The three pillars of plant-based food testing – functionality, composition and safety

The food industry has seen a dramatic increase in demand for plant-based products, fueled both by changes in consumer habits and growing commitments to sustainability. Today’s food consumers are increasingly aligning their shopping habits with environmental and personal wellness goals. For example, climate-conscious shoppers are looking for foods that they perceive to be more sustainable, that have simple ingredient lists (also called “clean label” products), or that are meat-free and/or gluten-free. These products are often foods made with plant-based ingredients such as legumes like lentils or dried peas and recycled ingredients.

This trend is reflected in the growing number of people adopting vegan diets, which increased in the United States by 500% between 2014 and 2017. Therefore, driving plant-based product innovation becomes an attractive strategy for processors looking to meet customer demands and generate long-term brand value. However, processors also have to contend with rising ingredient costs, supply chain insecurities, new regulations and tricky formulations as they use new ingredients in new ways.

Leveraging accurate testing and analysis technologies is essential for processors to create scalable processes and high-quality plant-based foods that meet the needs of producers and consumers.

Functionality is fundamental

When choosing a plant-based food product, consumers do not want to compromise on taste, texture or mouthfeel. A thorough understanding of ingredient functionality is therefore important at every stage – from initial product formulation through processing – to ensure consumer satisfaction. This is particularly relevant with the incorporation of new ingredients which, due to their very novel nature, are often accompanied by little information on their performance relative to more commonly used constituents such as flour. Truly understanding the impact of ingredients on formulations and performance can help manufacturers distinguish an acceptable substitute from an exceptional one, increasing brand strength and customer satisfaction.

Whether in an R&D start-up or a large established manufacturer, using testing and analysis tools to gain detailed insights will always be important when evaluating the functionality of new ingredients. When designing and formulating a product, it is essential to know how a new ingredient will react to heat, stress and other ingredients. Failure to do so can lead to significant difficulties when scaling up, even if the new product meets the taste and texture objectives. Innovative and agile companies test from the start to reduce R&D costs, minimize scaling issues, and bring new products to market quickly.

Rheological instruments such as ingredient performance analyzers can provide manufacturers with key functional data that helps accelerate product development and define ingredient specifications for successful production. Near Infrared (NIR) instruments provide fast, multi-constituent measurements such as moisture, protein, oil, fiber and more. These instruments generate information for ingredient selection, process control and end product quality. Process NIR instruments are also available for direct integration into existing process lines and process control systems allowing automated or manual adjustments.

Even after establishing stable processes, regular monitoring is necessary to ensure that raw materials are performing as intended. The natural variation of annual crops may require adaptations and reformulation. With constant monitoring, manufacturers can have more control over intake. This creates opportunities for vertically integrated companies or those that source directly from growers, giving them a boost in knowing what comes up sooner.

Understanding the functionality of ingredients through smart testing and analysis can also help processors create sustainable plant-based foods such as okara flour, a gluten-free, protein-rich and fiber-generated alternative to flour. from recycled soy pulp. Manufacturers have found ways to leverage by-products to create new products that meet customer demand and reduce food waste.

The importance of sustainable and effective testing

By selecting technologies and developing processes with green practices in mind, manufacturers create the opportunity to better align with customer demands. Increased sustainability and less waste also means more man-hours spent on food production.

Leveraging instruments such as NIRs, which are fast, use little to no consumables, and require no harmful test chemicals, offers food processors the opportunity to reap these benefits and align with sustainability goals. set by their companies. By ensuring finished products meet specifications through proper testing, the number of rejected or reworked batches is reduced, further reducing costs and waste.

Overall workflow efficiency also plays a key role in sustainable and effective plant-based ingredient testing. Not only do more efficient technologies translate to higher production and faster turnaround times, they also provide manufacturers with a faster return on investment. Choosing easy-to-use and easy-to-interpret test technologies enables plant operators to perform tests quickly and accurately with minimal training in complex analytical methods. Instruments that provide easy-to-read, viewable data and basic sample preparation can also help operators quickly make adjustments based on data obtained from ingredient and in-process monitoring.

Trust is key

In addition to functional and compositional analyses, security tests are essential to ensure customer confidence. As with more conventional foods, testing plant-based ingredients for heavy metals, pathogens, pesticides and mycotoxins is the cornerstone of creating safer food products.

Safety testing should take place at every stage of the food journey. Economical lateral flow dipstick tests provide a quick and easy way to test for a range of mycotoxins when ingesting ingredients, preventing potentially contaminated batches from mixing with others. With rapid results available and suitable for both the lab and the field, they are versatile and can be easily integrated into a processor’s workflow. For more labor-intensive and expertise-intensive testing for pathogens, metals, and pesticides, a composite sampling protocol should be the minimum for manufacturers. In heavy metal analysis, for example, Inductively Coupled Plasma Optical Emission Spectrometry (ICP-OES) offers manufacturers a powerful way to accurately detect heavy metals within conformal limits on a range of matrices. Other high-end techniques such as liquid chromatography and LC-MS/MS can also test for pesticides, mycotoxins and other analytes.

Test to the future

Whether it’s a burgeoning new R&D startup or an established manufacturer, the need for versatile testing technologies to inspire creative products will continue to persist. The food industry has always been an evolving and dynamic sector. With the ability to rely on robust analytical instruments and technology solutions, processors can forge a path to providing consumers with new, high-quality plant-based products that meet their demands.

In the rapidly growing plant-based food market, the characterization of new ingredients is fundamental to continued growth. Attributes such as ease of use, speed, descriptive results for decision making, and durability are all important to consider when selecting tools for comprehensive ingredient and product knowledge. With demands for durability, safety and palatability – alongside growing efficiency expectations from growers, processors and laboratories – the use of accurate testing tools is more important than ever.

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