Choosing a plant-based meat alternative is no longer an alternative, it’s becoming the mainstream choice. But if this dynamic category aims to please all consumers it has to deliver the qualities they crave. The right ingredients for the job just might surprise you.
Even in a nation of inveterate meat eaters, plant-based products are putting down serious roots.
In the United States alone, plant-based foods represent a $7 billion market, according to the Good Food Institute and SPINS, with their grocery sales growing at nearly twice the rate of food sales overall.
And when you drill into the data specific to plant-based meat alternatives, the picture looks even rosier: Plant-based meat alternatives’ market value hit $1.4 billion in 2020, with more than 290 million units sold.
Such sales would be unimaginable absent the interest of curious carnivores. After all, 98% of plant-based meat alternative purchasers in the U.S. also purchase traditional meat, Nielsen found.
Yet as plant-based meat alternatives attract more mainstream trials — and as options expand beyond burgers to whole-muscle and seafood options — products have to work that much harder to meet mainstream expectations. And as Dr. Joe Formanek, Director of Ingredient Innovation at Ajinomoto Health & Nutrition, pointed out, that’s no mean feat.
“Crucial success factors going forward will be improving the taste and texture of plant-based meat alternatives, and price parity with animal meat,” Formanek says.
Formulators need ingredients that multitask, building savory flavor and mouth-filling richness without contributing excess sodium or unfavorable texture. Fortunately, those ingredients are already at hand, and they’re creating plant-based products so delicious no one misses the meat.
Marketing to the mainstream
It’s hard to overestimate just how significant the plant-based market has become. Companies ranging from food startups to top CPG brands have made innovating in the space their product-development equivalent of a moonshot: worth every effort and any expense.
“Even the most liberal surveys place the U.S. vegetarian and vegan population at 5% and 3% respectively, tops,” Hirotoki Takemasa, Associate Manager of Marketing & Data Analysis at Ajinomoto, noted. That being the case, plant-based meat alternatives’ growth stems at least in part from an “aggressive marketing push toward flexitarians and meat eaters.”
“What’s also different today,” Takemasa continued, “is the higher exposure consumers have to these products at both retail and food service. We’ve seen the success of alternative dairy in the food service space, and for many, that was their first exposure to these products. A similar story is now playing out for plant-based meat alternatives.”
No wonder, then, that according to Datassential, a foodservice research firm, vegan offerings are growing at a healthy 20% compound annual rate, with vegetarian items — already on 44% of all restaurant menus, Takemasa noted — continuing to grow at 1.5%. “Acceptance is directly correlated with exposure,” Takemasa said, “so these statistics are very promising.”
Plant-based bumper crop
Another promising statistic: Ajinomoto’s 2021 survey research found that two-thirds of those who’d tried plant-based meat alternatives in the past year were actually meat eaters or flexitarians. “Surprisingly,” Takemasa said, “this was true regardless of whether the product was a new plant-based meat alternative or a traditional veggie burger.”
That said, Takemasa conceded, “we’ve come a long way from tofu turkey and bean burgers. Today’s consumers simply have so many more choices.”
Thanks to a technology boom in this arena, novel plant-based proteins are proving economically viable for formulation use. Brands today are turning not just to established options, such as soy, but also to proteins made from pea, mung bean, oat, hemp and more.
The market has also witnessed an efflorescence of plant-based meat alternatives. “As appetites grow for different meat types and formats,” Takemasa observed, “consumers are shopping for plant-based chicken, pork and seafood in addition to plant-based beef.”
Raising the bar
But with more plant proteins and platforms to choose from, the category’s patrons have more options to turn to if their first choice doesn’t meet their standards. And make no mistake: Contemporary consumers hold plant-based meat alternatives to high standards.
“The consumer is looking for a complete experience with these new products, from start to finish,” Formanek said. “Many aren’t willing to compromise taste or texture, and now even how a product cooks is coming under scrutiny.”
Ajinomoto’s research found that whether they’re frequent or occasional consumers, plant-based purchasers uniformly cited taste as their top driver. If only achieving mainstream meaty appeal in plant-based products weren’t such a tricky proposition.
The plant-based challenge
Why the challenge? Because “plant proteins are intrinsically different from meat proteins,” Formanek explained.
First, their inherent tastes and aromas differ from animal meat’s and “are often considered off-putting compared to animal proteins, requiring companies to formulate with masking technologies,” Formanek said.
Moreover, plant and animal amino acid and lipid profiles diverge markedly, producing unique flavors and interacting differently when exposed to heat. Physical changes, such as protein denaturation and cross-linking, proceed differently in the two systems, yielding textures in plant-based products that don’t reliably match those of their animal-based counterparts.
“Consumers want a product that handles the same as its animal-based model,” Formanek conceded, “which means that a plant-based burger should generate the same aromas and flavors and develop the same cooked appearance and feel as the original. This is where food science comes into play, and where an understanding of the ingredients that deliver these qualities is essential.”
Leveraging umami and kokumi
On the taste and flavor fronts, Chris Koetke, Ajinomoto’s Corporate Executive Chef, praised ingredients that generate umami and kokumi— “both important characteristics when designing the best plant-based meat alternatives.”
Besides being the fifth taste — umami literally means “essence of deliciousness” in Japanese — umami enhances the savory flavors consumers crave in plant-based meat alternatives. “Delivering umami is easy using ingredients like monosodium glutamate, or MSG,” Koetke said, “as well as monopotassium glutamate, yeast extracts, such as Ajinomoto’s Savorboost™ UM and other amino acids.”
Kokumi — which isn’t a taste, per se, but a multifaceted sensory phenomenon that Ajinomoto scientists have been investigating for decades — embodies the richness and complexity of meat’s mouthfeel, a quality often lacking in plant-based alternatives.
Koetke called yeast extracts in the Savorboost™ line, such as Savorboost™ K and Savorboost™ BK, “wonderful platforms for delivering this all-important meaty mouthfeel. Savorboost™ BK even delivers a roasted-meat note that complements cooked profiles in plant-based products to make them more meat-like, as well.”
Something to chew on
To overcome the textural issues common in plant-based meat analogs — such as lack of a meaty bite — Formanek recommends the use of enzymes that can help deliver desirable textural attributes to the system.
Enzymes in Ajinomoto’s ACTIVA® line, also known as transglutaminase (TG), help correct textural drawbacks in plant-based meat alternatives by forming covalent bonds between the amino acids glutamine and lysine. These covalent bonds, which are stable during both freeze/thaw cycling as well as cooking processes, give plant-based products a stronger bite and chew resembling what emerges in cooked meat.
Even better, Ajinomoto produces its ACTIVA®; enzymes via fermentation by the GMO-free bacterium Streptomyces mobaraensis. After isolating and purifying the enzymes from the culture medium, what’s left is a natural ingredient with no microbial contamination. Ajinomoto’s ACTIVA®; line is also the only FDA GRAS-approved transglutaminase available in the United States.
Never neglect nutrition
That’s an asset at a time when food safety and transparency are paramount. And as Tia Rains, PhD, Ajinomoto’s Vice President of Customer Engagement, added, “Even though taste is king for plant-based meat alternative consumers, those same consumers are also quite savvy about nutrition.”
Surveys suggest that roughly one in three ranks high sodium their top nutritional concern vis-à-vis plant-based protein products. But simply slashing sodium levels risks compromising product taste and flavor.
Enter umami and kokumi ingredients, which once again offer a solution.
MSG, for instance, enhances flavor much as salt does, allowing for sodium reduction. Meanwhile, kokumi ingredients, such as Savorboost™ K, enhance the perception of sodium, Dr. Rains said, “making a product taste as if it has more sodium than it actually does while also delivering appreciable richness and body.”
Now’s the time
Brands needn’t shy away from these tools, even in today’s clean-label era and in a clean-and-green category such as plant-based meat alternatives.
Ajinomoto research found that a majority of consumers were favorable or neutral toward amino acids, enzymes, yeast and yeast extracts, with most agreeing that the ingredients would either have no effect on their choices or make them more likely to eat plant-based meat alternatives.
And though they viewed MSG less favorably, those perceptions varied significantly by consumption frequency and age.
“MSG is extremely well-positioned to make a comeback with younger consumers,” said Rains, who also leads Ajinomoto’s Global Umami Project. This project focuses on dispelling myths around MSG in North America, while also educating about the ingredient’s science-based safety and sodium-reduction capabilities. “The old ‘Chinese restaurant syndrome’ has been conclusively debunked and comes off as outdated and perhaps even racist to younger generations.”
As for notions that MSG is a “chemical,” the presence of free glutamates in “natural” foods “paints a positive story for millennials,” Rains insisted — “a story of redemption for an ingredient unfairly maligned by older generations.”
And that’s a story today’s plant-based consumers need to hear. As Rains said, “We’ve successfully shifted that perception of MSG in roughly 12 million Americans through our Know MSG campaign. The trends are in our favor.”
In an increasingly saturated plant-based market that’s tightening the focus on nutrition labels while also raising standards for taste and texture, working with an ingredient supplier that understands how to deliver on all of the above is an asset to have in the toolbox. As Formanek said, “At Ajinomoto, we’ve dedicated a lot of effort and innovative rigor to creating ingredients that let plant-based meats compete with their ‘real’ models. And when you think about where this category is headed, that’s a really exciting place for us — and for consumers — to be.”