How flavor technology is changing consumer perceptions about plant-based proteins and expanding the category.

Across North America, plant-based diets are on the rise. According to a 2018 Gallup poll​, more than 5% of the U.S. population identify as vegetarian, and this number is rapidly growing each year. Much of this growth is being driven by younger consumers, with more than a quarter of U.S. […]

Across North America, plant-based diets are on the rise. According to a 2018 Gallup poll​, more than 5% of the U.S. population identify as vegetarian, and this number is rapidly growing each year. Much of this growth is being driven by younger consumers, with more than a quarter of U.S. millennials identifying as vegetarian.

The trend toward plant-based diets is not surprising. In addition to numerous sustainability advantages, studies have proven that a plant-based diet offers myriad health benefits ranging from decreased risk of heart disease, weight loss and even improved mortality. A plant-based diet is widely associated with a healthier lifestyle, and this is an important factor for many consumers in shifting away from animal proteins. In a recent Mintel survey, more than 58% of participants cited ‘health benefits’ as their primary reason for consuming plant-based proteins​ instead of traditional meat.

However, health benefits are only one factor driving the plant-based diet trend.​ Much of this shift can be also attributed to the rapidly expanding number of great-tasting food and beverage products that cater specifically to this market, including alternative proteins.

In recent years, both restaurant menus and supermarkets across the U.S. are brimming with new vegetarian and vegan products, offering consumers a broad range of plant-based foods and beverages that are convenient, familiar and great-tasting. These new plant-based product offerings are the result of sophisticated flavor technology that is focused on providing an authentic taste experience. According to experts, consumers are willing to explore plant-based foods that replace animal-proteins but are unwilling to compromise on key attributes of these traditional proteins such as a familiar flavor and a satisfying experience.

This focus on flavor and experience is a crucial aspect of plant-based protein foods – and often the deciding factor for many consumers in making the switch to vegetarian or vegan options. More than 22% of participants in a recent Mintel survey said there were not enough appetizing options in the plant-based category, and that lack of appetizing flavors was their primary reason for not eating plant-based proteins or eating less plant-based proteins.

As food and beverage brands seek to deliver on consumer demand for great-tasting plant-based proteins, there is increased focus on innovative flavor techniques and technologies that provide the same familiar taste and experience of animal-proteins.

California-based T. Hasegawa USA​ is leading the industry in plant-based protein flavor innovation​. As the U.S. subsidiary of global top 10 flavor & fragrance company T. Hasegawa Co. Ltd. in Japan, T. Hasegawa USA has developed many revolutionary technologies that help deliver not only the familiar flavor that consumers crave in meat alternatives and other plant-based proteins, but also the familiar texture and fatty, indulgent characteristics of these foods.

“In the past, the flavor and texture of plant-based proteins was a barrier-to-entry for many consumers,” said T. Hasegawa Vice President of Research and Development, Jim Yang. “Our team has developed several innovative flavor systems that improve the taste of these products and deliver a more authentic, familiar protein experience.”

Meatless burgers dominate the plant-based proteins category, and these products are usually the entry point for consumers interested in trying meat alternatives. According to a recent Mintel survey, over 60% of participants have tried plant-based burgers and liked them, compared with other plant-based alternatives such as chicken (46%), sausage (43%) and meatballs (41%). The challenge with plant-based burgers is overcoming the consumer perception that they all have a similar taste, which is quite different from that of a familiar beef burger patty. According to T. Hasegawa, a unique fat mimetic process helps to give a plant-based burger the same fatty taste and mouthfeel as a traditional burger.

“Our customers have utilized T. Hasegawa’s fat modifying process to provide a completely authentic burger experience with plant-based proteins,” explained T. Hasegawa Senior Flavor Chemist, Austin Luft. “This technique has proven itself in a broad range of alternative proteins including burger patties and plant-based versions that simulate ground beef. Flavor is only half the experience with a burger, and this process is extremely important to deliver the rich, fatty mouthfeel that consumers crave.”

While food and beverage brands rely on flavor technology to deliver the familiar flavor and textural components that consumers expect in plant-based meat alternatives, that’s only half the equation. Equally robust technology is utilized to help differentiate products and ensure the authentic flavor of a plant-based protein after cooking and preparation.

Specifically, Maillard reaction flavor technology is a critical aspect of plant-based protein development. The Maillard process is a chemical reaction that occurs naturally when heating foods. Flavor compounds in raw foods react with amino acids, proteins and sugars to produce a browning effect that gives cooked food its complex flavor. Food flavorists are tasked with replicating the taste and texture of plant-based meat alternatives and ensuring the authenticity of flavors and aromas as these foods are cooked – which can vary drastically.

“Plant-based meat alternatives are especially complex because of the variety of cooking techniques that we need to simulate when developing a new flavor,” added Luft. “Our customers often need to replicate one of many different meat-cooking techniques, including blackened, char-grilled flavors, broiled, smoked and more. The reaction process unlocks the specific flavor that we expect in these foods, and we are able to isolate that reaction flavor compound and offer it in versatile sprayed dry encapsulation, powder and water-soluble form to suite a wide range of protein applications.”

The plant-based protein category continues to grow and expand. While plant-based burgers still dominate the category and other sausages and bacon, there is a lot more to the plant-based proteins than burgers and bacon. Over the past decade, plant-based seafood options have greatly expanded the category, making it possible for consumers to enjoy meatless sushi, shrimp, fish filets, caviar, crab cakes, poke bowls and countless other classic seafood dishes.

Today’s plant-based proteins are making it easier than ever for consumers to explore a vegetarian, vegan or even ‘flexitarian’ diet. They’re offering new ways to deliver tangible health benefits while making a sustainable impact on the environment – all without compromising on the rich, complex flavor that consumers are accustomed to with traditional proteins. Advances in flavor development have made the transition from animal-proteins to plant-based options a seamless and enjoyable experience for consumers and pave the way for future category growth as meatless options continue to become a mainstream part of North American diets. 

Food and beverage brands who are looking to take their plant-based protein product to the next level of flavor can explore the possibilities by contacting T. Hasegawa USA at www.thasegawa.com​ or by calling (866) 965-0502.

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