Strip away the noise, the activity and the excitement, and the plant-based protein world is on a simple mission to achieve two things in the future: Pleasant taste, and texture.
Ingredients manufacturer BENEO thinks it’s cracked it with its latest developments in the plant-based space, the company’s textured wheat protein is one of its solutions for appealing alternatives to meat. “One of the main advantages of this ingredient is the taste,” says Olivier Chevalier, BENEO’s Technical Support Manager for Meat & Fish Alternatives. “When you compare it to other vegetable proteins, it’s very neutral in taste, so you don’t need to use masking flavours.”
The other benefit is the texture. “In the past, textured wheat protein had a reputation of being soft after hydration. Therefore, BENEO’s application technology experts really focused on achieving a texture which is still chewable after hydration, so it mimics the mouthfeel of eating a product made from minced meat, like a burger, meatballs or sausages.”
The reason for the paramount importance of taste and texture is simple, he says. “It’s a crucial repurchasing factor. When consumers buy a meat alternative, having a pleasant taste and texture is their number one shopping motivation, according to our consumer research. So manufacturers of plant-based alternatives have to focus on providing the customer with a great tasting product and a good texture to be successful.”
At Food Matters Live’s Taste of Better event, BENEO plans to show off some of its latest innovations, including a tasty tomato soup with vegetarian meatballs featuring BENEO textured wheat protein and rice starch, and a chocolate pudding made with chicory root fibres, faba bean protein and rice starch. It will also be serving up a vegan tuna salad, made with Meatless Tjoena flakes, and a chicken sweet and sour stirfry, made with RTU Meatless chicken chunks.
As well as taste and texture, Chevalier emphasises BENEO’s high priority on nutritional quality – the company’s motto is ‘Connecting nutrition and health’. But when it comes to plant-based food he believes “that the consumer mindset for nutritional aspects of meat and fish alternatives still provides opportunities to grow.” However, he strongly believes that consumers will be having a closer look at these products in the future in terms of protein and fat content, as well as the amino acid composition.”
Another key motivation for many consumers to eat less meat and more plant-based food is reducing the impact of greenhouse gases, and to combat global warming. Sustainability is a strategic element in BENEO’s business, the company has strengthened its position in the plant-based protein sector to contribute to a future-proof nutrition. One focus is on vegan fish.
‘Fish’ from the field
“Consumers are looking for fish alternatives because they are increasingly aware of overfishing, and ocean life being in danger,” says Chevalier. “Therefore I would say the market for plant-based fish and seafood has a great future. The first products that we saw appearing on the market in that segment included tuna imitations, plant-based crab cakes and vegan fish sticks. As for the future evolution in this product category, I would predict that a white fish fillet imitation will be next.”
Achieving that whiteness in alternative fish can be a challenge because of the beige nature of many plant-based proteins, but Meatless, a Dutch company which BENEO acquired in May 2022, has accomplished it. Chevalier says the Meatless portfolio of texturizing solutions derived from different raw materials perfectly complements BENEO’s existing product range. When it comes to plant-based fish alternatives rice is the ingredient of choice, as textured rice flakes offer the benefit of containing rice starch, which is very white.
“Rice starch is commonly used as a clean label solution to make a wide range of food products white without using titanium dioxide,” he explains. “Rice is also very neutral in taste, and the processing technology creates flakes which mimic the fibrous structure of fish meat.”
Plant-based fish has a bright future then, but for the time being, Chevalier believes “beef products, burgers or meatballs, chicken nuggets and chicken fillets will continue to make up the majority of the offer on the market.” But he also says the industry is “trying to compete in new product categories. Food producers are increasingly focusing on products like cold cuts, such as salami.”
Faba bean: future star
Away from meat and fish, and a big focus for BENEO is tapping into the potential of the faba bean. Chevalier says it’s “quite a trendy protein. In fact, according to Mintel, global product launches including faba bean ingredients have achieved a CAGR of 20% between 2016-2021.” [Mintel GNPD, global search for faba bean flour and proteins in the categories: snacks, bakery, breakfast cereals, dairy and meat substitutes, date of search: 22/12/2021].
There are various reasons why BENEO made a €50 million investment in a new pulse processing site in Offstein, Germany, which will initially focus on producing faba bean ingredients. “Faba beans are well-known and one of the earliest domesticated legumes. BENEO strives to source its raw materials at the standard of Farm Sustainability Assessment and processes them in close proximity, avoiding long ways of transportation. In terms of sustainability, faba beans also have another advantage in that they can capture nitrogen from the air, to provide it for themselves and subsequent plants, which reduces the need for fertilizer input. So it’s for all those reasons that BENEO decided to go for ingredients from this legume in the future.”
The company’s faba bean ingredients can be used for protein enrichment, for example. Thanks to its high solubility, faba bean protein is well suited to create plant-based smoothies with a pleasant mouthfeel and stable texture.
So what does Chevalier think the future holds for plant-based eating in general? He says he keeps abreast of the market for personal reasons, as well as professional ones.
“I would describe myself as a flexitarian consumer. I occasionally eat meat, but I am reducing my consumption and purchase different meat alternatives that are on the market to eat, but also to determine the quality of the products already available. Roughly, I like about half of the products I try. When meat alternatives don’t convince me, the reason is usually down to either their taste or texture. Though I must admit, because I work in the food industry, I may be a little more demanding than the average consumer.”
However thanks to increasing efforts in new product development, ingredients manufacturers such as BENEO have developed high quality plant proteins with technical benefits, that deliver in terms of both taste and texture. Chevalier also notes that “food manufacturers should try to develop plant-based alternatives, with a short and simple list of ingredients, offering transparency to the consumer. Many options currently available on the market have not achieved this yet.”
Chevalier says when he started out in the industry 25 years ago, he was working for a company producing vegetable protein. “At the time, we already had some customers producing meat alternatives. Although these companies were producing plant-based food and selling it in Europe, it was still a niche market. Back then, you had to be very motivated and courageous to eat plant-based food. I still remember the products that you could find in the supermarket at that time. You could not get them in the chilled section, they were only sold in frozen form. Also, the options available were not very appealing in terms of texture and taste, as they had a strong aftertaste.”
Now there are very satisfying solutions on the market, he says. “BENEO’s most recent news is that it will be offering manufacturers with semi-finished plant-based chicken chunks from its Meatless brand, which is planned for the second quarter of 2023 in fresh and frozen form. This is particularly exciting for us, as it will be the first time BENEO will offer products in a ready-to-use format.”
Add in the fact that one in two consumers worldwide is very interested in plant-based nutrition, according to a 2021 survey by Insites Consulting, and that the plant-based meat and fish market in Europe is valued at over €3bn and is expected to grow by 14% CAGR between 2022 and 2027, according to Euromonitor International 2022, and all the signs for a greener future are good. And as Chevalier says, thanks to “the continuous efforts of companies like BENEO, consumers don’t need to compromise on taste and texture in the future.”
Meet Beneo at the Food Matters Live: Tastes of Better series, 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.