BeneoPro W-Tex, BENEO tested numerous configurations in order to fine tune the extrusion process parameters. And even though the basic setup now fits, if the raw material quality changes, the process may have to be adjusted again so that the end product still satisfies all requirements.

Ideal For Burgers, Chicken Nuggets And Bolognese

BeneoPro W-Tex consists of wheat gluten and wheat flour and has a protein content of at least 65 percent in the dry matter. In terms of sensory properties, it scores high. “After moistening, a juicy but at the same time slightly fibrous structure is formed,” explains Olivier Chevalier. “This makes it ideal for products based on minced meat, such as burger patties. The appearance of BeneoPro W-Tex is also close to actual meat after frying.” 

BeneoPro W-Tex retains its minced meat characteristics in water-based systems, making it suitable for dishes such as authentic-style vegetarian Bolognese sauces and chilli con carne. In addition to imitation meat, other vegetarian products such as vegetable roasts can also be created with the textured wheat protein. Its very mild taste makes it easy for manufacturers to give their end products the desired flavor, with no need for masking aromas. 

Processing is simple and quick: It only takes 15 minutes for BeneoPro W-Tex to obtain its maximum hydration capacity, ready for further processing. Within a vacuum, this process can be accelerated to about five minutes. Illustrating just how far technology has progressed, it is interesting to note that when the first textured wheat proteins came onto the market a few decades ago, rehydration took an entire night.

Support From First Idea To End Product

The experts at the BENEO-Technology Center are available to answer any and all questions about application technology. They also develop new product recipes that meet consumer expectations in terms of taste, appearance and quality. With its application focus, the BENEO- Technology Center complements the expertise of the BENEO-Institute, whose focus is on human sciences, nutrition communication  and food   law,   as well as BENEO’s comprehensive food marketing service. This ensures that customers receive the best possible support throughout the entire product development process.

Advantages At A Glance

Mild, neutral taste
High protein content
Rehydration in a few minutes
Meat-like texture and bite
Ideal for burger patties, chicken nuggets, chilli con carne, Bolognese sauce, etc.
Raw material sourced in Europe