The plant-based foods category has experienced a unique evolution over the years since the VegeBurger's debut in the United Kingdom in the 1980s. It's been quite the journey from soy, legumes and vegetables to pea protein and soy leghemoglobin to lab-grown meat. However, are consumers completely on board with the current trajectory of the plant-based foods category, or are they looking for something simpler, more natural and based on whole food ingredients?
According to restaurant chain Chipotle, which has stated it has no plans to stock popular plant-based meats because they are too processed, the answer is clearly yes. This is further evidenced by a 2020 public relations battle between three of the largest players in the plant-based space over what constitutes a clean ingredient listing. Conversations like these have further accelerated product development of plant-based meat alternatives with whole and natural ingredients.
Fortunately for the food industry, there are a slew of whole food ingredients that are not only pantry staples but also suitable ingredients in plant-based meats such as hamburgers and ground beef. For example, walnuts have been used by the foodservice industry to make everything from omega-3 burgers to a plant-based ground beef substitute like these from Azar. In the consumer packaged goods category, we've seen walnuts used in Amy's California Veggie Burger and Eat Nice's Meaty Walnut Ravioli. And the use of walnuts is expected to grow, as ingredient supplier Kerry's 2021 Taste Charts recently named walnuts as the #1 trending meat alternative ingredient for 2021.
Walnuts are an exceptional ingredient in plant-based meat products due to the nut's flavor, texture and nutritional attributes. From a flavor perspective, walnuts have a subtle nuttiness and an uncanny ability to absorb spice and seasoning blends. This attribute makes walnuts perfect with an Italian seasoning in a frozen ravioli or a taco seasoning in a walnut crumble.
Texture represents perhaps the most important walnut attribute in the development of plant-based meats. Walnuts have the perfect bite to mimic ground beef. The texture of a walnut is neither too hard nor too soft, making them the ideal ingredient to copy ground beef in plant-based foods. And, with walnuts available in sizes ranging from whole pieces to walnut meal, food manufacturers can tailor the perfect mouthfeel in plant-based ground beef imitation products.
For example, Eat Nice's Meaty Walnut Ravioli uses walnuts, sun-dried tomatoes and nutritional yeast to provide a filling that mimics the flavor and texture of meat.
A new generation of plant-based meat alternatives
Walnuts can be used as a plant-based protein to distinguish a product while delivering a savory flavor and meat-like texture. Formulations are quite simple and require only a blend of walnuts with a legume (we recommend chickpeas or black beans) to create a clean-label alternative that satisfies both flavor and texture demands.
By using a formulation template of a 50/50 blend of walnuts and legumes, as well as a seasoning blend, manufacturers can easily create a walnut crumble to be used in tacos, an omega burger patty or a walnut filling that mimics ground beef in ravioli or a frozen lasagna entrée.
Walnuts provide form and function
In addition to providing texture and a clean label to plant-based ground beef-like products, walnuts also deliver functional nutritional attributes to products. They are the only nut with an excellent source of plant-based omega-3 alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), with 2.5 grams per ounce. When walnuts are used in plant-based alternatives, food manufacturers can promote the omega-3 ALA fatty acid content of a product and distinguish it from others on the market.
In fact, Food Dive reported that consumers cited omega-3 as a top 5 ingredient in products that they were "extremely or very open" to using. Further, omega-3s ranked second on the list of the most intriguing functional categories that Americans were interested in consuming, coming in at 66% of respondents.
With walnuts, food manufacturers can develop the next generation of plant-based foods with clean labels, nutritious attributes and all the flavor and texture of real meat. For more information on formulating with walnuts, visit walnuts.org/food-professionals.