Cargill – which has partnered with PURIS to expand production capacity for pea protein and has a range of soy-based ingredients – has been researching corn protein for a while, Melissa Machen, protein senior technical services specialist told FoodNavigator-USA.
The food industry is pretty adept at producing oils, starches and sweeteners from corn, but as the protein content in field corn is fairly low (around 8-9%), it has not traditionally been grown as a protein crop, despite its allergen-friendly credentials and appealing amino acid profile, she said. The protein- and fiber-rich parts of corn left after the milling process historically have gone into animal feed.
‘The challenge has been understanding the way to extract the protein and still make it functional’
While some companies produce zein, a water-insoluble protein called prolamin that’s extracted from corn and can form edible films used in confectionery and other products, Cargill is producing something different, she said.
“The challenge has been understanding the way to extract the protein and still make it functional so it can work in different food applications.”
Asked about formulations, Cargill believes its corn protein – which has good gelling and water binding properties – has potential in myriad applications from snacks, pasta and baked goods to dairy and meat alternatives, where it can aid with water and fat retention as well as protein fortification, said Machen.
“We’re not only thinking about North American launches, but across the globe. Corn protein is a great protein for meat alternatives because it’s got a great neutral flavor profile and a really good performance. It’s particularly high in leucine, so it blends well with pea protein [for a balanced amino acid profile, as pea is higher in lysine].”
She added: “From the applications work we’ve done so far, corn works really well as a complementary protein with textured soy or pea, so you’d add the corn protein in the dry ingredient/binder matrix that goes into the product.”
Beyond soy and pea: Chickpea protein, faba bean protein, canola protein…
When it comes to plant-based meat formulation, Cargill has done a lot of work on soy, pea, and rice, but has also road-tested a variety of other proteins from faba beans to chickpeas, which has a neutral taste and some nice gelling properties, said Machen.
“Canola protein does have some gelling capability, but there’s a bit of color variation, so for a meat alternative such as a chicken or seafood alternative that can be a challenge, whereas in a burger it’s not an issue.”
Fermented microbial proteins
So what about next-generation novel proteins produced via microbial fermentation?
According to Machen, “Cargill is researching quite heavily right now in fermentation so things like mycoproteins [fungi-based proteins], and also cell-based proteins [cell-cultured meat from real animal cells], but we’re all trying to figure out what’s going to be the most economical.”
Fat… the final frontier in plant-based meat?
When it comes to fats in plant-based meats, most companies are still using a combination of hard fats such as coconut oil, cocoa butter, or shea butter; and liquid oils such as canola or sunflower, with new technologies [click here and here] attempting to replace certain hard fats demonstrating exciting potential, she said.
“Hard fats such as coconut provide that firmness when the burger is refrigerated. You also want something that is going to give you those nice white flecks but also will melt when you cook it. Then the liquid fat gives a nice sizzle when it hits the pan or the grill.
“What we’re seeing now is that customers want to reduce their saturated fat, but this can make products more difficult to handle out of the package, as they can become very soft. So some manufacturers are adding a clean label starch or hydrocolloids so they can get the texture you would have with a higher level of saturated fat.
“The other thing that is really challenging is water balance, to get to the right texture and eating experience.”
Replacing methylcellulose: There’s no one-for-one solution
As for ‘cleaning up’ labels, “everyone” wants to get rid of methylcellulose (sometimes listed as ‘modified cellulose’ in a bid to make it sound more appealing), she said, but it’s a challenge.
“Methylcellulose is such a unique ingredient, it’s such a functional ingredient. It’s soft in a gel at cold temperatures, but it firms as you heat it up so it gives that really nice hot firm bite in a meat alternative. It’s also very effective because it’s used it really moderate usage levels, just 1-2%.”
She added: “A lot of our customers have come to us requesting a replacement, but it won’t be a one-for-one replacement. Plus, if it’s a ready to cook burger, it’s going to be a different solution than a deli alternative or a hotdog alternative.”
v1, v2, v3…‘The meat alternative space has the fastest iteration cycles out there’
Stepping back and looking at the meat alternative space today vs 10 years ago, she said, it’s come a long way.
“I’ve been in the food industry for over 20 years, and the meat alternative space has the fastest iteration cycles out there, so you’ve got version one, version two, version three, every six to nine months which is very fast for food developers.
“The biggest challenge is still supply of proteins, and especially highly nutritious proteins and options compared to soy.”
Flavor: ‘Overcoming beanie or grassy or green notes from some plant proteins is key’
When it comes to flavor, she said, it’s not just about which ‘meaty’ flavors to add, but how the fat and the protein impact the flavor. “Overcoming beanie or grassy or green notes from some plant proteins is key.”
Asked whether Impossible Foods’ flagship heme protein – which imparts flavor and color to its burgers – sets its products apart from rivals, she said: “I would say there is a discernible difference that the heme adds, but I would say that other colors and flavors are definitely making advancements.”
Consumers and plant-based meat
As for perceptions of plant-based meat, consumers still tell researchers that conventional meat has the edge when it comes to taste, texture, and bite, said Mark Fahlin, business development manager for dairy and plant-based at Cargill.
However, they generally believe that plant-based meat is healthier, he said.
So while “taste is still king,” formulators are under pressure to clean up labels and improve the nutritional profiles of their wares, something that might not be a major issue now, but could become more of a factor as the market matures and shoppers scrutinize labels more closely, he speculated.
“Methylcellulose has not held companies back, but the industry is not standing still.”
Consumers purchase drivers for plant-based meat: ‘People like to try new things’
As to what ‘healthier’ looks like in plant-based meat, for some consumers it’s about the number of recognizable ingredients on the label, or avoiding hormones and antibiotics, while for others it’s about more fiber, less saturated fat and cholesterol, or fewer calories, he said.
For others, meanwhile, it’s about proactively trying to incorporate more plants and plant proteins into the diet, he said.
“Beyond personal health, there’s also animal welfare, sustainability, and then just discovery… people like to try new things.”
White space: Chicken, seafood, deli meats…
When it comes to white space in the market, he said, “We have a lot of burgers, but there’s runway in sausages and hot dogs, deli slices, meatballs, pizza toppings, chicken, and seafood, which is a small market but high growth, so we’re working with industry on it.”
If you think about how quickly younger consumers in particular can embrace new food and beverage trends, he said, “If you go to a backyard party or a pool party now, they’re not just drinking beer, you’ll see them all drinking hard seltzers, which have really broken out in the last couple of years and I think you’ll start to see that for plant based meats. But we’re not there quite yet.”
According to SPINS, US retail sales of plant-based meat were up 45% to $1.4bn in the 52 weeks to December 27, 2020, significantly outpacing sale growth in conventional meat, although the latter (far larger and more mature) market also grew in double digits over the period. Read more HERE.