Vegetarian and vegan diets are surging in popularity (and indeed they have been for quite some time – nearly two decades now). This is partly, of course, because the number of people choosing a fully vegetarian or vegan lifestyle has risen.
Perhaps of greater interest is the increased number of people starting to pay more attention to the impact of their diet on the environment and their health. Consequently, many non-vegetarians and non-vegans are now also seeking out more plant-based products: some in an effort to “do their bit” for the planet, others wanting to feel healthier and happier, whilst many are just keen to try something new!
Exciting developments in food technology have contributed to dramatic increases in the affordability, quality and diversity of plant-based food products. Gone are the days when meatless dishes were a mere afterthought in fast-food chains and high-end restaurants. Nowadays, non-meat eaters truly have their pick when it comes to fine-dining. In this article, we discuss some of the food technology innovations that have enabled significant expansion and improvement in the plant-based food products currently on the market.
A look back at plant-based products through time
Throughout human history, populations around the world have followed diets centred around plants. For example, in East Asia, tofu, seitan, and yuba have been used as alternatives to meat for several centuries. Meanwhile, vegetarianism in America has been documented since as early as the 19th century, with newspapers and pamphlets describing “vegetable turkeys” that could be made to feed families on Thanksgiving (perhaps not far off the much maligned “nut roast” which has been a staple vegetarian offering on pub menus in the UK for years!). However, few of these basic substitutes for meat shared any of the sensory characteristics craved by meat-eaters.
The first two commercial meat analogues in the United States, “Nuttose” and “Protose” were released by Sanitas Nut Food Co. in the late 1890s. Nuttose, patented as US670,283, was made from a mixture of gluten, water, and peanut meal, whereas Protose, patented as US869,371, was made from casein, gluten and vegetable oil.
Throughout the 20th century, a large number of other meat alternatives came to market, but most were still made from soy, or a simple mixture of soy and another vegetable. By contrast, the 21st century has seen a rapid increase in the number and sheer diversity of plant-based products reaching supermarket shelves.
Making meat analogues … meatier
Regardless of whether your favourite type of meat is chicken, beef or something altogether more exotic, you probably have a specific idea of how your chosen meat should taste, smell, and feel. For many consumers, the historic disparity in these sensory characteristics between meat products and plant-based meat analogues has reduced their desire to try the latter. The key to food technologists developing “meatier” alternatives to meat was in an unlikely candidate – plants!
Recombinant production of soy leghaemoglobin
Haem is a molecule involved in iron transport in both animals and plants. In animals, haem is found in myoglobin and it plays a large role in determining many of the properties of meat including colour, texture and smell. In plants, haem is found in a class of proteins called phytoglobins, and in the 2010s food technologists at Impossible Foods realised that adding phytoglobins to their plant-based products could give them a “meatier” taste.
In 2019, the US Food and Drug Administration approved the use of leghaemoglobin from soy plants as a flavouring in meat analogue products. Since then, Impossible Foods have been creating plant-based meat alternatives by cultivating large batches of transgenic yeast expressing the gene for soy leghaemoglobin. During processing, the soy leghaemoglobin is isolated from the yeast and added to products to mimic the haemoglobin and myoglobin found in animal-based meat. The methods involved in producing these products are described in further detail in European Patent publications EP3722431 and EP3044320.
Extrudable fat technology
Fats also play a key role in determining the texture, flavour and moisture retention of meat. By physically linking fats to plant proteins, Motif Foodworks use their extrudable fat technology to mimic the physical properties of animal fats, which helps them to produce meat analogues which are often indistinguishable from the real thing! The precise steps involved in this method are set out in greater detail in International Patent publication WO2022147357.
Other companies working in recombinant fat production to improve the taste and texture of plant-based meat include Hoxton Farms, who use cell culture and mathematical modelling to grow purified fat in bioreactors.
Exciting developments in the egg and dairy industries
In the last decade or so, food technologists have continued to surprise consumers with new, exciting and quite frankly delicious, alternatives to animal-based products. Therefore, if you’re looking to reduce your meat consumption, why not try a plant-based poached egg for breakfast, or add a sprinkling of vegan cheese to your lunch?
The quest for the perfect plant-based poached egg
How would you like your eggs? Boiled, scrambled or fried? For most of the 2010s, these were the only options for vegans ordering dishes containing an egg substitute. In 2019, Crux Café in Adelaide took the world by storm when videos of their vegan poached eggs went viral. Their secret? A technique called 'spherification' that has been around for decades.
Spherification is a process that involves adding sodium alginate to a calcium salt bath. The process was patented in the 1940s as a method of making edible imitation soft fruits. However, in the 2010s, chefs and food technologists discovered that the technique could be applied to making plant-based eggs. Spherification has now become a popular way to create vegan egg yolks from various plant-based mixtures. These vegan egg yolks can subsequently be combined with plant-based egg whites, once again via spherification, to produce fully-fledged vegan poached eggs!
Melt in your mouth vegan cheese
Humans have been making cheese for more than 3000 years and our love for cheese continues to this day. In fact, in the UK, thousands of people from around the world descend on Cooper’s Hill in Gloucestershire each year to watch people chase after a wheel of Double Gloucester cheese! For many vegetarians, a major barrier to them becoming vegans has been their unwavering love for cheese.
The versatility of tofu meant that it was often used as a substitute for cheese for much of the 1990s and, since the 2000s, food manufacturers have been using nuts to create vegan cheeses with richer flavours. However, recent innovation in the dairy sector promises to create far “better” plant-based cheeses, capable of replicating the textures and consistencies of “real” dairy-based cheese.
Prolamins are a type of storage proteins, primarily found in the seeds of cereal crops. In addition to their extrudable fat technology, Motif Foodworks also make vegan cheese capable of stretching, boiling and melting in a similar way to dairy-based cheeses by using a plasticized form of prolamin extracted from corn. The prolamin proteins, alongside a combination of food-grade binders, ensure that cheeses produced by this method maintain their uniformity even at high temperatures. This has been a game-changer for cheese-lovers, considering the many poor reviews of vegan cheese in the past. As disclosed in International Patent publication WO2022174157, Motif appear also to be developing a plant-based alternative to dairy-based yoghurt. Watch this space.
Looking ahead through an IP lens
The plant-based food market has been going from strength-to-strength in recent years, and consumers can expect to see greater numbers of ever tastier alternatives to animal-based products in the months and years to come.
Not surprisingly, we’ve already seen an increasing number of patents being filed in this area as companies have realised there is a lot of money to be made out of plant-based alternatives. It will be interesting to see how this drives the industry and its innovation.
For more information about advances in plant-based food technology and its protection through IP, please contact Dan Olatokun, or your usual Kilburn & Strode advisor.