If one were attempting to identify when the so-called "chicken wars" began, August 2019 would be a date to note. It all began that summer with the quiet rollout by Popeye’s of their now-signature Crispy Fried Chicken Sandwich. In short order (no pun intended), fried chicken sandwiches were a common offering by most fast-food retailers, and consumer demand was ablaze. 

Although relatively recent, that was then, and today the chicken wars have settled down into a workaday but dogged competition between the fast-food restaurants to win the loyalty of regular patrons of chicken-sandwiches-to-go. These days, the winningest offerings deliver a flavorful, well-seasoned, crispy exterior. As operators continue to come up with new ways to delight their customers, the race goes on — and the competition now extends to plant-based meat alternatives. 

In today’s post-pandemic world in which consumers have a heightened interest in their own diets and health, producers dipping their toes in the emerging plant-based market will want to heed an important lesson from the chicken wars: Flavor and texture still reign supreme. That is, even new and ambitious products that can offer plant-based healthfulness will have little chance to gain consumer acceptance if they can’t dish out the savory crunch that makes certain foods enjoyable and craveable. 

This makes the right seasonings and coatings a must when it comes to plant-based sandwiches or nuggets attempting to curry commercial favor. Luckily, time and progress have shown that coatings represent a clear product differentiator and can offer a sustainable competitive advantage, both to manufacturers competing in the chicken wars and those foraying into plant-based meat alternatives. For the latter, coatings may actually be even more critical as new consumers form early brand loyalties that may or may not stand up over time.

Important questions arise about how to tackle the new market: How are coatings made? What unique flavor challenges are faced by meat alternatives? What processes ensure the high quality and consistent production of crumbs that will provide an irresistible flavor/texture experience? To answer these questions, we must shine a spotlight on the rapidly growing market for plant-based alternatives. 

Current state in plant-based products: Taste is still king

Many challenges occur when formulating with plant proteins — taste, texture and nutritional profiles, to name three. According to Kerry’s "Stepping Up Taste in Plant-Based" research, consumers say their benchmark for plant-based meat alternatives is real meat, only better: 85% of U.S. consumers agree that plant-based products should mimic both the taste and the texture of traditional products — not an easy benchmark to reach. “Natural” is another important attribute for these consumers. 

Together, achieving these attributes is crucial to ensuring repeat purchases by flexitarians who eat both meat and plant-based products. They will continue to buy the latter only if it tastes at least as good as meat. To gain a significant following and foothold and repeat purchases in the marketplace, therefore, this is the prevailing standard to which product developers must devote their efforts.  

To further complicate the equation, consumers expect all of the positive attributes of a real meat product, coupled with improved nutrition, topped off by a better environmental impact — the bar moves higher.

Coatings’ pivotal role in plant-based products

When we think about coatings for plant-based products, it pays to remember that they are highly nuanced versus a typical coating product. Some of the biggest issues stem from texture and moisture differences between plant-based proteins and real meat. 

Adhesion is one such challenge. This is due to the fact that coatings react differently in plant-based applications, i.e., the former often struggle to deliver the texture and the “meat-like” bite consumers are seeking. Also related to adhesion is the issue of moisture migration — optimization on this front is vital, given that moisture behaves and looks differently in an alternative protein versus an animal one. Quite simply, lost moisture can exacerbate adhesion problems and negatively impact consumer acceptance. 

Then there is the ever-important issue of taste. Depending on the desired experience, flavoring may need to be layered throughout a system to facilitate absorption and help make the eating experience more impactful. This means that proper, functional pre-dust and taste “masker” attributes are paramount to ensuring that coatings will stick, mask the off-notes of plant-based protein, and add a desirable savory sensation. It is vital that manufacturers have access to a wide array of exceptional natural flavors and spices to make their coatings very appealing. 

Designed correctly, coatings can deliver a number of important benefits that will help build consumer acceptance and loyalty. Among these are enhancements to/protection of flavor, improved texture and appearance, extended product life, freeze-thaw stability and a longer shelf life. Fortunately, many of the common coating systems used on meats, including pre-dusts, breaders, batters and breadcrumbs, can also be used on plant-based meat alternatives with only minor adaptations. Of note, to deliver the experience consumers demand, coatings can work to enhance overall taste and texture while assisting in the functionality of the final product; binders also play a vital role by maintaining a product’s texture and moisture attributes. 

Ultimately, building a tasty plant-based product that will gain acceptance requires both an excellent coating system and a good array of protein ingredients in a producer’s design palette — and this is not even to mention taste/texture enhancements and suitable binding systems. Furthermore, the process must provide protein functionality: food protection and preservation, browning solutions, masking and modulation, salt and sugar optimization, etc. Thus, when thinking about the two dueling standpoints of functional and regulatory, and considering the scale and complexity of plant-based offerings, there is little doubt that customized ingredient sets may be required.

In the end — as ever — taste is the top reason consumers choose one product over another. As a result, meeting consumer expectations in this area has become a continuous challenge in the plant-based category. From managing off-notes to injecting an authentic taste experience, many producers continue to struggle to reach consumer expectations. 

Design freedom opportunities

Here’s a bit of good news: Kerry’s sensory research shows that there is currently no “industry standard” flavor and texture profile for nuggets (in one specific example), leaving product developers free to be both flexible and creative. Well-designed coatings can enhance a plant-based meat alternative application and make it more like its meat counterpart, and today, multiple texture/color coating options leave developers free to create customized coated solutions that specifically target their stated goals. 

It certainly takes some expertise in coating applications to work through the range of variables that can impact taste; this much is a given. However, based on how the chicken wars appear to be going and the fact that the plant-based market is only in its infancy, the effort appears to be well worth it. The true winners will be those able to deliver end products that consumers both love and crave. The prize at hand is market adoption for those products able to withstand the all-important customer loyalty test — for years to come, and potentially decades.