May 1, 2005

24 Min Read
Soy Meets the Flexitarian Challenge

May 2005

Soy Meets the Flexitarian Challenge

By Cindy HazenContributing Editor

Not so long ago, meatless Mondays were a way for families to stretch their food dollars. Counting pennies might still interest moms, but there are a number of other reasons for meatless entrées. Teenagers turn vegetarian because of peer pressure or respect for animals. Mom is watching Dad's saturated-fat intake, or the link between colon cancer and heavy meat consumption.

The trend is toward balance in incorporating plant and animal protein in the diet, and just as average Americans are enjoying meat-free meals, many so-called vegetarians are eating an occasional carnivorous entrée. The lines are blurring such that the term "flexitarian" has been coined to describe the occasional meat-eating vegetarian, and flexitarian can just as easily describe mainstream trends toward part-time vegetarian consumption.

Without doubt, the increase in meatless meals is being aided by the abundance of alternative products. Soy sausages, veggie burgers and meatless crumbles are supermarket staples. The United Soybean Board, Chesterfield, MO, reports that soy analogues represented $547 million in sales in 2004, up from $530 million the previous year. According to Chicago-based Mintel's December 2004 report, "Soy-Based Food & Drink," soy-based meat alternatives represented 14% of new soy product introductions in 2004.

Soy stands alone As a plant-protein source, soy cannot be beat. It has a complete amino-acid profile. Soy protein isolate is equal in quality to meat and milk protein, as rated by FDA and the World Health Organization. It is rich in health-promoting phytochemicals and isoflavones. It is high in polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats and, as a bonus, is one of the few plant sources to contain heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids.

Peter Murray, technical support services, Nutriant, a Kerry Company, Cedar Falls, IA, observes that soy has a healthful connotation. "The biggest trend, specifically affecting us, is probably the natural/organic area," he says. "There's more people who want to know whether it's genetically modified, and then how it's processed. One of the bigger things that we're seeing are customers asking for products that have been processed without solvents."

The first step in processing soybeans is removing the oil. Hexane is commonly used for extraction and, according to Murray, there is some controversy as to its use. "To expel the oil from the soy, we don't use any chemicals, so there's no hexane extraction," he notes. "It's a true, natural process."

This natural process, however, does not remove all of the oil. The resultant product is low fat, as opposed to defatted. "When somebody's talking about soy and they say 'defatted isolate,' for instance, you know that's been processed by hexane up front to remove the oil," Murray says. "That's the easiest way to know." A simple way to determine nonhexane use is to look at whether the product is organic or is processed thru an organic-approved process.

Whatever the extent of fat extraction, the soybeans are further-processed into flour (about 50% protein), soy protein concentrate (about 70% protein) or soy protein isolate (about 90% protein). This can be achieved by mechanical means or extraction.

Terry Rolan, director of applied technology, The Solae Company, St. Louis, explains that concentrates or isolates can be either alcohol or water washed. "With the alcohol extraction, you do lose these naturally occurring isoflavones," she says. "Our isolates are typically water washed, and then the concentrates can be either or water or alcohol."

Bill Bossert, technical services manager, Newlyweds Foods, Horn Lake, MS, adds, "The higher-protein soy have less inherent flavor present." The inherent flavors are due primarily to the carbohydrate content.

"The soy nutty or beany flavor has a wide acceptance in Asia, while in America or in Europe it is perceived as an undesired off-flavor and was the main limitation of changing the acceptance of soy products by mainstream, nonvegetarian people," says Daniel Silberman, technical sales manager, Solbar Hatzor, Ashdod, Israel. "The flavor of soy ingredients and soy-based products was improved during the last years by superior production procedures and new developments in food flavors. The improvement is achieved step by step."

One advancement has been in the area of sensory improvement. "In the traditional solvent extraction production model," says Rob Kirby, vice president, marketing, Spectrum Foods, Inc., Springfield, IL, "the soybean is subjected to the solvent at elevated temperatures, and there is an amino acid reaction that occurs during that process that is responsible for the 'beany' taste and smell that has traditionally slowed the acceptance of soybean foods. The solvent-free process deactivates that enzymatic amino acid reaction and allows the soy flour to have a very neutral smell."

Murray notes that, from a flavor perspective, product designers must also consider the raw ingredient. "We use specific varieties based on yield, flavor and performance," he says. "There are certain beans that we use, and there are a lot of them that we won't use. A lot of times, you get a lot of differentiation between functionality and flavor, so we can minimize that."

Defatted and low-fat soy also will have flavor variations. "Since we're not using solvents, we're being as gentle to the protein as possible," Murray says. "The low-fat variety imparts more of a cleaner, roasted flavor that functions uniquely by itself."

Rolan advises that defatted soy products have stability and nutritional advantages, cautioning that higher-fat products might be less shelf stable and more subject to oxidation. Of course, this is less of a problem if a product is used within the recommended shelf-life period.

Kirby, however, feels that the inherent oil is an advantage to the ingredients. "The soybean oil that is left in the soy flour, and then in the textured soy protein, is a highly stable oil," he says. "It contains a great deal of natural antioxidants within the oil, and it does not oxidize rapidly. Shelf life on a soy flour in textured products is, we say, a year, but in practicality, it's usually longer than that. Some people are concerned about fat statements on certain products. Perhaps that's an issue. In most cases, the addition of fat in other analogue products is actually a good aspect."

Just the right touch Making a soy-based analogue requires a bit of wizardry. "After selecting the meat counterpart you want to simulate, also identify the desired nutritional content (e.g., fat level, sodium content, etc.) early in the development process to reduce time-consuming reformulation later," says Cheryl Borders, manager, soy foods applications, ADM, Decatur, IL. "In addition, the intended consumer market may influence what ingredients are acceptable from a labeling standpoint. All of the above will guide the developer in selecting the ingredients that will be needed to provide the desired qualities. Developing acceptable texture and flavor often proves to be the biggest challenge."

According to Murray, one of the first steps in targeting texture is selecting the protein source. "The higher the protein level, typically it's going to give you a little better bite," he says.

Hydration rates can also impact protein-ingredient choices. "The biggest problem overall in the meat-analogue category is the water management," says Rolan.

It's important to keep the desired end-product characteristics in mind while formulating analogues. "It is possible to get different textural bites just by the way you process protein from a hydration perspective," Murray says. "Let's say the customer wants to sell a lot of water. They want a high hydration rate, and they're going to be using other things in their matrix to get them more of a gelatinized bite. We can process it one way so they can maximize the water level in their product, or if they don't want to use these ingredients in the matrix, we could process that same textured flour a different way so that it doesn't hydrate as much -- so it gives them a little better bite. The higher the protein will typically increase the bite. We can do the same thing with the concentrates, dependent upon how we texturize it." Hydration and ultimate chew of the product will vary with the denseness, or lightness, of the textured protein.

Rolan explains that for the meat-analogue segment, Solae classifies protein components into four categories, based on functionality. Binders typically hold the textured particles or fibers in a cohesive mass while emulsifiers surround the fat to maintain a homogenous, stable distribution of the fat within the water. "The binders and emulsifiers are the biggest uses of the functional powdered proteins," she says, noting that typically, isolated soy protein is used in such situations instead of a soy protein concentrate.

Textured particles, such as textured concentrates, comprise the third category of protein. Processors typically use these small particulates to create a ground-meat texture.

"The fourth aspect we would call a textured fiber, which would actually provide little, discrete, fibrous-texture particles to the product," Rolan says. "If you want something that's more like a vegetarian steak burger, where you want some more 'fibrocity,' then you might use the textured fibers to change that mouthfeel a bit."

The technologist is charged not only with choosing the appropriate protein source, but also with selecting the best combination of proteins to develop the desired attributes. "When simulating coarse ground meat, typically a combination of textured and nontextured soy proteins are used," says Borders. "The textured proteins include textured soy flours, textured soy concentrates, and textured combinations of vegetable proteins (e.g., soy and wheat), all of which are available in a variety of sizes. These proteins are used to provide texture/mouthfeel, contribute to appearance, bind water, protein fortification and nutrition, and as a source of insoluble fiber. Nontextured proteins can be used in conjunction, and can include soy protein concentrates and isolated soy proteins. They are used to help with fat and water retention, emulsification (thereby contributing to mouthfeel and texture), and protein fortification and nutrition. In analogues simulating emulsified meats, such as hot dogs and bologna, functional soy concentrates and isolated soy proteins are often used, and for the same reason."

Other ingredients can impact texture. Eggs often are used for their emulsifying properties. Sharon Gerdes, technical support consultant, Dairy Management Inc.(TM), Rosemont, IL, suggests that whey proteins can be used as binders and extenders. In fact, technology at Utah State University, Logan recently produced a 100% textured whey burger. And, she notes, product designers can certainly develop combinations of whey and soy.

"Whey proteins in meat analogues also form stable fat/oil emulsions and prevent oiling-off and fat caps," says Gerdes. "A combination of whey and soy yields an improved flavor profile and improved nutritional profile, so those would be the two reasons to combine whey and soy. Whey is very good for water binding -- it actually binds and it traps water, improves cooked yield, provides body and texture, and it improves sliceability for meat products."

In ground-beef patties, whey protein (34% protein) has been used at 3.5%. In frankfurters, whey protein isolate has been used at 3.5%. Although these numbers reflect usage in meat, as opposed to usage in an analogue, Gerdes believes that these are appropriate starting points for the analogue developer.

More conservatively, Bossert suggests, "you might replace 1% of the soy with milk protein. What some folks do is they'll take part of the soy content and use something like a milk binder, primarily for flavor and color development."

Designers frequently add hydrocolloids to meat analogues for their water-management capabilities. "You can use native or modified starches," Rolan says. "Corn starch is probably one of the most commonly used, but potato, wheat, tapioca and rice starches are also used." In the gum category, alginates, methyl cellulose and guar gums each have their place in meat analogues.

Borders advises that it's necessary to know not only which ingredients to add to an analogue, but also when to add them. "The order of addition can be important, depending upon the type of analogue being produced," she explains. "If using an isolated soy protein or functional soy concentrate in a formulation for a veggie hot dog, for example, it is important to develop the functional properties of the soy proteins. Typically, this is accomplished by hydrating the protein with a sufficient amount of cold water and applying mechanical action. If a fat source is used in the formulation, it would be added to the hydrated protein with mechanical action to form an emulsion. This would be followed by the remaining ingredients: binding agents, flavors and colors. Other ingredients, such as gums and starches, may also require certain procedures to develop their functionality. Other analogues may only require blending of the dry ingredients, followed by the addition of water to prepare for forming or cooking."

Rolan stresses that the hydration of the protein material is critical to achieving desired texture. "You can limit the amount of hydration and you'll get more of a firmer bite," she says. "You can hydrate it more fully. You can add more water, or you can add a bit more fat to change that mouthfeel -- to change the mouthfeel and to change the bite."

Fat can be the ultimate magical textural ingredient. "Most vegetarian products will try to limit it to about 3% fat or less, to try and maintain the low-fat, 'healthy' aspect, but we found that if you can use 10% to 20% fat, you've got a wonderful eating quality to that product," Rolan says. "As with meat products, the lower the fat goes, then the more challenging it is to get the mouthfeel and texture that you want." In appealing to the mainstream nonvegetarian, Rolan suggests adding 5% to 10% fat. "You can really impact that flavor and that texture," she says.

Savoring flavoring "As a rule of thumb, you would flavor analogues the same way you would flavor any other meat," Bossert says. That said, product designers have to decide what meatlike attributes they want the flavoring system to contain. "If you're going to make a hamburger, you have to flavor that patty specifically for the type of project that you want," he continues. "If you want to bring in more meat flavors or more fat notes, each one has to be flavored separately. Boca® burgers and the others all taste just a little bit different and have a different objective of what they are trying to achieve."

Often, the goal is to flavor a soy-based product to make it taste like a meat product. "Flavors are typically used in higher levels than you would in meat products, just because you don't have an underlying meat savory note, so you've got to add that in the form of a seasoning or flavoring," Rolan says. "Your selection of that flavoring component is critical, I think."

Luckily, the flavoring choices are boundless. "As the meat analogue category has grown," Borders says, "flavor houses have responded with a wide range of flavors for the application. They can provide the characteristic meaty notes to the analogue, as well as important background notes such as fatty, 'serumy,' roasted, etc."

Dwight Grenawalt, vice president and general manager, Summit Hill Flavors, Middlesex, NJ, agrees. "There are vegetarian beef-type products and vegetarian chicken-type products that work out excellent in flavoring soy-based materials," he says. "There are also some other flavors that actually work well to either flavor or mask some of the soy notes. These roasted, or char, flavors do a nice job."

Some products, depending on the target customer, are flavored to enhance their vegetable flavor. In this instance, Grenawalt recommends using a mirepoix. "It's basically a caramelized-onion, celery, carrot combination," he says. "We've developed a couple of mirepoix flavors that deliver a very nice, cooked vegetable note with a savory background. These savory vegetable-in-the-background notes are the most effective. Mushroom flavors are another excellent product to use with soy. We prefer a dark-roasted mushroom flavor. It helps to cover up some of the soy notes, and it works very nicely."

With the expansion of available flavorings for the analogue category, application-specific selection has become easier. "Flavoring selections will largely be based on the target for the finished product," says Terry Gieseke, director of business development, Nutriant. "If you are looking to reach the mainstream omnivore who is looking to add a little vegetarian to his overall diet, flavors more typical of meat products -- 'grilled,' 'smoked' -- will have stronger appeal. If you are targeting vegetarians, 'Nine-bean loaf with roasted garlic and peppers' will have more appeal."

Once again, the application dictates the best flavoring system. "There are dry, powdered flavors that could be included into the dry mix and then hydrated up, or flavors that really are stronger and more concentrated, like an oil-based flavor," says Murray. "Depending upon the application and what it's going into, you have to recognize which is the best way to go. A lot of the powdered flavors work quite well, and they complement the mix. Whether you're using salt actually helps bring out the savory notes. A flavor isn't the only thing you need. You can add seasonings to the mix, and they actually complement the savory flavors and enhance them more."

Combinations of seasonings and flavors can be adjusted to save costs, and they can be customized. "A lot of people who are flavoring textured products like to have the freedom to create their own profiles," Murray says. "They can get a customer-specific ingredient -- a flavor -- that can be added with the seasoning. They only have to buy the one thing, and that can save them a step."

Bossert sees parallels with the meat industry. "If you're looking at emulsified products, generally the spice extractives are more common," he says. "If it's a ground product, or what they call a chop-and-form product that has larger pieces, then seasoning is more common." Often, it's fairly standard fare. A breakfast-sausage alternative might have sage and red-pepper notes. Italian sausage might have garlic, red pepper and fennel. Frankfurters might have coriander and nutmeg.

What often sets soy products apart is the need to overcome the soy flavor. "It's gotten better over the years," says Peggy Iler, seasoning development manager, Kalsec, Inc., Kalamazoo, MI. "It's not as beany as it used to be. But sometimes, depending on the system and the manufacturer, it still can tend to have a beany note to it. We have a system we developed that can mask that, and we recommend that people put that in with their hydrating water, and then that makes a nice, clean base. If they are making a breakfast sausage or Italian sausage, they can use a seasoning profile and get a nice, true flavor that way."

Liquid-based seasonings sometimes have advantages over dry systems. "It helps, especially when you're hydrating," says Iler. "It can get right in and get inside and be soaked up right inside that vegetable protein, so that helps retain the flavor. They come in oil- and water-dispersible forms, so they mix in easily."

Timing is an important factor during analogue processing. "It's best from a flavor-stability point of view to add the flavors as late as possible in the manufacturing process," Grenawalt adds. "For example, many people actually spray or inject the flavors after processing. Extrusion is a very harsh process on flavor systems, so flavors will dissipate after going through this severe type of process. Getting the flavor system added in at the back end of that process is the best to maintain the flavor delivery and to have the flavor carry throughout the finished product."

However, Borders cautions that designers have more to consider than just flash-off. "The proteins also have a tendency to bind with certain components in the flavor ingredients, and this can have a negative impact on the overall flavor profile," she points out. "It is important for the product developer to consult the flavor supplier for flavor ingredients that will work in the base matrix and comply with any other requirements, such as kosher status, use of artificial flavors, etc."

Grenawalt notes that flavoring soy products is a unique discipline. "It's a whole different set of problems and challenges that need to be addressed," he says. "We source industry experts and work with these specialists from the soy industry who really have their whole life experience in working with soy. You have to understand the interaction of the manufacturing process, soy and the ingredients that you're using. It's understanding the combination of those three things."

Color me classy Although soy protein components come colored or uncolored, it's a given that the finished product must impart the same color as the meat it is mimicking. For example, product designers often use paprika to color chicken, pepperoni and sausage analogues.

Another option is malt extract. According to Rolan, although malt extract does not normally contain lactose, some companies add it to vegan applications because lactose is permitted as one of the carbohydrates heated to produce caramel color.

However, not all companies use lactose in their caramel colors. "Sethness does not use lactose," says David Tuescher, technical director, Sethness Products Company, Clinton, IA.

By and large, caramel color is the colorant of choice thoughout the analogue category. "The choice of caramel color is not as simple as pulling one off the shelf," Tuescher warns. "It depends on whether you want the color to stick on the surface of the meat or to distribute through it. A lot of soy products tend to have a positive ionic charge. If you put a negative product on it, it will stick to the material and not diffuse. Positive products tend to migrate into the product, and a negative product tends attract a positive charge and sit right there."

There are four classes of caramel color. Class I is a basic caramel color with a slightly negative or neutral charge. Class II has reacted sulfites that give it a strong negative ionic charge. Class III has reacted ammonia that gives it a strong positive ionic charge. Class IV incorporates sulfites and ammonia, and it is strongly negative in ionic charge.

Caramel classes also differ in color. "A typical Class 1 has 25% of the color of Class IV," Tuescher says. "Class I tends to be more reddish. Class IV tends to be more brown to black."

In soy products, Classes III and IV are used most frequently. "Class IV coats the surface," Tuescher says. "Class III tends to penetrate the product. One of the problems: When you put a Class III on a product, put that product into a sauce, the color tends to migrate back out of the sauce and into the water phase. A Class IV product sticks to the surface. It's no longer water soluble and does not bleed." Depending on how much color is desired, as well as variation, usage rates can range from 0.10% to several percent.

"Class III and Class IV are probably the best products for customers because they get more value for their money and much more color than Class I," Tuescher says. "We see more and more people pushing to Class I. Class Is are the most natural of the products. Most Class Is have a very strong flavor. Class III and Class IV have a very mild flavor. When you sell colors, the flavor is very important, especially at higher and higher levels. We have a new Class I that has a much-milder flavor and is more amenable at higher concentrations, without causing flavor problems in the product."

Sulfites are another concern of Class IV products. "A lot of people have to worry about the sulfite concentration, because if you have a concentration of 10 ppm in your final product, you have to put sulfite on the label," Tuescher says. "We do see, if they are too high in sulfite with a Class IV, they may back off of the Class IV and add Class I to get the color strength that they want and keep the sulfite level under 10 ppm. Class Is are slightly negative to almost neutral. You can use a Class I and Class IV very easily. You may be able to use a Class I with a Class III."

As with other ingredients, it's important to add the color at the appropriate time. "If you're using a powder, we recommend that you mix the powder with all the other powders before you add any liquids to it to get the best distribution of the product," Tuescher says. "On the liquids themselves, it really depends on the process. The order of addition makes significant problems or solves significant problems. Caramel colors are very water soluble. A basic rule of thumb may be add the liquid to the aqueous fraction as soon as possible -- add the powder to the dry product as soon as possible."

Meaty concerns It's never easy to develop a replacement product, but soy-based analogues present unique concerns. "The biggest challenge is really understanding what the marketer is after," explains Rolan. "Vegan versus vegetarian offers some distinct challenges. Other than that, if you evaluate where a lot of the market is going, people are looking probably less at the typical ground-meat-type products. They're looking for more of the 'fibrocity' -- something a little different than the typical beef burger and beef-crumble-type of product. That's really where the market seems to be going."

Gieseke notes that other products also are appearing as analogues. "Most analogue has been used to fill a bun or take the place of ground meat in a recipe," she says. "Now frozen meals, shelf-stable meals like chili and soup, even traditional meal snacks like jerky are moving down the analogue path."

Advances in technology and flavoring have certainly helped this segment grow. "More complete entrées containing meat analogues are being found in the retail market," says Borders. "They range from pocket sandwiches to lasagna and frozen dinners."

The consensus is that soy-based analogues will remain popular -- for vegetarians and flexitarians alike. "People are always looking for something that's healthy -- that gets them one little step closer to the healthy diet," Iler says. "The vegetarian and the analogues fit that bill. I think they will continue to become more and more popular to people who are looking for meat alternatives and not necessarily are vegetarians."

The bottom line is that the category is changing. "Historically, vegetarians would prefer a chunky vegetable appearance, flavor and aroma," Gieseke says. "Now, some vegetarians are adding a little 'meat' to their menus. Mainstream omnivores are deliberately adding some meat-free items to their menus for healthy reasons. There may be room in the future market to blend soy analogue and meat ingredients into great-tasting and convenient center-of-the-plate offerings."

Rolan explains that the latter customer -- the omnivore interested in some meat-free alternatives -- currently is the focus of the industry. "The mainstream population will manage their diet and their health, but they are not willing to forego taste," he says. "Everybody's trying to target that group, and that's why the soy industry is changing so much, I think, because now we get it. It's all about flavor. It's all about texture. It makes a whole lot of sense that it's really changed where our thinking is and where product development is going."

Although flavor is a major driving influence in every food category, changing consumer eating patterns also come into play. "The growing demand for soy-protein based products indicates the current attitude toward soy flavor," Silberman says. "There is a growing trend to skip one or more days a week on meat meals, and have a vegetarian meal. A tasty meat analogue fits this trend well. Meat analogue companies are constantly developing new products like hamburgers, schnitzel, frankfurters and ready meals."

In fact, at the March 2005 Natural Products Expo West, Kirby says that he saw more analogue-containing products than at previous shows. "It seems to me that it's somewhat ancillary to mainstream with the growth of some national brands in the meatless category," he says. "In addition, the products that are meat-free in restaurant menus, for example, are getting a lot more notice than they have in the past. It's becoming more mainstream than ever before."

The vegetarian market now is developing products for mainstream consumers. Indeed, it is targeting a whole new class of consumers -- the flexitarians. Who would have thought?

Cindy Hazen, a 20-year veteran of the food industry, is a freelance writer based in Memphis, TN. She can be reached at [email protected].

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