Flavor is still one of plant proteins’ biggest hurdles. One supplier discusses ongoing improvements at SupplySide West 2021

Within the plant protein space, ingredients are still struggling to achieve the one thing that will make consumers sit up and finally make the switch to eating plant-based: good taste.

Within the plant protein space, ingredients are still struggling to achieve the one thing that will make consumers sit up and finally make the switch to eating plant-based: good taste. Flavor is a primary determinant of the success of a plant protein ingredient, explained Jeff Casper, MSc, director of research and food applications at Merit Functional Foods (Winnipeg, MB, Canada), whom Nutritional Outlook interviewed at October’s SupplySide West trade show.

When asked what makes one plant protein supplier successful over another in today’s growing market, he said: “I think it’s meaningful differentiation. That’s really what it comes down to. How do you differentiate yourself in a crowded market? Because there are a lot of people coming out, and I think the number-one way you can differentiate yourself now is to taste good.”

He went on: “Because a lot of proteins in the market just don’t taste good, it limits not only how much fortification of protein you can put in; it will also influence what other ingredients can use, too. Or you have to flavor over things. Or all of the above. Maybe you use less protein and flavor over it, but that’s not necessarily the best approach for a lot of people.”

Merit is making a difference, he said. Although the Canadian company was only founded in 2019, it was started by veterans in the plant protein space coming from companies such as Manitoba Harvest and Hemp Oil Canada. Despite any setbacks caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the company brought its facility online this year. Casper said it’s now “running pretty much nonstop, five days a week,” to produce pea and canola proteins under its Peazazz, Peazac, and Puratein ingredient portfolios.

Pea protein especially is associated with beany, grassy, earthy notes. A lot of the off-notes in pea happen during processing. “Peas are seeds,” Casper explained. “And when you grind up a seed, there’s all the biological machinery to basically break down that seed and turn it into a plant protein. The seed’s designed to digest itself and transform itself into a plant. And so those enzymes are actually going to be active when you grind that pea up and you put it into an aqueous slurry, for example. When you’re mixing that together, those enzymes are at work and what they’re doing is breaking down fats and oils. And pea fat is horribly unstable…Once you’ve got enzymes working on that, it’s going to develop grassy flavors, beany flavors.”

Also present are compounds like alcohols, which end up in the extract and that most traditional processing methods don’t remove, said Casper. “You just keep them in there, and then it gets dried.”

That’s where the benefit of Merit’s system comes in, he said. “With our process, we’re actually washing the product out. We have filtration, membrane filtration, which is used in the dairy industry, and you’re actually able to take that protein screen, run it through, and then you can inject water at different points. That water washes out, and the smaller-molecular-weight compounds actually pass through the filter, and the protein is retained on the other side.” Because the process is a physical separation process, there are no chemicals and solvents involved, he added.

This filtration “takes out a lot of the flavors that people associate with pea protein,” he continued. “So we’re able to actually ‘wash’ the proteins and filter them to get a very clean-tasting protein.”

Merit is licensing this technology, which was developed in Canada. “Our plant is actually in a lot of ways similar to a dairy plant,” Casper said.

Offering a better protein has made a difference to formulators, he said. “We’ve had a lot of people say that up to this point, we haven’t had the tools to do what we need to do to make plant-based foods equivalent to dairy. Now, we finally have the tools to do it. Because there’s only so much you can do with formulating alone.”

“We’re coming into the market with something that we believe is truly different,” Casper continued. “We’ve been showing a ready-to-mix protein shake and getting amazing feedback on it.” At the SupplySide West show, the company also showcased a cold-form bar prototype inspired by dairy proteins with a 90% minimum purity. “There was no plant equivalent, and now we have plant equivalent here with our 90%-dry-weight-basis,” he explained. “It goes back to providing tools. People are, like, now I have a protein that behaves like a milk protein, and I can use it. It gives the flavor and texture of milk protein, and I can do things now that I couldn’t before.”

Merit’s license for its filtration and processing technology is exclusive for legumes and canola, “so we can actually put almost any legume into this process,” he said. “It’s a really cool process to make some pretty cool products. We’re hoping we can continue on with other proteins in the future, but right now, we are focused solely on pea and canola.”

Good taste will continue to determine the success of plant protein ingredients, Casper said. “Again, it goes back to taste. People want to eat stuff that tastes good.”

Also, as consumers consider making the switch to plant-based foods, mainstream shoppers aren’t as willing to trade on taste.

“Maybe one day we’ll have a future where people grow up only eating plant-based,” said Casper. “And that might change their perspective. But right now, we’re kind of at a threshold of transformation where we have to get people to want to make the change so we can get the momentum. If plant-based can become more of the standard, people can be raised in that world versus always eating dairy and meat all the time.”