Vegetarian protein options have come a long way from the once-ubiquitous lentils and tofu as food scientists have stepped up to the challenge of creating innovative meat substitutes.
While popular meat alternatives include soy, wheat and Quorn – a mycoprotein derived from fermentation of the fungus Fusarium venenatum – there are a number of emerging opportunities in the meat substitutes market.
Soy protein-based meat analogs are among the most established meat substitutes and they have become more popular in recent years, as the protein’s palatability has been improved with a high-moisture extrusion process.
Texture like chicken
Professor of biological engineering and food science at the University of Missouri Fu-Hung Hsieh has been working for a number of years to produce a soy product that simulates the fibrous qualities of a chicken breast, rather than one that simply adds flavor and color to soy protein. He claims that the best process is one with a very high moisture content of up to 75 percent.
And researchers at the Canadian Food Science and Technology Centre in Brooks, Alberta have been working to produce meat analogs from peas, wheat and potatoes with a texture closely resembling that of chicken or fish. The researchers claim to have produced a high quality analog by extruding pea protein isolate at 92 percent protein, vital wheat gluten at 80 percent protein, and potato starch at high moisture levels.
Tasty veggie patties
Meanwhile, researchers at specialty hydrocolloids firm CP Kelco have been experimenting with ways to make patties from vegetables like sweet potatoes, for instance, that do not burn on the outside or fall apart before they are cooked on the inside. Speaking at the Research Chefs Association conference earlier this year, food scientist at CP Kelco Ted Russin presented his work with hydrocolloids that enable vegetable patties to form a Maillard crust – the tasty, crisp surface caused by a reaction in starchy foods between sugar and the amino acid asparagine.
Meat-free marketing initiatives, such as giving up meat for one day a week, have had limited success in Europe and North America, but there is a growing body of research suggesting that meat and dairy consumption has a large impact on global carbon emissions. In view of this push toward switching out meat for environmental reasons, Dutch research institute TNO is working to extract proteins from coldwater algae, which it believes could herald a new, environmentally-friendly, source of protein and a meat analog.
Quite unlike livestock rearing, algae consume carbon dioxide, as well as nitrate and phosphate.
Ancient grain potential
And although it is thought to have been consumed by people for 6,000 years, quinoa is a relative newcomer in the meat analog market.
There has been increasing interest in its use as a nutritious gluten-free grain for bakery products, but Israeli food company Soglowek has sought to exploit its healthy attributes for the meat substitute sector by developing vegetarian patties that use quinoa as the main component, combined with soy protein and lentils.