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What’s the future for plant-based food and drink?

8 min read

In the plant-based world replica burgers are everywhere, but RSSL envisages a healthier and increasingly natural horizon for the industry, one that’s packed with real vegetables and may turn out to be more fish, than flesh…

The plant-based sector is full of activity, but “the market is still growing,” says Carole Bingley, product and ingredient innovation technical specialist at RSSL. That’s backed up by Euromonitor, which says there was a 19% increase in sales of plant-based meat in Western Europe in 2021 compared to 2020, something Bingley suggests has been fuelled by the rate of innovation. 

“We’ve seen a huge improvement over the last five years, in the next five I think we’ll see even more because of what’s coming down the line, like precision fermentation, cell-cultured meat, high-moisture extrusion and 3D printing.”

Of those things, she says cell-cultured developments are “probably” the most exciting in terms of “getting a product which is as close to meat as possible, because you are actually growing the same constituents. And there are companies developing fats grown through cell culture as well. At the moment most of the products are using coconut oil. That’s okay, but it doesn’t have the same mouthfeel or melting properties you find in in meat. These sorts of advances are going to bring us much closer to delivering the taste and texture of meat.”

Still, scientific advances in such complex fields are rarely simplistic. Fred Gates, RSSL’s texture and microstructure technical specialist, says there are “many different hurdles to overcome, but slowly people are getting there. The big challenge is to get anything which is structured like real meat. How to start getting all the parts in the right place, the connective tissue, the fat, and that’s where 3D printing can take the constituents and put them together in a way that resembles meat.” Other technologies such as extrusion also all have a big part to play in this everchanging landscape.


As well as assembling the constituent parts, there are plenty of similar challenges with the other ingredients, from flavourings to functional ones. “The best ingredient from a nutritional perspective may not be the best ingredient from a functionality perspective,” says Bingley. “Clean labelling is also a really big concern in this, there’s a lot of scrutiny. Methyl cellulose would be a good example. It actually gels as you heat a product up, whereas most gels will melt as you cook a product. It helps to bind everything together, so if you’re cooking your burger on a barbeque, it holds the burger together and it doesn’t fall to pieces.”

Any budding barbeque chef would tell you that’s a good thing, but the trouble is, most manufacturers would “rather not have that ingredient on their labels,” she says. “It’s an additive, so it’s either labelled with an E-number or it’s labelled as methyl cellulose, which obviously sounds like a chemical, it doesn’t sound natural. When the plant-based products first came to the market five or six years ago, it was all about just getting a taste and texture. Now it’s taste, texture, nutrition, clean label, cost… the list of things has got longer and longer, so it’s more and more challenging to put a tick against each of those.”

How a product looks is also still uppermost in the minds of consumers, she says. “Something that would make my life a lot easier would be a plant-based protein, which has a very low flavour, is soluble, and is white. That’s a big challenge for us at the moment because I do a lot of work in fish, and all the plant proteins are beige or brown. So it’s really difficult to get the protein in there without having an impact on colour. Titanium dioxide has a really good whitening effect, unfortunately the EU decided to ban it because of concerns around nanoparticles. But again, it doesn’t really fit with the whole clean label policy, either. Titanium dioxide is a chemical, and it sounds like a chemical.”

Appearances remain vital for consumer acceptance of plant-based alternatives

Appearances remain vital for consumer acceptance of plant-based alternatives

Focusing on the appearance of any new product may appear superficial in the grand scheme of things, but Bingley says it’s “incredibly important” when it comes to winning over hungry consumers. “The first interaction the consumer has with the product is the visual appearance, and if it doesn’t match their expectation and their experience of similar products then it’s a huge hurdle to overcome.”

However, those challenges can be mitigated by rigorous analytical testing. Paul O’Nion, a flavour technical specialist at RSSL, says it deploys analytical testing in a wide range of ways. “We’ve used it for flavour profiling meat free products, like the aromas during cooking. We’ve also been talking to people about encapsulation of flavours, so they’re only released during the cooking process, so in theory you can put less in. And the secret no-one wants anyone to know is that most people’s noses and palates are far more sensitive than analytical equipment. We always say to everyone, whatever analysis you do, do it alongside a panel of tasters, so you can compare results. And ideally the sensory analysis matches the analytical analysis, so moving forward the analysis can be used to replicate sensory assessments and generate the understanding quicker.”

We talk to people who may want to reduce the level of salt in their products, but have never done any flavour analysis to truly understand exactly what they could adjust, but still remain acceptable to their customers. 

Paul O’Nion, a flavour technical specialist at RSSL

Testing is also used in other ways. “We can define, in a measurable way, things which consumers take for granted,” says Gates. “They have expectations and are disappointed if they are not met or exceeded.”

For instance, he says the average crisp lover “doesn’t necessarily buy a bag of crisps because of the texture, it’s more likely they enjoy the flavour. But subsequently, if the texture doesn’t match your expectations, you find it’s lacking something. As you’re chewing a product, the texture doesn’t remain constant, you’re getting a textural experience. Initially you’re biting, you’re cutting through the material, then you’re putting it into your back teeth and compressing it. Then you’re shearing it by moving it at different angles in your mouth. You’ve also got your tongue working on it and you’re putting saliva on it too. It’s a very complex process.”

When it comes to analytical testing, he says “we talk to people who, for example, may want to reduce the level of salt in their products, but have never done any flavour analysis to truly understand exactly what they could adjust, but still remain acceptable to their customers. We can put measures and numbers against that process to enable people to figure out which ingredients add particular functionality and optimise them.” 

The next level

It’s why James Spinks, RSSL’s microstructure technical specialist, spends a “lot of time looking at the microstructure of foods and our understanding of the distribution of ingredients. The technologies we’ve had available in the last two to three years have moved on, now we’ve got something called a confocal Raman microscope, which enables us to look at the chemical signature of food then go beyond that and start to look at the different types of proteins and fats that are potentially present there. We’re taking our understanding of food microstructure to the next level, so we can support the industry and help it understand the impact of their product development and process much further”.

When it comes to the next level for the sector, for all the talk of the burger and sausage replicas produced by Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, Bingley suggests the industry is heading towards something healthier than another big juicy burger. 

“In the cell-cultured area fish is actually slightly further ahead than meat because it’s easier to grow. Fish live in colder environments, so you don’t have to grow the cells at such high temperatures as you do with meat, which makes it easier to do. Structure wise, fish muscle is a simpler structure than animal, and you don’t generally need the fats in the same way. So I think we may start to see plant-based fish products come into the market before steak or chicken. They do have some reformed breaded chicken type products in Singapore, but I think we’re a little way off having a steak.”

Continuing on the healthy theme, she expects to see “more inclusion of vegetables or pulse ingredients. That didn’t seem to be very important a few years ago, whereas now I think consumers are buying plant-based products because of the perception of them being healthier than meat or dairy. And one way of actually doing that is delivering what consumers would consider as natural, rather than protein isolates or concentrates, or whole ingredients that haven’t been processed and separated. So I think in the future we are going to see more products coming to market that are truly plant-based.”

How RSSL can help

Our team of experienced product developers and scientists will work with you to translate your new food or drink idea into a commercial reality.  From ingredient selection, ingredient analysis and texture optimisation to claim substantiation and due diligence, our product development and analytical teams we will guide you through every stage of your product development journey.  

Meet RSSL 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.