Protein is on everyone’s mind — and plate. But these days, proteins don’t always look like they did years ago.
Manufacturers may make the case for meat, but not all consumers are buying it. Consumers demand products that are functional and particularly high in protein, and they are increasingly turning toward plant-based proteins.
Before launching into a protein-centric product reformulation, manufacturers should consider all of the options available, both animal- and plant-based. They should also understand the proteins’ benefits and drawbacks and make a coordinated decision between food scientists and marketers to develop and brand a quality protein product.
The growth of non-meat animal-based protein alternatives
Some consumers may be looking to avoid meat but not necessarily all animal-derived proteins.
Edible insects are becoming more common as protein alternatives, due in part to their nature as a complete protein—meaning they contain all the amino acids needed for human health, Cathy Kapica, certified food scientist and CEO of The Awegrin Institute, told Food Dive. Sergiy Smetana, sustainability expert at the German Institute of Food Technologists, said during a webinar sponsored by the Institute of Food Technologists that insect protein earns a protein digestibility-corrected amino acid score (PDCAAS) in the range of 0.75 to 0.8.
Insects also have the potential to be more cost-effective than conventional meat-based proteins. However, manufacturers that want to use insect protein still have to contend with the “ick factor” that consumers associate with eating bugs and larvae, even though “the end food you’re eating doesn’t look like that,” Kapica said.
Smetana said that edible insects’ biggest challenge is assurance that they are safe for human consumption. Smetana believes insects can play a major role for animal feed, such as for fish and chickens, and “most probably it won't be accepted right away” for human consumption, despite the industry “booming” in other countries.
Manufacturers also have to weigh whether to construct the facilities needed to raise and source insects at a large enough scale now, or first work on building demand for this type of protein.
“You need the whole process, so you have to build an infrastructure to be able to make enough of this and meet a demand — once, of course, you create the demand,” said Kapica. “…What do you build first?”
Once manufacturers create the insect-based protein product, they have to work with retailers on proper placement within stores. Retailers aren’t always sure which shelf space is best-suited for insect proteins to help consumers find them near similar products. Insects are still animals, but they aren’t meat-based, so they could also end up in the organic or vegetarian section of a store, Smetana said.
Milk proteins: Casein and whey
Whey protein is a leftover byproduct from the cheese-making process and was once considered a waste product. Both casein protein, which becomes cheese, and whey protein are viable non-meat-based protein alternatives. However, they aren’t compatible with vegan diets or those trying to avoid any products derived from animals.
“That's why a lot of protein powders for muscle building are whey protein, which is milk-based protein,” said Kapica. “It's a complete protein. When you look at some of the various bars, they are either soy or whey protein based because they are complete protein. If you're looking for muscle growth, you've got to have that.”
Algae is technically neither an animal nor a plant, but it is are a fast-growing segment in the alternative proteins industry. They are considered once-celled and tissue-less protists. Though they are plant-like, they lack essential qualities that would classify them as plant-based proteins. But algae also receives a PDCAAS in the range of 0.85 to 0.9, according to Smetana.
“For microalgae, it's actually very dynamic and promising,” said Smetana. “For food consumption, microalgae will be the next step... It's comparatively easy to create microalgae systems, which would be more efficient.”
Why plant-based proteins pose a challenge to manufacturers
Kapica told Food Dive that swapping proteins or developing products with plant-based proteins isn’t as straightforward as attempts to reduce sugar or fat because proteins are so complex. Manufacturers face several other challenges when trying to use plant-based proteins in their products.
Complete vs. incomplete proteins
The body needs to have all the essential amino acids from a complete protein to perform key functions like muscle-building. Meat and animal-based proteins are complete, but most plant-based proteins are not.
Manufacturers must then pair plant-based proteins with other ingredients that contain the missing amino acids to create a complete protein — and let them back up related label claims.
“That's an important concept within all of this to think about, with the whole protein,” said Kapica. “You want to do protein for athletic recovery or preventing muscle loss with aging... The quality of the protein is an important part of the conversation.”
Certain plant-based proteins offer functionality but pose flavor challenges. Pea protein is becoming more popular in part because of its neutral flavor, while many others have a bitter taste that could turn away consumers.
Processing and bioavailability
Proteins and amino acids are usually fairly stable during processing, including heat-related manufacturing, Kapica said. But will the protein or amino acids interact with other ingredients in the product? If the product is being made solid, an amino acid may bind with a mineral, rendering them both less bioavailable — able to enter a person's bloodstream and be effective.
One of the most attractive aspects of plant-based proteins is their cost-effectiveness compared to meat — particularly the expense of raising and processing livestock. However, for manufacturers to make certain protein label claims, they need that protein to be complete and bioavailable.
That could mean combining additional plant-based protein ingredients or introducing specific amino acid supplements. But these supplements, such as L-cysteine or L-proline, begin to increase costs, which could make the product less profitable, Kapica said.
Clean label complications
While manufacturers may choose plant-based proteins to achieve a cleaner label, they may actually have the opposite effect. When a manufacturer has to add more ingredients to balance out the protein, it can lengthen and complicate an ingredients list.
“If you're looking to get to that complete protein, you start adding these amino acids that have all these chemical names that people have no idea what they are, are you being counterproductive with this whole trend toward clean label and simple ingredients?” said Kapica.
Manufacturers may face significant challenges when working with proteins and reformulating with alternative options. But if they employ a team including both food scientists and marketing and branding experts, they can work together to devise the best plan of action in terms of health benefits and label claims, as well as the flavor, texture and appearance of the end product.
“New products and product formulations are marketing-driven by what consumers want. But what are the capabilities of our company?" Kapica said. "We could say, ‘Oh, yes, we want to provide X, Y, Z. That would be great because that would meet consumer demand.’ Then there's the reality check. A lot of that is, can you achieve this?”