Faking It

Many of today’s meat analogs boast a look, taste, and texture surprisingly close to the real thing.
Remember when meat analogs — stand-ins for the real thing —pretty much meant odd-tasting tofu-based concoctions? When tofu connoisseurs were limited to those free spirits among us who frequented health food stores and subscribed to "Mother Earth News?"
How times have changed. If you haven’t taken stock of your local grocer’s freezer case lately, the shear number — and variety — of meat analogs currently available might surprise you. From fajita-flavored veggie burgers to pizzas sprinkled with imitation pepperoni and sausage, mainstream consumers now can find flavorful meatless versions of many of their beef, pork, and poultry favorites.
“Compared to just five years ago, there’s a lot more diversity and a wider array of offerings,” notes Steve Ham, director of marketing, specialty ingredients, for Atchison, KS-based MGP Ingredients Inc. “Taste, texture, and visual properties are improving all the time.”
"Vegetarian Foods — U.S.," a report published in November 2003 by the Mintel International Group Ltd., attributes the sector’s growth to escalating consumer concerns related to health and increased awareness of the benefits of a meat-reduced diet. Other drivers, says the report, include "a wider distribution and selection of vegetarian products through traditional and non-traditional channels."
Building the base
Textured vegetable proteins form the basis of today’s meat analogs. Soy flour, soy protein concentrate, wheat gluten, and combinations of different vegetable proteins are some of the most commonly used forms, showing up in both red meat and poultry analogs, notes Cheryl Borders, manager of soy foods applications for the Decatur-based Archer Daniels Midland Co. (ADM).
Also showing promise for use in future analog applications are defatted peanut flour and canola proteins.
Textured vegetable proteins are available in a wide variety of particle sizes, says Borders, including "irregular granules and crumbles, flakes, chunks, and strips." The desired texture and appearance of the finished analog will dictate the particle size selected, she adds, and powder forms usually are used in analogs meant to simulate emulsified products such as hot dogs.
In meat analog applications, says Ham, MGP Ingredients’ line of highly functional Wheatex® textured wheat proteins offers a very clean flavor with no aftertaste that needs to be masked. The line comes in numerous shapes, sizes, and colors, and the new RediShred variety mimics the appearance and texture of shredded beef, pork, and chicken.
Soy not only is readily available and economical, says Borders, but also boasts a protein quality comparable to meat, dairy, and egg proteins. In addition, U.S. consumers perceive soy to be a healthful ingredient, helping to ward off diseases ranging from heart disease to cancer.
"Soy is one of the richest sources of good-quality protein," says Brinda Govindarajan, Ph.D., R&D director for Legacy Foods LLC, Hutchinson, KS. "Textured soy flour [and] textured soy concentrates give the texture and mouthfeel of meat."
Legacy Foods supplies the ULTRA-SOY® line of textured soy proteins, which come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors. When these dry soy proteins are hydrated, they exhibit the laminar, fibrous texture of meat.
"Products today look more like real meat and poultry," stresses Al Gallegos, director of new business development for The Solae Co., St. Louis.
To mimic a red meat, says Borders, the textured pieces are typically colored with malt extract, caramel color, or an FD&C red, while pieces destined for use in poultry analogs usually remain uncolored.
ADM offers a wide variety of soy protein products, including the Nutrisoy® brand of soy protein. In addition, the company is introducing the Nutrisoy® Next soy product, which is produced via high-moisture extrusion.
"The product is fully cooked, requires no hydration, and has a fibrous appearance and mouthfeel," explains Borders. "It can be used in hot or cold entrees, [and in] batter and breaded, and retorted products."
The Solae Co. supplies Response textured concentrates for a wide range of analog applications, including burgers, nuggets, crumbles, and breakfast sausages, notes Gallegos. The products vary in size, color, protein levels, and texture. The company’s newest technologies, he adds, "include products that provide long fibrils, [which are] excellent for meat-like vegetarian products."
In addition to the wheat protein, soy flour, soy concentrate, or other vegetable protein, meat analogs require functional ingredients to hold the product together and provide a meat-like texture and mouthfeel. Water is added to improve the product’s mouthfeel and increase juiciness, and vegetable oil might be included, too. Functional proteins such as soy concentrates, soy isolates, or wheat and rice proteins often are added to the textured proteins for binding, emulsifying and/or texturizing purposes.
"Egg white is also found in meat analogs and can contribute to binding as well as to providing ‘bite’ during the eating experience," says Borders, "but is not suitable for vegan applications. Powdered wheat gluten can also be used for binding and texture properties."
Other commonly used binders include tapioca starch, pectins, and gums.
Focusing on flavor
Regardless of their purported health benefits, very few of us would purchase today’s meat analogs if the products exhibited the off-flavors of their older — and now departed — relatives. The strong growth the meat analog sector has enjoyed during the past few years, therefore, owes much to flavor improvements achieved through processing enhancements and flavorhouse advances.
"Over the past ten years, process improvements have been made, and suppliers are able to provide vegetable proteins with a cleaner flavor, which makes it easier to flavor the analog," notes Borders.
Like ADM and many other soy processors, Cedar Falls, IA-based Nutriant, a Kerry company, has found ways to minimize the beany flavor in products destined for meat analog applications.
"One advance is the natural processing of soy concentrates and isolates," says Terry Gieseke, director of business development for the company. "Without having been exposed to hexane during the oil extraction phase of processing, these soy ingredients from Nutriant have both a uniquely clean flavor and remarkable physical properties in analog and blend applications. And they are the only [types of] soy concentrates and isolates that can be certified organic," she adds.
Rob Kirby, vice president of marketing for Springfield, IL-based Spectrum Foods Inc., notes that his company’s Nexsoy® soy ingredients also are produced through a solvent-free process.
"The Nexsoy processing method is entirely mechanical," he says. "The result is very bland, naturally produced soy ingredients that can be used by food manufacturers in high inclusion rates without negatively impacting the flavor of their product. This process is used in the production of our textured soy proteins, as well as our low-fat flour. Nexsoy ingredients also are available in certified non-genetically-modified and certified organic versions," he adds.
Flavor companies have responded to the growing analog category by creating a wide range of flavors that meets the needs of various applications, says Borders.
"They can provide the characteristic meaty note, as well as important background notes such as fatty, serumy, roasted, etc.," she says. "In addition, they have developed masking agents to reduce inherent cereal notes found in vegetable proteins. The flavor suppliers and product developers have also learned to compensate for the tendency proteins have to bind with various flavor components."
Kalamazoo, MI-based Kalsec® Inc. provides its seasonings for meat analogs in a form that works across different textures, notes Tammi Higgins, the company’s Customer Red-ySM manager. The ingredients show up as natural flavorings on the finished product’s label, a fact that should appeal to many consumers.
"The meat analog texture is dependent on a balanced interaction [among] functional ingredients such as proteins, binders, and fats," says Higgins. "Kalsec’s seasonings are in a concentrated liquid form, which enables processors to manipulate the ratio of functional ingredients to achieve the desired texture while providing a full, rich-flavored product."
In addition to its liquid seasonings, Kalsec offers a vegetable protein masking system called the Herbalox® OP-T™ Solution. The system masks the cereal notes associated with vegetable proteins. The seasonings and masking system work in tandem, combining Kalsec’s "capabilities in flavors, colors, and oxidation management to create a product with superb flavor," notes Higgins.
Kim Gray, principal scientist for Erlanger, KY-based WILD Flavors, created the company’s Resolver® technology — a masking ingredient — then optimized it for soy proteins.
"The Resolver ingredient doesn’t have a taste of its own," she explains. "We try to cover up as much off-note as we can upfront. … Then we start doing flavoring on top of that."
Soy burgers and other meat analogs typically do call for higher levels of flavoring to overcome the protein taste, emphasizes Gray — a fact that many analog manufacturers were a bit slow to accept. "I think initially the companies were expecting the kinds of levels you would put into other kinds of meat products," she says.
Putting it all together
As the meat analog market continues to expand and ingredients for these products realize even greater improvements, more and more folks — including meat processors — can be expected to get into the game.
"Not all purchases are made by vegetarians; meat-eaters are consuming analogs, too," Borders emphasizes. "As a result, analogs are being added to foodservice and restaurant lines. … Some meat processors have gotten into the analog market by being contract manufacturers for other companies. Analogs can be produced on the same equipment that is used for meat applications, so the capital investment is small," she adds.
Meat and other processors that want to get a piece of the analog market would be wise to tap into the expertise of ingredient and flavor companies with expertise in this sector.
"One of the ways food companies can better succeed is to fully partner with an ingredient company," stresses Gallegos. "At The Solae Co., we have deep knowledge of the protein market; we provide a wide variety of great-tasting soy ingredient options and we truly understand how to formulate soy protein. Our collective knowledge enables us to help food companies from product ideation all the way to product distribution, reducing time to market and overall investment in new product development."
Such processors also could benefit further by building on the ongoing efforts of Solae and others to educate consumers about soy benefits, stresses Gallegos.
"Moving the needle toward a mainstream consumer with excellent-tasting, affordable products could have a significant impact on the category, as well as [attract] great interest [on the part of] meat and poultry processors," he stresses. That might require processors to put a heavier emphasis on what the products contain — good-tasting, health-promoting ingredients — and less on the "bad" ingredient they leave out — meat. NP
Ingredient suppliers participating in this article include:
- Archer Daniels Midland Co., phone (800) 637-5843, or visit www.admworld.com
- Kalsec Inc., phone (269) 349-9711, or visit www.kalsec.com
- Legacy Foods LLC, phone (800) 835-5006, or visit www.pmsfoods.com
- MGP Ingredients Inc., phone (800) 255-0302, or visit www.mgpingredients.com
- Nutriant, a Kerry company, phone (800) 648-3503, or visit www.nutriant.biz
- The Solae Co., phone (800) 325-7108, or visit www.solae.com
- Spectrum Foods Inc., phone (610) 328-9873, or visit www.nexsoy.com
- WILD Flavors Inc., phone (859) 342-3600, or visit www.wildflavors.com
Chew on this
Total retail sales of vegetarian products increased 141 percent from 1998 through 2003. (Mintel International Group Ltd., 2003)
- Frozen meat substitutes have shown the most significant growth in the overall vegetarian food sector, increasing to command a 72 percent share of vegetarian foods in 2002. (Mintel International Group Ltd., 2003)
- More than 15 percent of America’s college students selects a meatless option for meals on a given day. (Gallup, 2003)
- "Occasional vegetarians" — a growing base of consumers who purposely reduce the amount of meat in their diets but do not eliminate it altogether — remain the primary target for vegetarian food products. (Mintel International Group Ltd., 2003)
- The U.S. Food and Drug Administration allows the following health claim on products that contain 6.5 grams or more of soy per serving: "25 grams of soy protein a day, as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol, may reduce the risk of heart disease."