Accelerating product development and innovation in plant-based meat
Consumers have demonstrated a strong desire to cut their meat consumption and are calling on manufacturers to help out. Here, Daniel Dikovsky from Redefine Meat shares the hurdles experienced by the plant-based meat sector and what they must do to satisfy flexitarian palates.
The repercussions of what we eat, both environmentally and from a health perspective, are increasingly part of the consumer consciousness. Rising numbers of vegans and vegetarians has been followed by the emergence of a flexitarian culture. A key driver is the proliferation of plant-based meat alternatives available to consumers, offering more diversity and palatable experiences. While great strides have been made in alternative meat development, the harsh reality is that one type of consumer has been left short-changed: meat lovers.
The two key areas that need addressing to bring meat lovers to the table are product quality and variety; both of which are receiving significant investment. Improving the taste, texture and overall consumer eating experience is a challenge in itself, but taking the alternative meat sector beyond a handful of minced meat-based products in the supermarket to whole cuts of meat is the holy grail for a reason. To achieve this requires new technological innovation.
The reality is that re-engineering an entire cow – an animal that has been evolving its muscle structure for centuries – will take many years. To accelerate this process and expedite innovation in product development, requires R&D in several key areas.
Meat by its very nature is a highly sophisticated and complex structure. From production to preparation and preservation, understanding precisely what makes meat ‘meat’ is essential to accurately replicate it. Taste is one thing – but replicating the muscle fibres of a cow to create the structure of a juicy, whole cut of steak is the decades-long challenge haunting alternative meat manufacturers.
Plant proteins and meat proteins act very differently, particularly in culinary performance, which creates challenges when trying to optimise plant-based meat texture. Pea, wheat and soy proteins are the most dominant plant-based ingredients in the industry as they most effectively recreate meat-like chewiness, yet problems arise when arranging them structurally. Traditional extrusion techniques behind the plant-based meat products of recent decades have hit this barrier, unable to go beyond minced meat products to replicate the muscle fibres of homogeneous structures and control how they change during the cooking process.
There’s currently a lot of excitement around emerging digital technologies that leverage meat science directly within production. By compiling data on the compositional and structural parameters of animal meat, artificial intelligence and machine learning enables data to be implemented within digital production methods such as 3D printing as an output. This enables precise arrangement of the plant-based ingredients at a voxel level, digitally recreating muscle fibre structures that perform and behave like meat when cooked and eaten. The ability to harness scientific understanding of the composition of meat and feed that through product development is a huge advantage and has enabled us at Redefine Meat to replicate a whole cut of steak.
Sensory data and the role of consumers
During alternative meat product development, integrating sensory data from consumers is critical. Understanding what consumers think of new meat mimicking products is one thing, but implementing consumer feedback for new iterations of the product is another – and just as important. For example, we use a digital library of SQIs (steak quality indexes) to grade each iteration of meat by appearance, flavour, texture and overall similarity to meat. As we make incremental changes to the meat, such as increasing the toughness value or fat value, we observe whether approval ratings go up or down on consumer sensory panels.
The difficulty is that evaluating food taste can be a grey area, as preferences vary from person to person, even different cuts of meat can yield different opinions. Leaning on digital technologies again, such as AI & ML, helps navigate these challenges by using clever algorithms to amalgamate sensory data and feed the most liked SQIs into further iterations of meat during product development. Fundamentally, assigning consumers an integral role in the product development phase of the ‘meat’ they eat will not only improve product quality but accelerate the whole process.
Raw plant-based materials
Converting raw plant-based materials into tasty meat-ready ingredients is another key part of R&D efforts. Selecting ingredients is a rigorous process with set parameters in quality, availability, scalability and sustainability. If an ingredient falls short, it can have a negative impact on product development. Some manufacturers rely on gluten to achieve meat texture, which immediately excludes the gluten-intolerant market. Others use GMOs to improve taste, but these are banned in much of the world.
While meaningful strides are made at the ingredient-level every day across the industry, no one company can do it alone. Critically, we need more raw material producers involved to enable greater versatility in plant-based ingredient development, to expand today’s product offering. As the industry continues to grow rapidly and becomes increasingly attractive, I expect more major players will join it.
Not only are great strides being made in improving the taste and texture of products, but we’ve also seen a significant expansion in product variety. This is a key driver in the fast-growing flexitarian market, giving meat lovers an alternative to meat that doesn’t compromise on the experience.
To truly challenge the meat industry and reduce global meat consumption, more innovation throughout the R&D value chain is needed. Ingredient optimisation, flavouring, production and integration of meat data and sensory science are all areas where the digitalisation of R&D is making a huge difference compared to analogue alternative meat processes of the past. We’re seeing this with new whole cut products entering the market for the first time. But if companies like ours are to break through today’s glass ceiling of the industry and become one of the biggest meat companies in the world, further collaboration across the food ecosystem and growth of technology is required.
About the author
Head of Innovation and Technology at Redefine Meat, Daniel Dikovsky, PhD, previously worked for the world’s largest 3D printing company, Stratasys. He now leads a team of scientists to change the way we make our meat through new and innovative technology.