Meat-free burgers, sausages, and other meat analog products have come a long way in recent years, but there is still room for improvement in texture and taste, as companies continue to strive for more meat-like attributes – and a bite of the meat-free market.
With increasing numbers of consumers embracing meat reduction, as well as vegetarianism, on the back of health, environmental, animal welfare and cost concerns, creating high-quality, truly meat-like analogs has been a goal for food manufacturers for decades. However, the market for meat analogs has not surged, despite declining meat consumption and increased innovation in the sector.
While popular meat alternatives include soy, wheat, pea protein and Quorn – a mycoprotein derived from fermentation of the fungus Fusarium venenatum – there are a number of emerging opportunities in the meat substitutes market.
Some of the most promising include co-products include from the biofuel and vegetable oil industries and the food ingredients industry, as well as totally new sources of protein, such as from plants and algae – although most of these concepts are still far from commercialization.
Scientists at the Dutch research institute TNO claim that algae holds particular promise, as its highly concentrated protein content has structuring properties that could make it useful for stabilizing foams, which could then be used in meat alternative products. However, there are currently no algae-based meat analogs on the market.
Concept to chiller
One product that has moved from lab concept to the supermarket is Beyond Meat, a chicken imitation product made from a dry mix of soy and pea powders, carrot fiber and gluten-free flour, which has been making waves among vegetarians (and vegans) in the United States. The mix is cooked, cooled and extruded to simulate the texture of chicken, including a realistic meat-like shear when pulled apart. It made its debut at select Whole Foods stores a couple of months ago, after more than a decade of research by Dr. Fu-Hung Hsieh and his colleagues at the University of Missouri.
He claims that the best process involves extrusion, with a very high moisture content of up to 75% - and by many accounts the texture is very realistic. Even New York Times food writer Mark Bittman wrote that the Beyond Meat product (Savage River Farms at the time) “fooled me badly in a blind tasting.”
Meat-free beyond meat substitutes
According to figures from market researcher Datamonitor, North American consumption of meat substitutes has been growing, but the compound annual growth rate (CAGR) has decreased, from 3.1% from 2004 to 2009, to a projected 2.5% from 2009 to 2014.
Meanwhile, disappointment in some earlier meat analog products – alongside a general movement toward whole foods – has led many vegetarians and meat reducers to bypass the meat substitute route altogether, focusing instead on protein-rich, nutrient-dense pulses, nuts, and grains.
On a global level, Euromonitor International said last year that sales of meat alternatives are predicted to increase by 15% in value from 2010 to 2015, but noted that there is additional ‘massive potential’ for non-meat-based foods of all types.