Solving the Protein Problem in Plant-Based Dairy Alternatives

by Mark Robert, Technical Director North America, Dairy, Tate & Lyle

Plant-based alternatives to traditional dairy products, such as yogurts and milkshakes, are becoming increasingly popular among consumers. Their reasons vary; some are looking for what they feel are healthier options or more sustainable options. Others need products that fit a specialized cultural, religious, or ethical diet. It’s a growing and evolving trend, and it will only keep getting bigger and more complex.

An issue that has emerged is that many plant-based alternative products don’t have a protein source. With dairy-based products, you have casein and whey, and both are high-quality protein sources. But, when the first wave of dairy alternatives came out, many lacked that protein component or didn’t have the right functionality in their proteins. Why is that important?

The pros of protein

Not having milk proteins as a stabilizer, texturant, or emulsifier makes formulating a plant-based alternative challenging. Take yogurt, for example. Yogurt’s viscosity comes from the pH dropping through the culturing process, which causes the proteins to agglomerate and thicken. That’s a big part of what gives yogurt its characteristic texture. So, if you take that out, you must somehow overcome that lack of protein.

The same is true with frozen desserts. With dairy, the proteins contribute greatly to the smoothness and aerating qualities. If you want to try and match that texture in plant-based, it can be more challenging, especially if you’re trying to stay on the clean label side of the ingredient statement.

And, when you compare specific proteins, dairy proteins are considered “complete,” meaning they have the necessary amounts of the whole spectrum of the essential amino acids.

The challenge for product developers and manufacturers is to create plant-based alternatives that are as nutritious and appealing to consumers as the dairy originals. So that’s our mission: find plant-based proteins that can provide function, mouthfeel, and great taste and the protein that’s usually missing in that segment.

Creating new pieces to complete the plant-based puzzle

We talked about complete proteins earlier. The only plant-based protein that has the same spectrum of amino acids as dairy proteins is soy. The other proteins typically used don't have the full range, though they have most or several of them. For developers, that’s being looked at as the next step. What can we do with plant proteins to provide a full complement of the essential amino acids? More than likely, it’ll be a combination that can give that full spectrum of amino acids if you put them together.

But then the trick is, how does that combination taste? How does it function? And what mouthfeel characteristics do you get? Much of what goes into a formulation will depend on the product.

For example, in a beverage, you don’t want any texture from those proteins. But in something like a plant-based yogurt, you want some mouthfeel consistency and a gel-like structure. At the same time, you don’t want any graininess or chalkiness. Looking at ice cream, the proteins should contribute to and enhance the structure you develop from the air and fat source. But it can’t provide excessive viscosity or gelation that will take away from the creamy and smooth textural qualities consumers love.

Until recently, we’ve mainly been working with stabilizer systems and relying more on starches or other hydrocolloids to provide stability, mouthfeel, and textural components. But if you can add some type of protein, it can help the process.

Sustainability and clean label are important to today’s ethical consumers

A vital consideration for plant-based dairy alternatives is that typical consumers of these products are looking for cleaner labels and fewer ingredients, or at least ingredients they recognize. That is definitely a challenge.

In standard ice creams, you not only have those dairy proteins, but you’re also often using ingredients like mono-diglycerides, which are highly functional, but some people just don’t care to see them on their ingredient statement. So, when you try to formulate a clean-label plant-based ice cream and remove those proteins and ingredients like mono-diglycerides, achieving the same quality level as in the dairy product is difficult.

This is where our in-depth knowledge of the ingredients we have in our toolkit at Tate & Lyle comes into play. For example, we have clean-label starches at our disposal. We know how to make them function and how to give the characteristic texture that consumers are looking for in plant-based frozen desserts. Used in conjunction with clean-label sweeteners and stabilization systems, we can develop products meeting consumers’ expectations for clean labels and the ingredients used in these products.

Then we can bring in the protein component. We have our own brand of chickpea protein at Tate & Lyle, which functions very well as a bland flavor — it doesn’t impart off-flavors to a formulation — and can provide a nice texture without sandiness, chalkiness, or grittiness. We’ve also had success using fava bean protein. Both are ideal for clean-label products and are readily available. That’s something we consider when formulating solutions; ensure a consistent and reliable supply chain before we go very far in developing solutions and using different proteins.

To achieve the cleanest labels and earn those all-important front-of-pack certifications, some plant-based brands prefer to be non-GM. That goes along with the theme; the whole purpose of non-dairy is to be more sustainable. Non-GM aligns with that, and we can also meet that demand. Chickpeas and faba beans themselves are positively perceived by consumers in terms of sustainability.

What does the future look like for plant-based dairy alternatives?

Plant protein manufacturers keep improving, and flavor houses continue to improve masking agents to hide some bitterness or the beany notes that often come with plant-based proteins. My team takes technology from both sides and puts them together to meet what consumers are looking for.

Case in point, many consumers of plant-based yogurts want the same protein level as dairy-based yogurt. So, we’re working with proteins that function properly, we’re working with masking agents to improve the flavor profile and putting that all together with our knowledge of sweeteners and our understanding of stabilization to come up with a plant-based yogurt that has the desired texture, the desired nutritional profile, and the desired flavor that the consumers want.

This brings us to an important point. Our team at Tate & Lyle has a great understanding of product formulation in the dairy industry; their combined experience numbers in the hundreds of years. Because we understand dairy processing, it helps us understand how to formulate non-dairy alternatives to function like their dairy counterparts. From there, we know how to take our work from the pilot plant to a full-scale manufacturing environment.

Solving the protein problem in plant-based dairy alternatives is an essential part of creating products consumers can feel good about eating and enjoy for their own sake. Whether they’re after a nutritional boost, something to fit their lifestyle, or just a tasty non-dairy snack, we are better positioned now than we have ever been to deliver quality products consumers can love.

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