Plant-based dairy formulating 101: Cargill shares tips at SHIFT20


Which plant protein is right for your product? It depends on a host of factors, plus an assist from other functional ingredients. Cargill’s experts shared the roadmap during last week’s Institute of Food Technologists SHIFT20 virtual event.

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Plant-based foods are as well known for their growing, competitive share of the general food and beverage market as they are for their formulating challenges. Flavor, texture, and appearance, among other attributes, continue to challenge plant proteins, making them more difficult to formulate with over their dairy counterparts. During last week’s Institute of Food Technologists SHIFT20 virtual event, Cargill (Minneapolis) shared expert tips on what to consider when formulating plant-based dairy alternatives.

Plant Proteins 101

During SHIFT20, Cargill presented a webcast on plant-based dairy-alternative formulating challenges, led by Christine Addington, Cargill’s technical account manager for dairy and plant-based. Addington outlined steps formulators should take when formulating a plant-based dairy-alternative product. Addington said the most popular categories for plant-based dairy-alternative ingredients such as nuts, coconuts, legumes, and pulse proteins are coffee creamers (getting very popular), frozen dessert and ice cream, and high-protein beverages, as well as the earliest adopter, plant milk. Plant proteins can also be cultured to create yogurts and cheeses.

The big focus when it comes to plant-based alternatives is plant protein. Here, formulators continue to search for ideal ways to replace dairy proteins. Dairy proteins are highly functional not only in terms of their first-rate nutritional profile (with a Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score, or PDCAAS, of 1) but also in terms of functional characteristics critical to formulators such as emulsification, mouthfeel, flavor, thickening and gelling, and synergy with other ingredients. All of these properties make dairy proteins easier to formulate with and difficult to replicate when substituting in plant-based ingredients.

Said Addington: “When you’re replacing milk, you’re not just replacing one function; you’re replacing multiple. I can’t think of one other ingredient out there that’s plant-based that has all of these functionalities that milk has, and this is why it’s so difficult and challenging to replace…Whenever you start to replace dairy proteins, things like flavor, texture, and appearance are all affected by removing dairy.”

Cargill has long worked in the plant protein space, first with soy protein then with pea protein. The company has amassed a lot of know-how when it comes to working with these ingredients. Addington provided an outline of the pieces formulators will want to consider when working with plant proteins.

Texturizing Ingredients

First, she advised, select texturizing ingredients that will match the functionality of their dairy counterparts and help with water binding, mouthfeel, and viscosity. (Texturizers can also assist in dairy-alternative frozen desserts because they help boost freeze/thaw stability.) Texturizing ingredients can include fibers, starches, hydrocolloids, and lecithins.

For fiber, Addington said chicory root fiber can help restore solids and, as a result, improve mouthfeel. Some fibers can also form gels that help mimic the fat in dairy protein. Finally, fiber ingredients add fiber content for a nutritional boost.

For starches, both functional native and modified starches will work and can add structure and mouthfeel and help with water binding to reduce syneresis (liquid separation) especially in yogurt applications. “You really don’t want to have a layer of water sitting on top of your yogurt when you open it. Starches really help bind that water and make sure everything stays together over shelf life,” she said.

Hydrocolloids like carrageenan or pectin can also form gels that thicken products and increase creamy mouthfeel. They also lend firmness, an attribute useful to vegan cheese formulations.

Finally, lecithins are emulsifiers essential in ensuring no separation occurs. This is especially helpful in plant-based beverages, making sure the product doesn’t separate during processing or over shelf life, Addington said. Lecithins can also increase creamy mouthfeel.

Clean Flavor

Secondly, Addington said, it is important to choose a plant protein source with as clean a flavor profile as possible and devoid of earthy/beany notes. Soy and pea proteins are popular choices because they offer both clean flavor and a high PDCAAS score.


Solubility will determine how easy a plant-based ingredient is to formulate with. “When you have ingredients that aren’t fully hydrated or not fully soluble, you get gritty or sandy texture, and that’s not ideal in this space,” Addington said. “Again, we’re trying to target their dairy counterparts which typically have a smooth, creamy mouthfeel.”

Fat Source

It’s also critical to find an ideal fat source. “You want to choose a fat that emulates dairy nutrition and mouthfeel,” Addington said. “Again, this will affect texture and flavor.”

Some of the plant-based fats and oils used in dairy alternatives include sunflower oil, canola oil, coconut oil, palm oil and palm kernel oil, and cocoa butter. Addington ran through each of their benefits.

  • Sunflower oil: Offers high stability, can be mid/high oleic, and is non-GMO
  • Canola oil: Lowest in saturated fat and high in monounsaturated fats
  • Coconut oil: Good functionality in dairy alternatives and highly stable. While coconut oil does have some flavor limitations, its flavor is generally complementary in dairy-alternative products.
  • Palm oil and palm kernel oil: Good stability, versatile for many applications, and good mouthfeel and clean flavor. Addington added that these are being used in applications like coffee creamer, beverages, and vegan cream cheese.
  • Cocoa butter: Good hardness, quick melting profile, good gloss and shelf life, available deodorized and bleached to fit in with dairy’s clean, white flavor

How Do Plant Proteins Stack Up?

Which plant protein is right for your application? It depends on your goal, Addington said. Are you just using the plant protein to add structure, or are you looking to the plant protein to really boost a product’s protein profile? “Either way,” she said, your choice “will affect your texture, your appearance, and your flavor.” (Plant products can also be fortified with some of the nutrients missing by replacing dairy.)

Not all plant proteins are created equal. Caseinate and whey protein isolate are gold standards in dairy protein because of their high PDCAAS scores and excellent emulsification, texture, binding, taste, and solubility characteristics. Their high solubility is why milk has a smooth texture, Addington said.

In the plant protein category, the plant proteins that come closest to these dairy proteins in terms of nutrition and functionality are soy and pea protein. Soy, in particular, has a PDCAAS score of 1. “It has really great emulsification properties, texture, binding, and is highly soluble,” she said. “You have to remember that soy protein has been on the market a lot longer than a lot of these newer botanical plant proteins and so we know a lot more about it. We’ve learned how to process it and manipulate it so that it can be more functional in these applications.”

Pea protein is “another great option,” she said. While pea protein’s PDCAAS score is lower than the others mentioned, coming in at 0.6-0.8, pea “does have some really great emulsification properties and is highly soluble.” This is why pea is growing its market share among dairy alternatives.

Addington also mentioned some other proteins appearing on the market such as canola isolate, wheat isolate, corn isolate, rice isolate, and potato protein. These “are definitely not as functional as some of these other proteins we just talked about,” she said. “You’ll notice they are less soluble. Some don’t even provide emulsification properties, and so this is why you don’t often see these proteins used in this space because they’re just not very functional.”

Some up-and-coming protein sources are more functional, such as chickpea, fava, and oat protein. While their PDCAAS scores are lower than soy and pea, they offer some nice functional properties. “Chickpea is really great because it has a really nice, white color which again is very similar to the dairy counterparts that we’re formulating around. It also has very good emulsification and foaming properties and so you’ll see it used oftentimes in vegan cheese and mayo and in butter,” Addington said. “It’s a really great protein for this space.”

Oat protein is becoming more popular, too, gaining a foothold thanks to consumer familiarity with oats and positive consumer perception. While oat’s flavor profile is compatible with dairy, Addington pointed out that oat is not very soluble. “It also has bad emulsification and gelling properties, so if this is the protein you’re going to use, it would be important to consider using texturizers to help bring back some of those emulsification and mouthfeel properties,” she advised.

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