Most people involved in the plant-based food space would agree that the amount of technological and scientific development taking place is startling. They might also agree the sector has all but mastered replicating appearances. However, they may also suggest there is room for improvement when it comes to taste. One reason for that, and there are several, is the feverish pace of development.
“I think people get very excited by some of the new ingredients and forget that taste is still the top priority for consumers,” says Anne Marie Butler, global director of strategy and innovation at Edlong. “I was at an event a couple of months ago, where this guy came up to me and he was like, ‘Oh my god, I have the best ingredient ever. It’s amazing. It’s so clean.’ And I was like ‘Wonderful. What’s the deal?’ And he said, ‘Oh, it’s a very, very nutritious protein. It’s got a PDCAAS of one’. So I said: ‘How does it taste when put into other ingredients? How does it taste when it’s processed?’ And he said: ‘Oh I don’t know. We haven’t done any of that.’ So, it might be great on its own but what happens when it becomes part of a food or beverage matrix? That is the key. The amount of people who say they have a really clean ingredient is great, but is it still clean when it’s finished being put into something else? That’s the real tell-tale.”
It’s an example of a scientific focus on individual ingredients, rather than a chef-like approach to building combinations. “If you think about the dairy industry, people are specialists in different types of dairy proteins, they’re not specialists in dairy products,” she says. “That’s the difference. We’re an industry of scientists, and scientists think about the science of it. And when you come at it from a science perspective, you can lose sight of the fact that there’s a consumer at the end of it, because your goal is to make it functionally wonderful. You want the protein to function like a dairy protein, or you want the protein to be digestible and give you the nutrition you want. But that only happens if a consumer is willing to eat the product. So, you need that bridge between the real science and on the consumer’s overall eating experience.”
It comes down to achieving a balance between art and science. “I’m not a chef, but I think about things like one. How do these things work together? How do I balance that? We tend to forget that there’s more than one component, but you’ve got to think about the whole application. If I’m developing something, I think about what it needs to do. When is the consumer going to eat this? Is it going to be hot or cold? It’s about the overall experience of how you consume it, I think about all those things before I even put pen to paper, I’m thinking about the end goal. Then, how am I going to work backwards to achieve it? What do we need the nutrition to look like? So you work backwards, not from the start. It’s thinking about the consumer the whole way through the journey. It’s about the overall experience of how a product is consumed, from how that first note hits the mouth to the texture and how it breaks down.”
It’s important to think from the assembly of the base ingredients and how they work together, while at the same time working backwards from the desired consumption experience. I suggest this holistic approach is no less than you’d expect from people trying to reinvent food, but she says “I am going to correct you, I don’t like that term, reinvent food. Creating new foods is what we’re doing. We’re not reinventing food.”
It does look like they are doing that, on a superficial level anyway. “That’s our fault, I think. In the industry we’ve created that perception of reinvention because instead of going ‘Here’s a new type of product, it’s wonderful but it doesn’t come from the cow’. Instead, we’ve gone ‘It’s plant-based cheese’. So we looked like we’re reinventing it, but really we’re creating a new product. And the difference with plant-based is you have much more room for innovation. you can develop new varieties of cheese using different cultures, or you can change the fat or milk source but at the end it’s still cheese. In Plant based we are creating a whole new eating experience. I think we need to stop confining ourselves into being plant-based or alternative and think of it just as developing other food options that consumers can add to their diet. And, yes, it might have better sustainability and it might be better for the planet, and that’s wonderful. But the key purchase drivers for consumers are mostly around taste.”
Any discussion about taste must acknowledge that taste itself is subjective on an individual level. Or, to put it another way, some people can’t handle anything other than cool Doritos, some enjoy plain old regular, and some go bananas for Chilli Heatwave. Perhaps with a lot of plant-based foods, that individual element has been compromised by a homogenous pursuit of a product that tastes great to as many people as possible. So it all tastes a little bit ‘regular’.
“You have to acknowledge that one solution doesn’t fit all and never will. Therefore, the flavour solutions need to be different. You have to work at it more in plant-based to adjust your profile to the right kind of market or consumer. What’s the release? Is it coming through as vanilla, milky, sweet, or is it coming through a sweet, vanilla, then milky? There’s a massive difference. It might not seem like there is but that can be the difference between considering a product to be really tasty and authentic, versus: ‘Yeah, it’s fine’. We strive for tasty and authentic.”
There are also other complex reasons why some plant-based products coming onto the market don’t taste as terrific as they could, ranging from straightforward geographical variations, for instance the preferred sweetness level in Europe is different to that in America. Regulatory differences also mean different countries require different ingredients to formulate a recipe. “The regulatory space can dictate an awful lot. For example, shea butter is approved for use in food in Europe, but not in the US, yet. So you have to formulate differently for each region, and that affects the taste.”
It’s also fair to suggest that the plant-based space remains in its infancy, that it has come an astonishing way in a short space of time and will continue to improve. “I think we’re at the early stages of something that could be extremely beneficial to consumers on the planet,” she says. “I don’t think it’ll ever be a case of one completely replacing the other. I do think there’s the opportunity to have a successful cultivated meat product, a successful plant version, and have real meat, and it just becomes what your personal preference is. I think the biggest challenge we have in the food industry is how we communicate that. That’s a piece that’s critical.”
But, of course, this is food, so although it “might be the biggest understatement of the century, taste is key,” she says. “And I’m not saying that as somebody in the flavour industry, I’m saying that as a consumer. You cannot hope to sustain the planet if you cannot provide great tasting food. And my job in this industry at Edlong is figuring out what the challenges are with new ingredients, products and processing, and finding ways to make that food taste great.”
“The Magic of Flavour – expect the unexpected” will be the theme for Edlong’s sessions at Food Matters Live: Tastes of Better in London in October. Tastes of Better is an opportunity for ingredient innovators to showcase first-hand their latest ingredient, flavour and colour innovations to our UK audience of brands, manufacturers, retailers, foodservice and QSRs.