Plant-Based Foods: The Rise Of The Machines

There is little doubt that plant-based is here to stay. The media is awash with stories of the increased focus on vegan and vegetarian diets. According to The Guardian a record 500,000 people (a quarter of whom were in the UK) signed up for Veganuary in 2021. This is an increase of 100,000 on the previous year and double that of 2019. And, while it is important not to get too carried away and recognise that meat continues to play a vital role in the vast majority of people’s diets, it would be foolish for the food industry to ignore the trend. That includes the retailers who are ensuring that it is ever easier to adopt a vegetarian/vegan diet, with many of the major supermarket brands not only extending their range of products but also actively promoting their offerings. This has been demonstrated by, amongst others, the publication of a month’s vegan meal plan from Marks & Spencer, and a TV- and radio-based advertising campaign from Tesco extolling the benefits of Veganuary. Similarly, as many of us turned to food delivery services as we found ways to cope with lockdown, these providers saw significant upturns in demand for plant-based meals. At the beginning of Veganuary, Deliveroo saw a month-on-month increase of over 150 percent in searches for vegan food.

Product innovation

So, it is an exciting time for product development in this particular arena as food producers seek to capitalise on the heightened awareness and interest in adopting meat-free alternatives. However, it is somewhat ironic that one of the biggest challenges in creating plant-based options is how to replicate the textures that we associate with meat. There has been a lot of media coverage surrounding the developments in the expensively produced laboratory-grown proteins. This is understandable given the Brave New World that such images conjure, but by far the biggest area of new product development is in finding innovative ways to use vegetables, fruits and other non-meat products to create new and interesting options.

The holy grail of mouthfeel

Much is made of the term ‘mouthfeel’ when discussing meat alternatives. It is clear from the strategies being adopted by many manufacturers and retailers alike that the marketing focus is not only aimed at existing vegetarian and vegan consumers but on attracting those who may be considering such a dietary change. Given that these consumers have a certain expectation as to how meat products feel in their mouths, the need to create alternatives which replicate that is particularly important. The increase in flexitarians or the so-called ‘casual vegetarian’ – those who still enjoy meat but are perhaps cutting down on their intake – also highlights how the crossover across products needs to reflect this.

Burgers are an excellent example of how the vegetarian option looks to replicate the meat original, a prime objective being to achieve a texture and ‘bite’ equivalent to that of meat. This is also the case with many other foodstuffs, where product developers are focused on creating the meat-like characteristics to which we are so accustomed. Fundamental to achieving this is the machinery used in the production processes.

Machines rise to the challenge

In some areas, the machines used are not significantly different, or in fact different at all, to those used to produce meat products. While the process and settings on a mixer may differ according to the ingredients being mixed, the machine itself is equally at home with meat or non-meat options. For other processes, the challenges of producing tasty, satisfying and nutritious vegetarian and vegan dishes require specific attributes from the equipment.

Cooking to achieve meat-like textures

Machines are now available which can significantly assist in this quest for a meat-like feel and, importantly, appearance. Systems are now available which cook products at a low temperature while they are transported through what is effectively a closed system to retain flavour, moisture and nutritional benefits. They can then be grilled or marinated, or quickly cooled or frozen for further processing. Certain machines are designed specifically to align the plant fibres and to pasteurise the ingredients to create a ready-to-eat product. This is ideally suited to producing chilled, texturised, plant-based components for the fresh chilled vegan products which are increasingly appearing on the shelves of major retailers and foodservice providers.

These products, which are meat-like in terms of both appearance and mouthfeel, have similar bite, succulence and flavour as chicken, pork and even duck, with nutritional benefits and reduced calorie count. They can be added to ready meals as large cut meat-like pieces or in a ground mince-like state for pastry-based and potato topped pies and dishes such as chilli. In addition, they can be used to create vegan stir fries, wraps and sandwiches.

Extended shelf-life

Another area of development that is increasingly offering opportunities in vegan and vegetarian food processing is high pressure processing (HPP). This is a cold pasteurisation technique which involves food being subjected to intense water pressure – equivalent to being 60 km under the sea, while the earth’s deepest ocean trench is just 11 km. A good example of its benefits is in the production of processed avocado. As a cold pasteurisation, post-packaging process, HPP retains the freshness of the original fruit and its nutritional values while extending the microbial shelf life. Perhaps most importantly, it extends the commercial shelf life by inactivating the avocado’s PPO (polyphenol oxidase) enzyme which causes it to brown. This allows more time for the product to travel through the supply chain.

The pulp from avocado is increasingly being used in both foods and drinks. The production of guacamole is the most obvious example, but it is also being introduced in sandwiches, filled rolls, sushi and other lunch bar products. The health benefits of avocado are a significant contributor to its popularity so HPP is a perfect method of pasteurising it: as a clean process it does not affect the nutritional properties or the flavour of the fruit.

From niche to mainstream

Just a decade ago, vegetarianism and veganism were considered largely niche markets. However, research conducted by the Vegan Society in 2018 suggested there were around 600,000 vegans in Great Britain, a number that is likely to have risen substantially since then. Plant-based products are now very much of the mainstream. The move by the fast-food companies to adopt vegetarian and vegan options – McDonalds, Greggs, Burger King and KFC to name but a few – highlights just how such products have become part of everyday consumer life. And this interest shows no signs of abating: Tesco has recently announced plans for an increase of 300% in sales of vegan meat alternatives by 2025.

As the demand for development in this fast-paced sector of the food industry continues to evolve, so will the need for increased production capacities and, with that, the requirement for new equipment to assist. It is up to machinery manufacturers and suppliers to respond to the challenge.

This article is part of the Preparation Division

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