Food companies have been making products to simulate meat for more than a generation. But today's items are vastly different than the ones that were made decades ago.
"We were creating a totally different product, like a different flavor profile. It was just for vegetarians," said Dina Fernandez, director of protein nutrition solutions for Archer Daniels Midland. "The industry didn't really care about the meat eaters. Today, we are more focused on the meat eaters and understanding what are those elements in the flavor of meat that the general flexitarian is looking for."
It's a tall order to try to bring the taste, aroma, texture and functions that make meat what it is to meat-free products. But it's a necessity in order for the segment to survive. In a survey last year done by The NPD Group and cited by NBC, 89% of consumers of plant-based meat were meat eaters.
As the market becomes crowded with plant-based and fermented meat substitute products, ingredients manufacturers have a lot to work through. To both meet consumer expectations and manufacturers' needs, companies spend years developing ingredients and flavors that will make these products work. At ADM, solutions come through a lot of collaboration and expertise.
"If the flavor doesn't work, it doesn't matter if the texture is good," Fernandez said. "And if the texture is not good, it doesn't matter if the flavor works, right? It is very difficult to exclude one from the other one."
Ken Kraut, ADM's global chief flavorist for savory, said there are many moving parts that need to be coordinated.
"It all has to kind of move together like a symphony orchestra," Kraut said. "You can't have a few different sections playing different songs. It's got to be everybody on the same page and working together. It's the same with these systems. Flavors are very, very important to get a first touch point, I think. But obviously, texture, body and functionality have to all be there too, in order for that flavor to shine."
Starting with the basics
In order to make a meat substitute product, Kraut said it is vital to understand just what it is supposed to look and taste like.
"The process really starts out in the kitchen," Kraut said. "And then we develop flavor and texture together as we go through the process."
Kraut sets to work creating a "gold standard" — the flavor that consumers would recognize as the very best example.
"If the flavor doesn't work, it doesn't matter if the texture is good. And if the texture is not good, it doesn't matter if the flavor works, right? It is very difficult to exclude one from the other one."
Director of protein nutrition solutions, ADM
It isn't as simple as it sounds. For a hamburger, for instance, there's both fatty and meaty notes. There's a mouthfeel from the grind and fat content of the meat. There are bloody notes naturally found in beef. There's flavor added by the grill or cooking pan. There may be some notes of seasonings added when the burger is assembled.
Next, the actual ingredients need to be considered. Alternative protein ingredients today are as diverse as the multitudes of products found on grocery store shelves and restaurant menus. Some are based on soy. Others on peas. Then beans, chickpeas, quinoa and wheat make appearances. And some use fungi, ranging from mushrooms to proteins created through fermentation.
ADM experts said the first step to a successful formulation is understanding the base protein the product uses. Each has its own taste profile, as well as its own texture and moisture properties.
"The protein, obviously, doesn't have the fat content of animal," Kraut said. "It doesn't have the amino acid breakdown, if you will, of what you would find in an animal. So we have to make sure that we add back those taste components. What we really do is we look how to build upon our base [flavor], first and foremost. If we have a good base, we can enhance what's there to make it better."
There are some proteins that naturally bring a desirable taste to meat substitutes. But there are others that need more flavoring expertise to make them palatable. Some of these common proteins have umami tastes and feelings, which is also an important sensation that comes when eating meat. Ingredients can be added to enhance this taste. But some have bitter or off tastes, and ingredients to block that help make the end product more palatable.
Like building a house
There's a complex array of what can be used to make the best meat alternative, both in terms of flavor and ingredients. And there is no one best way to do it.
ADM works with several clients in the space. Kraut says they spend time with clients to determine exactly what they are looking for in terms of taste, texture, aroma and appearance. They also determine what kinds of ingredient requirements they have — aspects including clean label, organic, natural or non-GMO. And then ADM and the client work with ADM's Consumer Insights Team to determine what the best solutions are. Products in the same segment definitely have different flavors, determined by a combination of what each client wants and the ingredients they use to make their products.
Building a complete meat alternative product is like building a house, Kraut said. The foundation is determining the key protein ingredients, the texture and mouthfeel, the inherent umami or bitter tastes of the ingredients, and some of the ingredients added to create a fatty or juicy effect to mimic the animal-based equivalent.
"Then you have the middle of the house — say the four walls — where that part is going to be the profile, whether it's going to be beef, chicken, pork," he said. "It's going to be the star of the show ... but also the contributory flavors of what is going to go into that as well. So if it's a beef, it could be onion, garlic, some other spices, or some other things going on there. If it's ethno-culinary, say it's Indian cuisine, you have to add those types of spices."
Much of the time, manufacturers want these flavors to come from the most natural sources possible. Shelley Rudisill, ADM's director of product development and applications, said that can involve a lot of creative thinking, with a look at the chemical components that make meat taste like meat.
"It all has to kind of move together like a symphony orchestra. You can't have a few different sections playing different songs. ...Obviously, texture, body and functionality have to all be there too, in order for that flavor to shine."
Chief global flavorist for savory, ADM
"We think about bloody notes in beef and, you know, they're very irony," Rudisill said. "And we think about other components that might bring that in. Maybe something like spinach could be a very natural example. How can we work with ingredients like that to bring in some of those inherent notes?"
In his house-building analogy, Kraut said the roof is the aromatic portion of flavor. The smell of food cooking is a consumer's first touch point, and is often the first way it is experienced — long before appearance, mouthfeel or taste. And it has to be there. If you're walking into a house where Thanksgiving dinner is being cooked, he said, the first thing you'd notice is the smell. If there were no smell, it would feel like something important is missing.
Meat substitutes often need flavor components added to give this aromatic dimension to food, further complicating the job of creating a convincing product. In an actual piece of meat, Kraut said, these aromatics come from compounds like sugars and amino acids reacting to the heat of cooking.
"We learn from that in how to design our flavors," Kraut said. "So we will take things like, in the lab, amino acids and things where we're going to generate some flavor compounds through the cooking process. And that would add to the top note."
Getting better all the time
As today's plant-based meat products aren't the tofu-and-bean-heavy offerings of a generation ago, the ingredients, flavorings and technology that go into making them have also advanced.
Kraut described what is available at ADM as "a very expansive chef's kitchen."
"We do a lot of work in terms of, from the basic R&D side, looking at 'gold standards,' doing analysis of these 'gold standards,' discovering new molecules that we could possibly use, or different ways of putting molecules and pieces of the puzzle together," Kraut said.
In just the last week, ADM has launched new plant-based protein ingredients for making meat substitutes. Prolite MeatTEX and MeatXT are wheat-based, offering water absorption and more efficient hydration properties, according to a release from the company. The MeatTEX ingredient is textured, while MeatXT is not.
The company also released two new Arcon T line pea proteins. One is a blend of pea and chickpea protein, while the other is a blend of pea and navy bean protein. The company says these ingredients could increase protein quality scores and are ideal for meat alternatives.
Kraut said that all of today's ingredients tend to be natural, responding to manufacturer and consumer demand for clean-label products wherever possible. And as the company continues to create more ingredients, there are more options to help meat substitutes get closer to the products they are replacing.
"Not only from a flavor standpoint, but also from a taste standpoint, we've evolved in terms of building our modulation portfolio around fat, bloody, savory umami, kokumi — all these different things that we've been able to build upon over the years through different types of research techniques and processes," Kraut said.