Navigating Plant-Based Proteins: 3 Tips for Food Makers

The number of plant-based products on the market has been growing tremendously in the past few years. New products using peas, beans, rice, or potatoes, instead of eggs and dairy, are entering the market at a rapid pace.

But, making products with these plant-based proteins can be tricky. It becomes even harder if you’re trying to replicate a product that originally contained egg and dairy proteins, especially if you don’t truly know why they’re in your product in the first place. It might feel like pure trial-and-error figuring out this new plant-based version.

Your product might become grainy. Lose its fluffiness. It might have an off-flavor, or change color. Where do you even start to fix this?

Luckily, by using a structured approach you can greatly increase your chances for success. Start with these three tips to get started in the plant-based protein world. They’ll help you develop that tasty and stable plant-based product that you were aiming for.

Plant Based Proteins – Where to start?

Determine the role of the protein

Sure, everybody talks about using plant-based proteins. But, take a step back first. Why do you even want to use a plant-based protein?

  • Do you want to replace animal-based proteins such as dairy or eggs?
  • Do you want to develop a plant-based product, that’s also high in protein?
  • Or, are you not too sure, just think it’s the right way to go?

Get your answer clear first. To help you out, you can find a few of the common reasons for doing so below.

Replacing animal-based proteins

If you want to develop a vegan product or just a product that uses fewer animal proteins, you might need to use a plant-based protein. Whether you need to depends on the role of the animal protein you were using previously. There are plenty of examples where you can simply leave out the animal protein, without adding back a special plant-based protein.

But, if the animal protein has an important role in your product, you do need to think about replacing it with something else, such as a plant-based protein. If this is the case, start by writing down the role of those proteins. For instance:

It creates a light and airy foam

In marshmallows, meringues, but also cakes proteins ensure a light and fluffy texture. Egg proteins, especially egg white proteins are very good at this. Dairy proteins to a lesser extent.

Most plant-based proteins cannot form similar foamy textures. There are only a few ingredients as effective as eggs, aquafaba is probably the most well-known, though not as easy to use on an industrial scale (yet).

bruleed italian meringue on lemon meringue pie
A caramelized meringue on top of a pie. The egg whites within help to create airiness, but also help the meringue turn brown when heated.
It thickens your products as it heats up

When you cook an egg, it turns from liquid into a solid. When using eggs in burgers, cakes, and many other products, this process may be crucial for ensuring your final product holds itself together. Similarly, milk proteins in caramels, help thicken a caramel. Taking out these proteins will give a completely different texture.

When looking for plant-based alternatives, you might need proteins, but, you might also be able to use other thickening agents that take over this role.

It emulsifies your product

Oils and water don’t mix. They naturally want to separate again. Many proteins can help prevent this from happening, they emulsify your product. Generally speaking, this role is relatively easy to fill with a plant-based protein.

It adds color and flavor

Egg and dairy proteins can add color and flavor to your food, especially if that food is heated somewhere during the process. The proteins may react with available sugars and cause the food to turn a nice brown color. This is the all-important Maillard reaction. Again, most plant-based proteins can do so as well, but, they might react in a slightly different way.

Developing a high-protein product

Another reason for wanting to use plant-based proteins is to develop a product that matches a certain nutritional composition. You might aim for a specific protein content, which you can only achieve by adding additional proteins. This is very common for sports products or products for elderly or sick people who need to consume additional protein.

If this is the case, keep in mind that the nutritional value of plant-based proteins is often lower than that of animal proteins. Proteins are made up of amino acids and as humans, we need to eat enough of the different amino acids. Some amino acids that are important for humans are less prevalent in plant-based proteins. This makes the protein of a lower quality. You can overcome this by mixing different protein sources, but it’s a true balancing act. As such, ensure you inquire about this with your supplier when choosing a protein.

various legumes
There are many types of legumes such as lentils, peas, and beans. They all contain considerable amounts of protein, but, each protein source might behave differently!

Egg = egg, pea ≠ pea

Once you know the role of your protein, you can brief your supplier and start testing ingredients. This can be a frustrating process, but, know that it’s not as random as you might initially find it to be.

What’s good to keep in mind is that generally speaking, regardless of the supplier, the composition and functionality of egg protein powders is pretty similar. You can shop around quite easily. That’s because most egg protein powders are simply made up of dried egg whites. They haven’t been modified.

The same is true to some extent for dairy proteins. But, it’s definitely not true for most plant-based proteins. There is a lot of variation is how these proteins are extracted from the original produce and how they’re dried and possibly modified. This can have a big impact on how it behaves. It’s why the potato protein of supplier E may behave completely differently than that of supplier F. Similarly, pea protein A might be great at forming a foam, whereas pea protein B collapses almost immediately.

It is important to keep this in mind when testing plant-based proteins. Just because almond protein A didn’t work, doesn’t necessarily mean almond proteins as a whole don’t work. The opposite is also true. If the potato protein from supplier X works great, that doesn’t mean the potato protein from supplier Y works as well.

Generally speaking, it’s harder to switch suppliers for these ingredients, especially for the more specialized versions. Most manufacturers won’t tell you how they make their proteins. Instead, they’ll tell you what that protein is most suited for. Ensure you inquire about this. If you need a protein that foams, that might be a very different protein than one that holds your cake together.

Pea ≠ soy ≠ almond

Another common misconception is that you can easily replace one plant-based protein with another. But, each protein source gies proteins that behave very differently.

If your proteins don’t have a specific functional role in your product (as we discussed above) it may be quite easy to switch between sources. But, if you’re looking for a protein with a specific behavior, switching between protein sources is not that easy. It might not be possible at all.

Dairy & Egg proteins have a headstart

If it feels like you’re randomly trying things, rest assured. You might find that people simply don’t know whether an ingredient works in your specific application. That’s because plant-based proteins have some catching up to do. Researchers have been investigating egg and dairy proteins for decades. A lot of knowledge has been published and tested over the years. And, even though plant-based proteins have caught up somewhat, they’re still behind by a long shot. It’s why you might need to do a little more trial-and-error for the time being.

Common technical challenges, it doesn’t work (yet)

Many plant-based proteins don’t dissolve in water that well, causing a grainy texture. Others have strong off-flavors. Yet again others can’t fulfill a technical role, such as forming and stabilizing a foam.

These are common problems to run into. But, progress is being made by many manufacturers and researchers in this field. Ways to mask off-flavors have been developed. Manufacturers have started to learn which additional ingredients may need to be added to help with foaming. Again, plant-based proteins have some catching up to do. But, simply because something didn’t work 5 years ago, doesn’t mean it can’t work now.

black bean brownie stack
Black bean sweet potato brownies. They still contain a considerable amount of protein, but use the whole beans instead of a protein powder.

Can you use a ‘whole’ product instead?

There are many ways to use plant-based proteins. So far, we’ve assumed that you’re looking to use plant-based protein ingredients. These are products that often contain over 60%, maybe even over 90% of protein. These products are made by isolating the proteins from the original protein source. For instance, chickpea protein is made by isolating and extracting the protein from chickpeas. These can be quite intensive production processes.

Before completely going down this route. Have you already considered using the ‘whole’ protein source instead? So, could you use the chickpea as a whole? This can lower production costs. Of course, it can also complicate matters since chickpeas don’t just contain proteins. But, if at all possible, it’s a worthwhile option to investigate from both cost and sustainability considerations!

Developing your plant-based product

Many companies are working on developing these plant-based alternatives, for cost, sustainability, or simply because consumers are asking for them. If you’re working on a product like this as well, you might run into textural issues, off-flavors, and more. Your final product might not yet look like you want it to be.

So start by asking why you need this plant-based ingredient in the first place. Use that knowledge when talking to your suppliers. Accept that developing with plant-based ingredients may take a little longer than doing so with egg and dairy alternatives. There’s simply not as much knowledge and expertise available. Lastly, don’t forget to think out of the box. Simply because you’ve always used these animal based proteins, doesn’t necessarily mean you need a plant-based equivalent. Are there options to use ‘whole’ products instead of this purer protein?

Doing so will set you up for a successful and hopefully less frustrating product development journey. Resulting in innovative products that your customers will enjoy!

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