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Extrusion offers the key to better plant-based foods

23 January 2023

Keith Graham looks at trends in plant-based foods and explains the important role that extrusion technology has to play in making these offerings appealing to a new generation of flexitarians.

In just a few years plant-based foods have moved from the fringes of the food production industry to the mainstream, as many flexitarians – people who still enjoy eating meat but are looking at increasing their intake of plant-based foods, driven by health and environmental concerns. 

This rapid move to plant-based options offers an opportunity for food manufacturers to adapt and compete in a fast-moving market, but it is not free of any challenges. Taste and texture are the main barrier meat eaters face in moving to a plant-based diet, due to the difference in the taste and texture of plant-based alternatives to traditional meat products.

For the growing flexitarian market, appearance, aroma, taste and texture are key. Products have to look ‘real’.  They must have an aroma and taste close to the original – achieved by flavourings, sauces, seasonings and spices. A firm meaty texture is essential and so it is no surprise that there is an increasing interest in products made from Texturised Vegetable Protein (TVP).  The TVP process turns plants into recognisably familiar looking meat substitutes, extenders and fillers.

Twin-screw extrusion technology has been developed two distinct new markets.  Dry TVP produced by Low Moisture Extrusion Cooking (LMEC) has been used for many years but quality has always posed a problem as it often fails to provide the firm, fibrous texture of meat. 

Development of High Moisture Extrusion Cooking (HMEC) technology has addressed this issue and it is said to offer better fibrous texture and consistency. The key characteristic of high moisture meat analogues (HMMA) produced using this process is the fibrous structure, which is achieved by developing the proteins in a twin-screw extruder then stretching and aligning them in an extended cooling die. Downstream processing such as mincing, mixing and forming can be undertaken on standard meat processing equipment. 

HMMA is widely used today to create both ingredients and finished products. Ingredients for prepared dishes include mince, chunks and strips – typically for use in curries, stews, casseroles, pizza toppings, pasta dishes and soups. Completely meat-free finished products include burgers, sausages and meatballs.

Longer shelf life
Conventional dry TVP has, by comparison with HMMA, a long shelf life, and can be manufactured, dried and sold in bulk for processing.  It is rehydrated before incorporation into meat-free products such as burgers, sausages, chicken nuggets, meatballs and prepared dishes.      

Dry TVP with a more fibrated structure and an improved texture is now being developed, at a lower production cost than HMEC.   For LMEC, twin screw cooker extruder technology is used to form a melt that is extruded through a die and formed/cut into flakes, pellets or chunks, before it is dried.      

Standard recipes have been developed for both processes utilising a variety of different proteins including soy, pea and wheat; beans, lentils and other pulses.  

The future
For the future, the use of any protein can be investigated – either for HMEC or LMEC – and  continuous improvements in the appearance, taste and texture of TVP from a range of different protein sources are anticipated – with companies around the world using their own locally-grown ingredients. Any protein source – seaweed and algae for example – can potentially be turned into a meat analog and this is also a focus for development. 

As TVP develops, the choice and quality of meat alternatives is expected to increase and improve alongside the inevitable growth in the plant-based sector. While many dietary trends in recent years have been based on fashion rather than substantiated science, those currently being driven by health and the environment are backed by well proven science and it looks like the movement away from meat is an ongoing trend that looks set to stay with us for the long term. 

Keith Graham is business development manager at Baker Perkins.

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