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Plant-based products: How Mediterranean Umami enables salt reduction and flavor enhancement

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Demand for plant-based products is growing quickly as consumers seek out more ethical, sustainable sources of protein. Manufacturers have responded with innovative products that come closer to the taste and texture of meat and cheese than ever before. Yet, manufacturers continue to contend with off tastes and a lack of umami flavor compounds, leading them to add salt to compensate. In Mediterranean Umami, Salt of the Earth has developed a healthier, tastier solution to the problem.

The market opportunity open to a better solution is clear. From 2017 to 2019, US grocery sales of plant-based foods grew 29% to hit $5 billion.1​ The overall US retail food market grew just 4% over the same period. At 37.8%, the growth of plant-based meat was particularly explosive over the analyzed period.

Manufacturers are just scratching the surface of the plant-based meat opportunity, though. Despite growing six times faster than the animal-based meat sector in 2019, plant-based products accounted for 1% of the overall market. If plant-based meats achieve the same penetration as non-animal milks, the market will be worth $12 billion a year.

There are reasons to think plant-based meat can achieve that level of penetration. In 2019, one-third of US households contained at least one person who was either vegan, vegetarian, pescatarian, or flexitarian.2​ There are likely more people who are interested in such diets. One survey found 73% of meat eaters think veganism is ethical, and 70% believe it is good for the environment.3​ Those people were put off veganism by the impression that such a diet is inconvenient and not enjoyable.

Converting those people to plant-based diets would add to existing growth driven by demographic changes — young people are particularly likely to avoid meat — and the effect of mounting evidence that an “ambitious dietary change towards more plant-based, flexitarian diets” is needed to save the environment.4

Barriers to great-tasting plant-based products

The rapid proliferation of plant-based meats has made it easier than ever for people to cut animal products out of their diets, but, despite significant improvements, such products are yet to match the taste and texture of the real thing. Manufacturers have become good at turning plants into proteins, thereby mimicking what food-producing animals do, but the resulting soy protein isolates, chickpea proteins, and other ingredients lack umami flavor compounds and can have off, in some cases bitter, tastes.

Some manufacturers have responded to the flavor problems by adding salt, thereby making products taste better and more savory. The downside is the resulting products contain salt levels that far exceed voluntary targets and the amounts found in equivalent meat products.5​ The problem applies to plant-based products consumed at home and meals served at restaurants.6

That is a problem for the plant-based food sector. One survey found 72% of people are reducing their consumption of animal products for health reasons.7​ Only between 33% and 35% of people cited the environment, animal cruelty, and concerns about what meat contains as their main reasons, making health by far the most important issue for consumers interested in plant-based products. High levels of salt may deter health-conscious consumers from buying plant-based products.

If the plant-based sector is to retain its current customers and win over meat eaters, companies will need to develop healthier, tastier products. Salt of the Earth wants to help manufacturers rise to that challenge.

Harnessing the flavor power of plants

Salt of the Earth harnessed the power of plants to develop a savory flavor enhancement and sodium reduction ingredient. Specifically, Salt of the Earth looked to the umami-rich ingredients cooks in the Mediterranean region use to give their dishes flavor to create a product that can perform the same role in plant-based meats and other foods.

Tomatoes, one of the ingredients selected by Salt of the Earth, are richer in the glutamate amino acid that imparts umami taste than any other vegetable.8​ Mushrooms, the second ingredient chosen by Salt of the Earth, are also high in glutamate. To further amplify the flavor, Salt of the Earth added one of the most umami-rich ingredients of all: seaweed.

The combination of plant extracts resulted in a naturally savory liquid mixture that enhances flavor while reducing sodium. Salt of the Earth demonstrated the power of Mediterranean Umami by formulating it into vegetarian “chicken” nuggets.9​ The addition of 0.5% Meditarrenan Umami enabled Salt of the Earth to reduce salt levels by 27% while retaining the desired taste.

“Chicken” nuggets are just one of the products Salt of the Earth has developed using Mediterranean Umami. Salt of the Earth also has experience of using the ingredient in sausages, hamburgers, and a wide range of other plant-based products and other foods and condiments.

Manufacturers can realize those benefits without compromising their clean labels. Mediterranean Umami is free from artificial ingredients, MSG, gluten, and genetically modified organisms, making it a clean-label solution and a good fit for plant-based products designed to satisfy consumer demand for healthy, natural, and ethical foods. Alternative flavor enhancers such as MSG and hydrolyzed vegetable protein lack the clean-label credentials of Mediterranean Umami.

Innovating to drive sodium reduction

The application of Mediterranean Umami to plant-based products is part of a broader push by Salt of the Earth to help manufacturers create healthier, tastier foods. Building on a history of innovating to achieve that goal, Salt of the Earth recently introduced Mediterranean Umami Powder, a 1:1 drop-in replacement for salt in snack products.

Replacing salt with the powder enables manufacturers to reduce sodium levels without affecting the salty, savory flavor that consumers crave. Salt of the Earth achieved a 40% reduction in sodium when it replaced 1.3% salt with 1.3% Mediterranean Umami Powder.

The ability of the salt replacer to drive such reductions without compromising on taste has caught the attention of multinational food manufacturers, some of which are already using the powder in iconic global brands.

Applying Mediterranean Umami to those products has equipped Salt of the Earth to help companies reformulate their portfolios to include the ingredient. Salt of the Earth provides guidance on how to approach reformulating a particular product and has staff with the expertise to help customers craft a solution tailored to their specific needs. While no two reformulation projects are the same, Salt of the Earth knows what it takes to work Mediterranean Umami into great tasting, low salt products.

In supporting tweaks to those brands, Salt of the Earth has furthered the mission it embarked on when it first made Meditarrenean Umami. Whether trying to create the perfect, healthy plant-based burger or lower the salt content of a widely loved snack, manufacturers can rely on Salt of the Earth to provide the great savory flavor consumers want without compromising on health or clean label.

References

1. U.S. Plant-Based Market Overview - New SPINS retail sales data. The Good Food Institute ​https://www.gfi.org/marketresearch (2018).

2. How the Rise of ‘Flexitarians’ is Powering Plant-Based Sales. https://www.fmi.org/blog/view/fmi-blog/2019/10/22/how-the-rise-of-flexitarians-is-powering-plant-based-sales.

3. Bryant, C. J. We Can’t Keep Meating Like This: Attitudes towards Vegetarian and Vegan Diets in the United Kingdom. Sustain. Sci. Pract. Policy 11​, 6844 (2019).

4. Springmann, M. et al.​ Options for keeping the food system within environmental limits. Nature 562​, 519–525 (2018).

5. Meat Alternatives Survey 2018 - Action on Salt. http://www.actiononsalt.org.uk/salt-surveys/2018/meat-alternatives-survey/.

6. Salt Awareness Week: Plant Based Meals in the Out of Home Sector - Action on Salt. http://www.actiononsalt.org.uk/salt-surveys/2020/salt-awareness-week-plant-based-meals-in-the-out-of-home-sector/.

7. Wylie-Harris, M. Bulbshare Resources. (2019).

8. Umami Information by Food | Umami Information Center. Umami Information Center ​https://www.umamiinfo.com/richfood/.

9. How to reduce salt in Vegetarian ‘Chicken’ Nuggets Using Salt of the Earth Medterranean Umami Bold. https://www.saltoftheearthltd.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/7749_Umamix_InfoPages_Eng_C2.jpg.

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