Plant-based ingredients continue their rapid expansion, with plant proteins growing at a 14% CAGR and forecasted to reach a global market value of $40 billion by 2028.1 Plant proteins are finding their way into segments like bakery, sports nutrition, beverages, and snack bars, market researchers report.
“The demand for protein is growing, and interest in healthy living and aging will continue to keep consumers interested in plant proteins,” says Silvi Siddhu, global director of nutraceuticals for Univar Solutions (Downers Grove, IL). “With increased focus on health and wellness, there is no doubt that the number of flexitarian consumers is on the rise.”
As demand grows, plant proteins are advancing in a variety of ways. Here’s a look at some of the latest developments in flavor, solubility, texture, and more.
One of the most significant factors that’s been holding plant proteins back is flavor. Formulators have historically struggled with grassy, beany, and earthy off-flavors of plant proteins, along with their limited solubility leading to a gritty mouthfeel, says Melissa Machen, principal technical account manager, protein ingredients, Cargill (Minneapolis, MN). But emerging innovations are improving plant protein flavors in a variety of applications.
“Our joint venture partner, Puris, tackled these challenges head-on, creating Puris 2.0,” Machen says. “With Puris 2.0, formulators can take protein levels much higher and still create creamy, indulgent products. Ideal for RTD beverages, dry beverage powder blends, meal-replacement drinks, and more, Puris 2.0 lets us take protein levels much higher thanks to improved solubility and flavor.”
Protein Structure Influences Functionality
Did you know that protein structure is a core determinant of a plant protein’s functionality? Gelling, stability, and solubility are all dependent on structure, meaning the precise sequence of amino acids is what determines the properties and function of any protein, explains Silvi Siddhu, global director of nutraceuticals for Univar Solutions (Downers Grove, IL). Moreover, high temperatures and pH changes during processing can cause structural changes in a protein’s amino acids, which can change how that protein behaves.
Consumers have a seemingly insatiable appetite for protein, pushing brands to include ever-higher levels of protein in their products. With that increased protein concentration, though, comes challenges like off-flavors and a gritty or chalky mouthfeel, Machen explains. Innovative plant proteins like Puris 2.0 are removing those barriers, enabling brands to create drinkable and indulgent textures.
“For protein-fortified nutrition bars, texture is always the thing to watch,” Machen notes. “Proteins are notorious for stealing moisture from other ingredients, and bars don’t have much free moisture to begin with. As a result, with higher inclusion levels, it’s easy to end up with a bar that has a short, hard texture. That’s where Puris hydrolyzed pea protein comes in. It helps bars stay softer, giving product developers greater flexibility around texture.”
1-to-1 Replacement: The Chase Continues
Brands are seeking more-versatile plant proteins that can serve as 1-to-1 replacements for egg and dairy proteins. While formulating with plant-based proteins has evolved, consumers are still prioritizing taste, says food science expert Kantha Shelke, PhD, principal of Corvus Blue (Chicago). Although plant proteins have advanced considerably, challenges remain regarding nutritional equivalence, visual appeal, and industry standards.
“The physiology of intact plant matrices is very different from that of extracts and isolates,” Shelke explains. “Nutritional equivalence entails establishing both quality and quantity of protein, including digestibility. Most plant-based proteins are incomplete and less digestible than their animal counterparts.”
Shelke notes that there are no industry standards for plant-based proteins, so two suppliers offering the same material may not actually be providing the same product. Complicating matters are the unintended consequences of ingredient choices in the role of anti-nutrients, interactions with other ingredients, and off-flavors, Shelke says. All of these factors can have quality implications in food applications. What works for baked goods may not work for extruded products, for instance.
Spoilage Presents Novel Concerns
The potential spoilage of plant-based proteins is something that the food sector has yet to deal with in any significant manner. Plant protein spoilage happens at a different level than animal protein spoilage, and entails a variety of microbes that the food-processing sector hasn’t yet encountered, says food science expert Kantha Shelke, PhD, principal of Corvus Blue (Chicago). This includes heat-resistant spores, toxins, and microbes like Lactobacillus sakei and Enterococcus faecium.
Solubility Differs by Protein Source
Solubility is one of the most significant differences in terms of how different proteins behave, Machen says. Some proteins, like rice, aren’t soluble at all, which limits inclusion levels and results in beverages with a gritty mouthfeel.
“There can be noticeable differences between proteins from the same botanical source, especially as ingredient suppliers develop SKUs that offer improved functionality aligned to specific applications,” Machen explains. “For example, Puris 2.0, which was developed specifically for beverages, offers enhanced solubility compared to other pea protein options. For acidic beverage applications, Puris HiLo makes protein fortification possible in juices, energy drinks, and other acidic drinks.”
Puris HiLo is a pea protein designed for use in acidic applications. Machen says botanical proteins are notoriously unstable in more acidic applications. Puris HiLo has pushed past that boundary, enabling formulators to use an acid-stable protein in products like energy shots, fruit juices, coffee-flavored drinks, and more.
Textured Plant Protein
As plant proteins broaden into different product applications, texture becomes a concern. Textured plant proteins are gaining popularity in the alternative-meat space, as they can provide characteristics like juiciness and firmness, Siddhu says. Meanwhile, plant protein isolates find use in a variety of applications like dairy alternatives where solubility and stability are required. Since plant proteins are appealing for a variety of reasons, including health, environment, and animal welfare, improving plant protein texture is one of the key ways to broaden acceptance, Siddhu says.
Plant Protein Formats Will Expand
As plant-protein ingredients continue improving, developments will make it possible for a variety of new product formats, says Melissa Machen, principal technical account manager, protein ingredients for Cargill (Minneapolis, MN). She says to expect applications like protein bowls and ready-meals in addition to today’s powders, crisps, and textured plant proteins.
“Plant proteins also tend to score low on their amino acid composition and bioavailability in comparison to meat, but that can be addressed by utilizing multiple plant sources and processing technologies,” Siddhu explains. “Since plant-based is widely associated with natural and clean, the demand for clean labeling in meat analogues is on the rise.”
Plant Proteins: Onwards and Upwards
Plant proteins are rapidly expanding and diversifying, with improvements in flavor and texture making it possible to tailor plant proteins to specific applications. From beverages to plant-based meats to nutrition bars and more, there’s no shortage of customizable plant protein options for formulators to work with. As plant-based foods continue to grow in popularity, plant-based protein ingredients will keep evolving, providing more flexibility and more options with respect to formulation.
- Market Data Forecast. Global plant-based protein market by type (isolates, concentrates, protein flour), application (protein beverages, dairy alternatives, meat alternatives, protein bars, processed meat, poultry & seafood, bakery product), source (soy, pea, wheat, others) and by regional analysis (North America, Europe, Asia Pacific, Latin America, and Middle East & Africa) - global industry analysis, size, share, growth, trends, and forecast (2023 –2028). March 2023. https://www.marketdataforecast.com/market-reports/plant-based-protein-market