Overcoming plant protein sensory challenges


How sensory mapping can help match the optimal plant protein source with the right product application.

Photo © iStockphoto.com/yolacan

By Kimberly Hogan, DuPont Nutrition & Health


“Going green” has never been more popular or widely accepted than it is in today’s market. Plant-based foods are moving into the mainstream. In fact, 70% of U.S. consumers report trying to increase their consumption of plant-based foods, according to 2017 HealthFocus International data.1 Meanwhile the number and variety of plant-based products continue to rise, incorporating myriad plant proteins-soy, oat, rice, wheat, pea, nut, quinoa, chickpea, etc. Despite this overwhelming interest in plant-based eating, sensory challenges persist in new product development and remain a barrier for mainstream consumers. The sensory characteristics of plant proteins vary widely. This means it’s not easy to swap one type for another in an application. What may work with one will not necessarily work with another. So how does one tackle plant-based product development and match the optimal plant protein to each application? Sensory mapping can provide direction.

Sensory mapping uses a statistical procedure called descriptive analysis to identify the sensory characteristics of products-in this case, plant proteins. These maps reveal both the potential and pitfalls of various plant proteins. Add in consumer preferences and calculate the optimally desired product characteristics, and these three data points can form a trifecta of success for manufacturers seeking to take advantage of the plant-forward movement.

This approach involves the following: knowing your audience (who is your target, and what do they want); knowing your product (characteristics of the product, ingredients, and application); and understanding your consumer (what are their likes and dislikes). This process can either help with selection of the proper blend of ingredients or help overcome sensory challenges related to various plant proteins and increase opportunities for a successful product launch.


The Plant-Forward Consumer

Datassential indicates more than half of consumers say they’re eating more fruits and vegetables than in the previous year. In the market researcher’s “Plant-Based Eating SNAP! Keynote Report,”2 49% of all consumers surveyed said they eat plant-based alternatives because they’re healthier. The report also states that consumers in this segment still demand great flavor and a pleasing texture, which can present a challenge to the formulator tasked with incorporating a new plant protein into an application.

Innova Market Insights data show plant-protein claims were up 58% on new product launches globally from 2013 to 2017, while plant-based claims jumped 62% during the same period. In particular, meat substitute launches rose more than 40% from 2013 to 2017, and concurrently, the dairy alternatives market saw new product launches surge 80%. Market researcher Euromonitor forecasted the overall 2018 global market for dairy alternative drinks at $16.3 billion.

It is clear the plant-based protein space has grown exponentiality in the past few years. Consumers across the globe are increasing their consumption of plant-based protein and are interested in what is coming next in this space.

DuPont Nutrition & Health’s own research has shown there are three primary drivers or trends impacting why consumers choose plant proteins. The first trend focuses on the social aspect of plant proteins and the benefits consumers see in them. Consumers fall into this category when their main purchase decisions focus on things like sustainable ingredients, environmental solutions, and animal treatment. The second trend is focused around the health aspects of plant proteins and the health benefits associated therein, such as heart health, cholesterol reduction, and living longer. The final trend centers on improving daily living. These consumers are interested in cleaner labels, healthier products, and increased energy that they believe plant proteins provide. Understanding these trends and where a target consumer fits among them can help a formulator understand the intrinsic needs that must be met by each plant-based product, depending on the target customer.

Know Your Product: Embrace the Flavor Profile

Although flavor refinement is usually an ongoing process, sensory mapping reveals that different plant proteins present their own unique flavor characteristics that will most definitely have an effect on the finished product.

Flavor preferences also vary depending on the product type. For instance, exotic flavor pairings are popular for main meals or snacks. By comparison, in the high-protein beverages sector, which is a popular product category for plant proteins, traditional flavors like vanilla still sell the most product. Year after year, for example, the International Dairy Foods Association ranks America’s favorite flavors of ice cream, and despite the abundance of choices, vanilla always comes out on top. However, a popular flavor like vanilla might not work when dealing with the inherent strong flavors of different plant proteins or when attempting to include new forms of plant protein.

A protein with a nutty profile might pair well with hazelnut instead of vanilla; or a pea protein with a green, grassy character might need cinnamon or coffee to mask notes that are unacceptable to a consumer audience. In order to incorporate newer plant proteins, formulators need to blend proteins and especially embrace the flavor profile of the protein, using either complementary flavors or lingering flavors to help mask any potential aftertaste.

Historically, in high-protein beverage applications, formulators turned to dairy and soy protein due to their neutral color and flavor, consistency, and availability. Soy works well with any flavor profile, offers a background of 50 years’ worth of successful implementation in the food manufacturing industry, and has a high degree of consumer acceptance.*


Know the Value of Your Protein Content

As an industry, there is a great opportunity to help the consumer who wants plant-focused products but for whom taste remains the primary purchase driver. DuPont Nutrition & Health conducted a proprietary survey including more than 5,500 consumers in 11 countries to better understand consumer perceptions, knowledge, attitudes, and interests surrounding protein in general, and specific sources, both animal and plant.

Results shows that key product attributes like “protein content” drive greater consumer interest than protein source, and that perception of plant protein is quite favorable. Consumers can more readily assign benefits to broad categories of proteins, such as meat, dairy, or plant, than to individual sources such as whey, pea, or soy protein.

These data imply that positioning “plant protein” and its protein content overall will be generally more appealing and meaningful to consumers than if a company were to emphasize individual plant-protein sources. Therefore, selecting proteins that deliver the best overall functionality and flavor, with consideration of cost and supply reliability, should guide selection of plant protein types in order to guarantee product success.


Sensory Mapping Reveals Challenges

Mouthfeel characteristics of plant proteins, in addition to their flavor, can challenge the formulator. Challenging mouthfeel characteristics include, but are not limited to, a narrow solubility range, a chalky or gritty mouthfeel, and unpleasant particulates. Solubility is particularly important in a ready-to-drink (RTD) beverage, which must maintain emulsion stability or particulate suspension over its shelf life. Some plant-protein sources may struggle here.

For example, during an educational session at the Institute of Food Technologists’ Annual Meeting & Food Expo show this past July, DuPont presented a sensory map of commercially available pea proteins. The map of the sensory landscape illustrated the broad variation possible within a single protein source. Particle size and number, overall aromatic impact, mouthcoating, viscosity, astringency, and a multitude of flavor characteristics-grassy, green, beany, etc.-are combined in a visual map depicting the wide-ranging variations. Because pea proteins historically are developed as a byproduct from a waste stream for starch production, broad inconsistencies can exist from lot to lot, making it difficult to standardize for incorporation alone into applications.

Using mapping techniques such as these, along with consumers’ responses to the products, we can understand the sensory attributes that provide positive or negative consumer experiences. This knowledge can help us develop new protein blends that optimize the inherent characteristics of each protein to make a new and improved product that meets all the needs of the consumer in terms of flavor, texture, and mouthfeel.


Sensory Solutions

The plant protein space is evolving with many new and novel sources entering the market. Individual flavor profiles of plant proteins are distinct and different, both within the same species and across different plant proteins, creating formulation challenges.

Blending plant proteins will likely yield the best flavor outcomes; however, understanding how to combine them in ways to deliver the best flavor and texture outcomes is still an evolving science. Sensory evaluation can help inform formulation decisions and guide food formulators in the choice of plant proteins that can meet consumer needs, taste goals, and the functional requirements of the end application.



*Editor’s note: DuPont is a soy-ingredients supplier.

Kimberly Hogan leads the sensory science department at DuPont Nutrition & Health (St. Louis, MO), with 15 years of experience in the field. Kimberly earned her degree in psychology from the University of Missouri. In addition to 10 years of experience in the food and beverage industry, she has experience in non-food sensory industries, such as personal care and fragrance.



  1. HealthFocus International. “Plant-Based Eating.” August 2017
  2. Datassential. “Plant-Based Eating SNAP! Keynote Report.” FoodBytes report, no. 51 (March 2018).
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