It’s no secret — consumers are hungry for nutritious plant-based meat alternatives. However, for many, taste and texture continue to be barrier for trial and long-term adoption. In fact, an August 2023 consumer survey conducted by the United Soybean Board found that when considering plant-based foods and meat alternatives, 64% rate taste as the highest priority, followed by health benefits, affordability and texture.
“It is well known that taste and texture are the most crucial factors influencing consumers' choices,” says David Sabbagh, Business Development Lead, Protein Solutions at IFF, an industry leader in food, beverage, health, biosciences, and scent. “A small segment of consumers might compromise taste and texture for health benefits for example, but the majority will not. For plant-based meat alternatives this is not different.”
Soy proteins have been around for decades, supported by a reliable and mature supply chain and years of research and innovation driving continuous improvements in taste, texture and functionality. Recent innovations in soy protein ingredients are helping food companies address the taste and texture gaps specific to plant-based meat alternatives, as well as deliver improvements in functional properties important in high-protein nutritional beverages, nutrition bars and more.
Innovation – A driver of soy protein growth
The first documented use of soy protein ingredients in food applications can be traced to 1939. Fast forward to today, decades of innovation and investment in the category have significantly expanded its range of functionality and use across numerous food applications. Today, food manufacturers will find soy protein ingredients available in a range of formats including spray-dried powders and extruded flakes, granules, chunks and crisps that allow for soy’s bland taste and versatile texture to be leveraged in variety of ways. They will also find soy protein ingredients that deliver a range of functional properties, adding to its versatility as a go-to ingredient for protein fortification and performance.
“Over the years, there have been some very notable innovations in soy proteins. From a taste standpoint, there are newer products with a much blander flavor profile and less overall viscosity,” Sabbagh explains. “This allows formulators to add more soy protein into their products without sacrificing taste and texture. Additionally, there are newer innovations that significantly improve the functionality and usability of soy protein. Those improvements are along the critical attributes of dispersibility, flowability, and solubility.”
One recent innovation example more specific to the needs of the meat alternative category is IFF’s SUPRO® TEX 7110, a patent-pending technology that can be used to create whole-muscle type products offering a more meat-like eating experience. Available as an extruded chunk, its texture when hydrated is closer to whole muscle animal protein, producing a firmer texture that retains its integrity during processing and cooking. During its recent launch, customers evaluated dishes prepared with SUPRO® TEX and rated them as “very meat-like" and “very juicy.” Many blind taste testers were surprised to learn that the product contained no meat whatsoever.
With continued improvements in taste, texture and functionality, more consumers will opt for products containing soy protein, and the opportunities for its use across many food categories will expand. As an organization focused on expanding opportunities for U.S. soybean farmers, the United Soybean Board is committed to using its resources to invest in innovation that empowers farmers to deliver a distinctly nutritional, consistent, sustainable, and overall better value soybean supply that can support the needs of the food industry.
A reliable supply chain supports future opportunity
In addition to taste and texture innovation, the mature and reliable supply chain supporting soy proteins made with U.S. grown soybeans contributes to their uniqueness compared to other plant proteins. U.S. grown soybeans’ geographic diversity means there is a secure, year-round supply of soy and contributes to the historical price and supply reliability advantage that soy proteins have become known for in the industry.
“Soybeans are a versatile bean that plays a key role in nourishing an ever-growing world population,” says Mac Marshall, Vice President of Market Intelligence at the United Soybean Board. “Globally, we are seeing growing demand for U.S. grown soybeans because of their quality and reliability. U.S. farmers are responding, increasing planted acreage and focusing more efforts on sustainability. Their efforts will ensure a robust and sustainable supply to support continued innovation and opportunity for soy protein in the food industry.”
What it takes to win in plant-based foods
Consumers are increasingly embracing foods made with plant proteins, driven by health and sustainability motivations. To be successful, those products must meet consumers’ taste and nutrition expectations, while being affordable and accessible. When it comes to meeting their criteria for taste, nutrition, cost and sustainability, products made with soy protein are quickly rising to the top of shopping lists. Manufacturers that incorporate soy protein into food products and leverage recent advancements in enhancing soy protein’s taste and texture can drive consumer adoption of plant-based foods, contribute to improved global nutrition and health, while also positively impacting planetary health.