Nils Beyer, Food Application Technologist at GEA Food Solutions discusses the growing trend towards plant- based eating habits and how the food processing sector can take advantage of technology to meet the demand for a wider variety of products.

Meat replacement products are growing in popularity with consumers, whether for ethical, environmental or nutritional reasons, and retailers are quick to jump on the bandwagon by offering an increasing range of plant- based alternatives across all their stores. But is this trend just a flash in the pan involving a minority of consumers, or  is it something bigger than that and, if so, how can food processors best profit from this revolution in eating habits?

Extensive consumer research carried out in four European countries last year found that more than one third of those asked were either reducing their meat intake or planning to reduce their meat  consumption.*  Rather than only counting those who already classify themselves as vegetarian or vegan, if we look at the numbers of people reducing their meat intake, the move towards this lifestyle is much more significant and widespread than was previously thought. The challenge for manufacturers is to create the perfect protein substitute for meat in taste and texture, which was also high on the wanted list according to the research.

Taste is becoming everything in the eyes of the discerning consumer so when considering a food concept, it’s important that equipment and ingredients work well together. Consistency of products is also vital as the upstream process of preparing the mix for meat replacement products has the biggest impact upon the success of operations further down the line to provide wholesome, delicious and exciting food.

A strong need to expand meat alternative choices beyond the typical veggie  burgers  we’re   all   familiar with has also been identified. Food processors are having to demonstrate more and more culinary creativity and, while there is no silver bullet, the latest multi-faceted high-speed  equipment can provide this competitive edge with the flexibility and power to design exciting vegetarian options and meat- replacement products that will satisfy a much wider audience.

It’s vital to strike the right balance between natural appearance, color, flavor and texture on the one hand, and optimal binding characteristics of the ingredients mix on the other. Water and fat binding are very important, as well as the sustainability aspect of how products are designed. Choosing the right equipment can help bring to the market the new and innovative ranges that not only look like the real thing but taste just as good.

GEA recommends to manufacturers proven solutions that offer complete process control by preparing all the components, whether making plant- based meat substitute burgers, mimic chicken coated nuggets, veggie  fish sticks or vegan  sausages.  The  choice  of equipment for developing meat alternative products will depend on the application, the volume and on what the customer is trying to achieve.

The latest high-tech solutions can be programmed to cover all the stages in the process in a fast, reliable and controlled way such as rehydration under vacuum of texturized vegetable proteins (TVP), mixing of oil and methylcellulose binder, high- speed cutting for optimal emulsification, cutting and cooling of the fat complement such as coconut butter and the final mixing of all ingredients, including spices and flavorings, ready for forming.

To get the best results mixing and cutting, a range of equipment needs to be available that can handle all manner of ingredients that can be added to this process depending on the recipe, such as purified pea-protein, soy, extruded sunflower, extruded peas, wheat protein and gluten with the end result the same – thoroughly mixed, smooth patties that will have the mouth feel and juiciness of real meat.

Next       to            mixing  of            ingredients, equipment that has a built-in vacuum feature will help intensify fresh and appetizing colors while contributing to exceptional fat binding and the higher density of the mix, leading to improved formability, with minimum waste during production.

When it comes to vegetarian and meat replacement products, preparation of the mix is just part of the story. Having the right equipment is a good start, but having a thorough knowledge about the ingredients being used, and how those ingredients are likely to behave throughout the process will allow much greater control of the final outcome. For example, with products that are intended to mimic meat, water binding and retention are essential and these properties can be influenced by different factors at different stages during the process. Rehydrating proteins such as TVP under vacuum as opposed to other methods is not only quicker, it also allows greater water retention, thus increasing yields and avoiding the use of additives to achieve this.

GEA works in collaboration with ingredient suppliers and product development companies testing out and  developing  new  concepts  at  the GEA technology center in Bakel, the Netherlands. Pooling together expertise with companies such as Griffith Foods, in process know-how, ingredients, and technology, exciting new        meat-free              product  concepts are  being  developed   and   tested   in industrial conditions, including plant-based tacos, ribs, sausages, fish alternatives, pulled Mexican ‘chicken’ and flavored ‘chickenless’  donuts  with pesto-spinach, BBQ beetroot and carrot-curry coating.

Naturally, before any decisions are made, food manufacturers need reassurance that any equipment purchased will prove to be a profitable investment. Feasibility studies, process improvements and R&D tests all need to continue, even during the current Covid-19 crisis.

GEA has a  wide  range  of  equipment to meet the needs of food producers. The company’s engineers and food technologists work closely with customers to ensure that their whole production lines are productive, sustainable, creative, reliable, and efficient with the lowest possible total cost of ownership and total security of outcome.