Author: Aisha Mahomed Ali
Date : 14 July 2022
There is an increasing trend to leading a healthier lifestyle, and today more people are turning to changing their diets and seeking more plant-based or alternative meat-free products. Early plant-based meat products were developed with vegetarians in mind, providing a vegetarian option for your typical meat-based products. Today, concerns such as food security, sustainability, climate change and impacts of industrial animal agriculture are the main factors that stimulated innovation in developing plant-based meat products that try to replicate or bio mimics conventional meat products. Another trending topic is the benefits of plant proteins on health and chronic diseases. For these reasons, scientists continue to research plant-based proteins to develop products that have the same appearance, texture, flavour, and nutritional properties as regular animal meat, fish, dairy, and egg products. With increased plant-based meat options available in supermarkets today, do we know how these are made?
How is plant-based meat made?
Animal meat is made up of muscle tissue, and in its simplest form, this consists of protein, fat, vitamins, mineral and water. Plants do not have muscle tissue, but they do contain protein, fat, vitamins, minerals, and water. To try and replicate the protein, fats or functional components in animal meat, a replacement is sought in plants.
The well-known texture of animal meat is because of its unique special arrangement of proteins in the muscle tissue. Often plant-based ingredients have different compositions, structures, and physicochemical properties, making it more challenging to mimic animal meat products. However, minced meat has a simpler texture making it easier to replicate, and most of the current plant-based products are mimic minced meat derivatives.
Plant-based ingredients are made similar to meat products through mechanical, chemical, or biological processing.
When making plant-based meat products, these general production steps apply
- Crop development
- Ingredient optimisation
- End product formulation and manufacturing
With proteins being the main ingredient in meat products, the starting point for developing plant-based meat products is finding and optimising the suitable crop sources containing the right protein mixtures that would have the closest structures and functionalities to animal proteins. This results in less costly, energy-intensive, complex downstream processing and, in turn, less effort to create a plant-based meat product with the desired functional and sensory properties of animal meat products. This can be done by finding the right crop sources and growth conditions. Finding the genes that provide the desired properties can be controlled by selecting and breeding crop cultivars.
Once crops are harvested, they need to be processed to isolate the proteins. The protein concentrates or isolates serve as the base ingredient for plant-based meats. Some crops, such as jackfruit and mushrooms, require minimum post-harvest processing when preparing plant-based meats, but most plant-based products rely on plant protein concentrates or isolates as raw materials. This can be then further processed to obtain desired functional attributes.
Although obtained from the same plant source, Fats and starch are usually sold as separate fractions and are then recombined during the manufacturing of plant-based meat products. This allows manufacturers consistency and reproducibility of the ratios within the final formulation. It is also easier for manufacturers to store ingredients as shelf-stable dry ingredients.
End product formulation and manufacturing
The formulation and manufacturing of plant-based meat combine culinary art and science. This complex process looks at the interactions between ingredients and testing for desired texture and sensory attributes. The formulation also looks at the nutritional properties of the final product to make it as close as possible to animal meats or to enhance its nutritional properties, to include fibre, for example.
After the formulation, the mixture is structured into appropriate shapes and forms. This is done through manufacturing processes such as stretching, kneading, shear-cell processing, press forming, folding, layering, 3D printing, and extrusion. These processes result in different forms and textures of plant-based meat products that we currently see in the market.
Although the number of plant-based meat products in the market is increasing, research is still ongoing to develop new healthy, nutritional products that taste, looks and feels just as great as animal meat.