Methyl cellulose  is unique amongst hydrocolloids. It is the only one that, in solution, will gel when heated and liquefy when cooled. Methyl cellulose, E461, we are told, does not look good to consumers on a food ingredient label. As a result there are on-going efforts to find a replacement for methyl cellulose. What are the pros and cons of trying to substitute methyl cellulose with another hydrocolloid or gelling system? Read on.

The unique thermo-gelation property of methyl cellulose has made it a ‘de rigueur’ ingredient in a number of applications especially in fried foods and more recently in plant based burgers. In fried foods, MC gels upon heating and prevents or reduces oil intake thus reducing calories. In plant based burgers MC provides strong binding during the high cooking temperatures while grilling the patty. As the burger is cooled to eating temperatures the MC gel will soften and provide ‘succulence’ during chewing. It is this latter application, plant based burgers, which has driven MC consumption up dramatically in recent years. The skyrocketing consumption of two well known brands of plant based burgers, Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat along with a few others even resulted in a  longer delivery lead time (read tight supply ?) situation for methyl cellulose.  The initial double digit and maybe triple digit growth rates caught ingredient suppliers off guard. Lead times have now eased just as the growth of this market has slowed or maybe plateaued. Plant based burgers became such an important market that a special grade of MC for this application has been developed. The two leading MC suppliers, IFF (legacy Dow) and Ashland (legacy Hercules) have an “MX” grade of MC with gelling and melting profiles specifically designed for plant based burgers. The MX grade properties are tailored to be best suited during grilling (high temperature) and also at ‘eating temperature’ when maximum ‘succulence’ is experienced. The MX thermal gelation and liquefaction curve is optimized for the cooking and eating temperatures. There are several other producers of MC which offer tailor made grades for this application. Lotte of Korea, Rettenmaier of Germany, Shin Etsu of Japan (Germany), and Shandong Head of China.

A use level of about 1-2% of MC by weight is applied in plant based burgers. The lower use level around 1% is for the special ‘super gelling MX’ custom grade of MC produced specifically for plant based burgers. Standard grades of MC will also work but need a higher use level and have slightly different gelling properties and set points.

The efforts to replace MC in plant based burgers is purportedly to “clean the label” and address alleged growing consumer concerns about its presence on the ingredient list. Attempts to replace methyl cellulose started some time virtually as soon as the plant based movement started. In fact methyl cellulose itself was used to replace a blend of xanthan and konjac gum which were the gelling/binding agents in the initial Impossible Foods formulation.

So far no ideal replacement for MC has been found. This is not surprising really, considering that no single hydrocolloid or blend of hydrocolloids offers the same unique thermal gelation property of methyl cellulose. Citrus fiber (with pectin) is being touted by some citrus fiber producers as a good MC replacement. The pectin within the citrus fiber is a gelling agent but it is NOT a thermoreversible gelling agent.  The xanthan/konjac blend which Impossible Foods started with forms a gel but it is NOT thermoreversible. Of all the suppliers and combinations touted as a replacement for MC, none offer the one property which makes MC unique, a thermoreversible gel. This glaring shortcoming, however, has not prevented many claims of MC replacement by several companies.

The ingredient list for Impossible Foods’ plant based burger is nearly 20 items long of which MC is seventh as indicated in the below list:

Water, Soy Protein Concentrate, Coconut Oil, Sunflower Oil, Natural Flavors, 2% Or Less Of: Potato Protein, Methylcellulose, Yeast Extract, Cultured Dextrose, Food Starch Modified, Soy Leghemoglobin, Salt, Mixed Tocopherols (Antioxidant), Soy Protein Isolate, Vitamins and Minerals (Zinc Gluconate, Thiamine Hydrochloride (Vitamin B1), Niacin, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride (Vitamin B6), Riboflavin (Vitamin B2), Vitamin B12).

Here is the same list with MC removed. How much simpler and cleaner does it look?

Water, Soy Protein Concentrate, Coconut Oil, Sunflower Oil, Natural Flavors, 2% Or Less Of: Potato Protein, Yeast Extract, Cultured Dextrose, Food Starch Modified, Soy Leghemoglobin, Salt, Mixed Tocopherols (Antioxidant), Soy Protein Isolate, Vitamins and Minerals (Zinc Gluconate, Thiamine Hydrochloride (Vitamin B1), Niacin, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride (Vitamin B6), Riboflavin (Vitamin B2), Vitamin B12).

Besides MC, two other ingredients in the Impossible Burger are probably on the ‘to be replaced’ list by formulators, soy leghemoglobin, a GMO ingredient and modified starches because modi-fied anything is a consumer concern.

The ingredient list for Beyond Meat burgers is a little longer but perhaps “Cleaner” because no GMO need be declared:

Water, pea protein*, expeller-pressed canola oil, refined coconut oil, rice protein, natural flavors, dried yeast, cocoa butter, methylcellulose, and less than 1% of potato starch, salt, potassium chloride, beet juice color, apple extract, pomegranate concentrate, sunflower lecithin, vinegar, lemon juice concentrate, vitamins and minerals (zinc sulfate, niacinamide [vitamin B3], pyridoxine hydrochloride [vitamin B6], cyanocobalamin [vitamin B12], calcium pantothenate).

The key differences between Impossible  Foods and Beyond Meat burgers are as follows:

1. As the main protein source, Impossible Foods uses soy (GMO) and Beyond Meat uses pea (non-GMO)

2. Impossible Foods uses Soy leghemoglobin, a GMO product to mimic the red color/bleeding of regular meat. Beyond meat uses a natural color from beets.

3. Beyond Meat eschews the use of ‘modified starch’ which Impossible Food uses.

Both Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, however, rely on the unique properties of MC in their formulations. The long list of about 20 ingredients would be hard to designate as ‘clean’ by any interpretation of what is a ‘clean label’. Why then, are these plant based burgers so popular and, until recently, growing at double digit rates? The simple answer is ‘feel good’ accompanied by ‘taste good’. Consuming plant based burgers may not be ‘clean label’ but it leads to ‘clean for those consuming them. The main arguments driving plant based burger consumers  are: animal welfare, climate change and nutrition efficiency. In exchange these same consumers are willing to sacrifice, clean  label and cost as long as taste is good. The cost of plant based burgers remains significantly higher than animal based burgers. Higher costs for plant based are found at food service/fast food and at retail outlets. It is likely that plant based marketers are factoring a ‘feel good factor’ in their pricing rather than basing higher prices on raw material costs alone.

So, bottom line, is it worth replacing MC in plant based burgers? In our opinion, the answer is NO. Removing MC would not make the label much cleaner, if at all. The MC would likely be  replaced by one or more ingredients. The number of ingredients on the list would be the same or maybe even longer. Xanthan and konjac which gel synergistically, were in the original Impossible Foods formulation. Going back to that combination is unlikely in view, sadly, of the negative image which some consumers attribute to xanthan. Suppliers of citrus fiber with pectin content claim to have a replacement for MC. The declaration of citrus fiber is definitely cleaner sounding on a label than MC. Our technical insight, however, still places a significant functional advantage with MC which would have to be sacrificed in going to a citrus fiber. Replacing MC is more complex than meets the eye. There are several grades of MC offered in plant based formulations by several producers. There are differences in functionality and performance even within the supply of MC itself. Some grades for example will produce the right “knack” in a plant based sausage whereas that of another supplier will not even if product specifications are the same.

From a consumer point of view, replacing MC would not change the primary reason(s) for which they are consuming plant based burgers. Consumer concerns include the envi-ronment (global warming), animal welfare, social conscience. These are the main drivers to plant based burgers but there is also the novelty aspect of trying ‘something different’. Price is not a ‘deal breaker’ for plant based burgers which are generally more costly than animal products. One consumer when asked “How much more did you pay for the plant based burger” said, “Oh I forgot to check”. i.e. price was no object. That is not to say that price is not a consideration for the general public. Burgers, especially in the fast food service outlets, are the staple of cost conscious consumers.

Looking to the future of plant based burgers, with or without MC, there is likely to be a plateau or ‘plant based fatigue’ in the next year or two. Double digit growth may slow to single digits. The broader plant based consumer needs time to digest, pun intended, the social and economic meaning of a radical change in diet. Yes it is a radical change even if plant based burger producers do their utmost to make it hard to discern between plant based and animal based burgers. We expect a renewed growth curve for the plant based movement in the coming years. At the same time, however, we issue a caveat: Consumers are fickle they may change their mind on a whim and often not for scientifically proven reasons. Reformulation of an accepted food is risky. Remember the “New Coke” by Coca Cola or “McClean” by McDonalds, both fiascos? Food reformulation is  challenging beyond simply juggling  ingredients. Methyl cellulose is a  good product with a unique function.  Spending too much time trying to  replace it is likely to be wasteful and  fruitless.

The Authors:

Dennis Seisun is Founder of IMR International. Nesha Zalesny, Food Scientist, is Partner at IMR and together they are publishers of The Quarterly Review of Hydrocolloids, the information center for food texture, and or-ganizers of a global hydrocolloid conference since 1998. The next conference is in Malta April 23-25, 2023 with the headline “Battling  Hydrocolloid Challenges”.