Chandana Tekkatte• February 13 2023

‘To meat or not to meat’ – the future of plant-based proteins

Renowned architect Louis Kahn once said, “It’s important, you see, that you honor the material that you use… You can only do it if you honor the brick and glorify the brick instead of shortchanging it”. Internalizing this line of thought in our endeavor to create next-gen plant-based protein products leads us to wonder, “Should we ask a pea what it wants to be?”

 

The Indian plant-based market has witnessed an influx of plant-based meat products over the past few years. More than 65 new startups have come up with unbelievably original ‘mutton’ samosas, seekh kebabs, keema, and ‘chicken’ nuggets entirely sourced from plants. Their plant-sourced ingredients are expertly crafted to closely replicate meaty flavors and textures because even though it’s no secret that protein sourced from animals is unsustainable, we cannot expect consumers to start eating chickpeas instead of chicken! That said, some experts in the food production industry and product development consultancies foresee that with the introduction of cultivated and hybrid alternatives, the consumer landscape for plant-based meat might evolve away from conventional meat mimics. From a nutritional standpoint, this is already an age-old debate – should the focus be on biomimicking meat or providing the highest quality digestible protein to meet the world’s protein needs? All of this is driving some experts in the ecosystem to introspect on how to formulate the ‘next generation’ of plant-based products with tastes and textural properties like never before. 

Taking this into consideration, entrepreneurs are now faced with both challenges and opportunities for improving, and possibly re-imagining existing plant-based meat products. 

Behavioral influences on the consumption of meat, and beyond meat

Today’s plant-based meats aim to be perfect replicas, where they look, cook, sizzle, smell, and taste just like their animal-derived counterparts. Examining this strategy through the theory of ‘Diffusion of Innovations’ reveals that present-day entrepreneurs are working (successfully at that) to rope in the early adopter cohort by offering them attractive and desirable (but currently expensive) meat-like products. Soon, as is with any successful innovation, the developers may need to step back and re-evaluate if meat-like attributes alone, are creative and appealing enough to move beyond this early adopter cohort and reach the critical masses required to establish a self-sustaining category, with a steady rate of adoption. 

After a flurry of startups and companies entering the sector over the past few years, the market is beginning to enter a phase where it has to target a broader audience of consumers from varied social backgrounds and established normative behavioral attitudes. To capitalize on this shift, innovators should analyze this demographic’s psyche, a critical step that could support the acceptance of plant-based protein products with their complex socio-economic implications. 

There is some research to support that omnivores and flexitarians who regularly eat meat prefer that meat alternatives resemble conventional meat, while those who actually have a high favorability for meat alternatives don’t particularly have a similar bias. Moreover, the top positive associations made with plant-based meat are sustainable and ethical consumption values. But will these factors be sufficient primary social drivers to set an all-conforming and compliant normative behavioral trend towards the acceptance of plant-based meat? In the past, it has been noted that products marketed as sustainable often suffer from an attitude-behavior gap which indicates that a positive association may not always translate into actionable behavior. According to some studies, poor acceptability of plant-based proteins on the market has also been attributed to a combination of psychological variables such as food technology neophobia and the association of existing plant-based formulations (the majority of which are soy or wheat-based) with ‘food disgust’. This highlights that manufacturers may need to dissociate meat alternatives from soy or tofu and explore other high-protein plant sources like peas, millet, wheat, and fermentation-derived products. Increasing customers’ familiarity with the variety and nutritional benefits of plant-derived proteins, and actively researching ways to heighten the sensory appeal of plant-based products could also help offset currently perceived product flaws.

Alternative meat source or protein source?  

While pondering the question “Are we not mimicking meat enough or not masking the plant origins enough?”, some blue-sky thinkers might ask, “Do we even need to do either? We should be chasing a novel textured protein-rich product” instead

Thinking along those lines, ‘paneer’ is a perfect example of a novel textured product that captured the hearts and taste buds of consumers the world over. Is a revolutionary breakthrough then overdue in the alternative protein field as well? With a limited understanding of the cravings of the Indian demographics, it is challenging to capture whether the average Indian consumer would favor a meat-like nugget or a ‘never-done-before’ non-meaty texture and flavor as tempting as paneer. Some experts in the field believe that rather than posing plant-based protein alternatives as meat mimics, it may be wiser to repurpose the knowledge advancements in texturization technology and ingredient sourcing to come up with an entirely unique texture, flavor, and taste with no parallels to compare with and ‘flaw-find’. If such a holistic plant-based paradigm – with ideal amino acid scores, increased protein efficiency ratios, and better digestibility – is to be found, then it would require a complete detachment from the meat ‘blueprint’ to give us the creative freedom to explore newer possibilities. Needless to say, this approach will be more emphatic when we can acknowledge that a sustainable alt-protein replica of red meat, poultry, and seafood is already being achieved (globally) through the cultivated meat sector with huge strides towards commercialization and broader consumer acceptability in sight. 

Creating a ‘one-of-a-kind’ textured plant-based end-product would involve playing with our existing knowledge of analytical and mechanical texturization tools (mostly designed to mimic meat-like textures), in combination with utilizing newer sources of plant proteins from indigenous crops, like millets, pulses, pongamia, hemp, and even seaweed, algae, and mushrooms (mycoproteins). At present, around a dozen different texturization technologies, mainly low-moisture and high-moisture extrusion have been tested for rendering unique chewy fibrous textures for soy, wheat, and even pea proteins. However, there has been very limited exploratory research on extrusion and shear cell technology for other ingredients such as millets, pulses, or mushrooms, opening up huge opportunities for innovation. Systematic studies aimed at learning more about alterations to the molecular structure of millet proteins (among other novel crop blends) during high temperature, varying moisture, and shear stress conditions of extrusion (while enhancing protein quality and minimizing protein degradation), would be highly valuable for designing a unique proteinaceous product. 

But, what makes meat so desirable?

Currently, analytical testing of texture and sensory properties of plant-based protein products has only been conducted in comparison to meaty flavors and textures. So, any fresh and original textural/sensory attribute, previously unexplored, could be awaiting discovery. Be as that may, we first need to advance our understanding of the food people know and love rather than prematurely aspiring for a unique plant-based protein product. By extrapolating regional meat consumption behaviors – exploring traditional recipes, their flavor composition, and perceived health associations we need to begin by answering the fundamental question “what makes meat so desirable?”. The biochemistry of food, and meat, in this case, dictates its flavor and our preferences for it. A significant portion of the improvement in plant-based proteins, therefore, will come from an interdisciplinary model combining food science, nutrition, computational gastronomy, and biotechnology. To enable this, food and data scientists, chefs, and culinary experts would have to collaboratively work on comprehensive descriptive sensory evaluation trials possible through computation, to look for generally favored attributes of new plant-based products in the ranks of flavor, smell, taste, and appearance and more specific notes of “chewy”, “spongy”, “moist”, “earthy”, “crumbly”, “umami”, and other sensations that may even be more inherent and integral to the ingredients themselves

With this knowledge, and with the growing preference for meat among flexitarians, meat analog creators could benefit from performing deep research through local community surveys and leveraging technologies such as AI and machine learning to capture consumer preferences and preemptively bypass potential flaws. Overall, such approaches could help create a range of characteristic plant-based end-products from indigenous crop sources, with increased protein bioavailability and enhanced physicochemical properties, containing fewer emulsifiers and hydrocolloids, and more fiber, modeling as ‘tempting-yet-healthy’ protein-rich foods that people crave. 

Changing tracks towards a new category could derail us.

The Good Food Institute’s theory of change is based on the idea that consumers will choose alternative protein products when they are as inexpensive, delicious, and ubiquitous as animal-derived products. Before we strive to make new, exciting, tasty, texturally unique plant products, we must pause and consider if we may be losing sight of the end goal, i.e., accelerating a protein transition by replacing traditional meat and other animal-derived products with sustainable, nutritious, and delicious alternatives. A whole new category that doesn’t seek to imitate meat-like counterparts may not dissuade the consumption of meat among consumers, thus defeating the end goal of trying to protect planetary and human health from the devastating effects of the climate crisis, public health risks, and food insecurity threats that will come with feeding 10 billion people by 2050. 

While we must acknowledge that it is helpful to reflect on whether we (and our product ideas) are on the right track to providing what consumers crave, we must also remember to carefully define the common path we all wish to embark on – one which is ecologically sustainable and centered towards reducing emissions, saving land and waters, protecting public health, and safeguarding food security.

Bullishly, a pea will be many things – not just what it wants to be, but also what it needs to be, for both people and the planet.

Feature image courtesy: Imagine Meats

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