Plant-based foods innovation for healthy living

12 September 2023


Consumers’ concern about their choice of food, and their possible health and environmental implications has led to noticeable changes in dietary patterns and a growing shift to the consumption of PBFs, mostly for the purpose of promoting healthful living, conserving animal life and enhancing environmental sustainability (Bresciani & Marti 2019; Estell et al. 2021; Małecki et al. 2021; Nychas et al. 2021). There now exists an increased consciousness among many consumers to adopt plant-based foods due to ethical concerns, campaigns to reduce livestock use and meat consumption by animal rights/welfare organisations, and the heightened emission of environmentally harmful greenhouse gases (GHG) as a result of animal-based food production (M. Kumar et al. 2022).

Production methods and innovations in formulation

Several methods and innovations including blending, cell culture, precision fermentation (PF), and genetic engineering have been explored in the manufacture of PBFs. Most PBF producers mimic the sensory properties and nutritional characteristics of conventional protein sources to attract consumers and obtain a wider market beyond vegetarians (Nwachukwu & Aluko 2021).

Fermentation is a convenient, adaptable, technology that preserves food, increases shelf life, enhances nutritional quality, and has been used for developing new products with improved organoleptic properties (Teng et al. 2021). Chai et al. (2020), described the use of fermentation to transform substrates into value-added products such as enzymes, peptides, probiotics and other biotechnological products using endogenous microbes, starter culture or a portion of a previously fermented product. PF is one of the newest and major technologies used to produce PBFs where microbes are redesigned to produce specific, customised and recombinant molecules to yield new food ingredients. The goal of PF is to produce newer protein sources with desirable textural and taste characteristics for increased consumer acceptance (Vanhercke & Colgrave 2022). It targets the microbial genome where genetic information of specific proteins is modified.

Other technologies used in the production of PBM through cell culture include tissue engineering, and cell-based therapeutics (Specht 2018). Extrusion is another processing technique used for commercial production of PBFs where all ingredients are mixed, preconditioned, cooked, and extruded through dies (Moses 2022). Based on the company’s product specifications, the extruded product is subjected to further processes including trimming, marinating and grinding.

Barriers/limitations to adoption of plant-based foods

Though PBFs patterns were associated with better consumer and environmental health, and people are being encouraged to consume more PBFs, their impact vary greatly. For instance, the higher scores for unhealthy plant-based diet index were associated with higher consumption of unhealthy plant-based diet such as refined grains, sugary drinks, fruit juice, potatoes, and sweets/desserts (Musicus et al. 2022).

Some plant-based ingredients such as legumes and cereals contain varying amounts of anti-nutrients such as phytates, saponins, tannins, protease and amylase inhibitors, and goitrogens that limit the amount of the ingredient that can be used in formulation due to their ability to form complexes with proteins and minerals reducing protein digestibility and overall nutritional quality, inhibit mineral absorption, cause stomach discomfort, and toxic when accumulated (Acquah et al. 2021; Samtiya et al. 2020). To minimize anti-nutrient content and cooking time, pulses are mostly soaked for several hours, however this may be inconvenient for some consumers (Szczebyło et al. 2020). The poor bioavailability of certain minerals (e.g., calcium, zinc, iron and iodine) and low content of vitamins (A, B2, B12, and D) has necessitated critical examination of PBFs and the inclusion of supplementary/alternative sources of these nutrients (Protudjer & Mikkelsen 2020).

A poorly formulated PBFs using legumes with low non-heme iron content and absorption compared to meat requires that consumers eat more to meet the iron requirement (Semba et al. 2021). Consuming high levels of heme raises body iron content and increases the risk of type-2 diabetes (Zheng et al. 2019). For instance, commercial meatless burgers contain high amounts of sodium (16—17%) and heme (20—25%) per serving (Beyond Meat 2022; Zheng et al. 2019).

For people with food allergies, navigating diets that also minimizes nutritional deficiencies can be challenging. With about 467 allergens from certain PBF sources and about 436 being allocated to specific food protein families including 2S albumin, non-specific lipid transfer proteins, legumins, cereal prolamins, and profilins (Costa et al. 2022), greater attention is warranted by consumers with food allergies. Among the 170 foods that have been found to trigger allergenic reactions in the US, peanut, tree nut, wheat and soy are predominant, as well as some cross-reactivity between plant-based sources. Sesame seeds, lupines, mustard, buckwheat, gluten from wheat and soy protein have also been associated with allergenic reactions in other parts of the world (Bresciani & Marti 2019; Hertzler et al. 2020). Allergic responses happen when the immune system targets and attacks typically safe dietary proteins, causing temporary to severe and life-threatening symptoms (Hertzler et al. 2020). Consumers may consider other nuts, cereals and legumes as alternatives (Protudjer & Mikkelsen 2020). The use of precautionary allergen labelling is strongly encouraged.

Another potential PBFs pitfall is the susceptibility to aflatoxin invasion, favism and high alkaloid contents in peanuts, fava beans and lupins, strong beany flavour, extended processing time and lack of standardized techniques minimise the consumption of legumes (Acquah et al. 2021; Semba et al. 2021).

The processing of many traditional vegetarian dishes (tofu) requires less oil and salt. However, some plant-based burgers and sausages available in the market contain more salt and saturated fats (SF), leading to increased calories and salt content when consumed (Tso & Forde 2021). Some consumers have also expressed concerns that plant-based dairy products are costly, not readily available in the supermarkets and that some have high sugar content which can affect oral health (Aydar et al. 2020; Laila et al. 2021). Excessive use of sugar and salt to mask undesirable characteristics in plant-based products might limit its intake since the main reason for the switch to these products is for health benefits (Pratt 2020). It is recommended that the diet consumed per day should contribute 200 cal or less (5—6%) SF out of the 2000 cal needed (American Heart Association, 2021). The FDA also recommends the consumption of < 10% (239 kilo calories) SF per day at age 2 or older, 18 mg iron and < 2300 mg of sodium (Na) (U.S Department of Agriculture 2020).
In addition, the media used for culturing meat are mostly sourced from the fetal blood of a slaughtered pregnant cow which makes it expensive and at odds with the stance of animal welfare/rights groups (Rodriguez Fernandez 2022).

PBMs have organoleptic properties which are very different from conventional meat, are costly, and often come with unfamiliar ingredients on product labels (Morrison 2022). Additionally, alternative cheese is costlier with less nutritional value (Southey 2022c), while some plant-based milk produced from nuts such as almonds requires a lot of water during production (Southey 2022d).

Most consumers view PF as an unnatural and synthetic process that is directly linked to genetically engineered/modified (GM) foods which are seen by some consumers as a threat to human health (Teng et al. 2021). People seeking PBFs expect foods made from real plants due to cultural or personal reasons or otherwise considered “modified/unnatural”. Food engineered through PF also has “ill-disposed” labels such as ‘nature identical’, and ‘precision fermentation’ with no explicit information on the content of the food (Bellingham 2022) which raises doubts about their consumption. Aside from the substantial increase in yield and final product purity, there is no distinction between naturally produced foods and those synthesized through GM technology (Teng et al. 2021).

Many consumers are uncomfortable and largely unenthusiastic about consuming insects (Leblanc 2019). Lastly, lack of convenience for meatless meals, limited options to choose from, and negative reactions by other consumers also serve as a barrier to the consumption of PBFs (Graça et al. 2019).

Improving characteristics of plant-based foods to increase patronage

The texture, taste and nutrition of PBFs should be equivalent to those of their animal-based counterparts in order to favorably compete and be fully accepted by consumers (Merit Functional ). Other factors such as price and familiarity can affect the patronage of PBFs (Watson 2022c).

High antinutrient composition in PBFs may be minimized through pre-treatment procedures such as roasting, soaking, fermentation, sprouting, milling and removal of bran (Samtiya et al. 2020). Germinating legumes for example Bambara groundnut usually for three days minimizes antinutrients, improves protein and starch digestibility, enhances functional properties (pasting, water absorption capacity) and is recommended as a good pre-treatment method (Chinma et al. 2021). Genetic mutation can reduce the antinutrients to mineral acid ratio in legumes but such products must be processed with caution to minimize the leaching of nutrients for example when soaked or cooked (Hummel et al. 2020).

The fat component of plant-based meat products is usually sourced from coconut oil which has a low melting point (25%) as compared to beef fat (42—45%) (Watson 2022a). Coconut fat tends to leak out or melt quickly while cooking (decreasing juiciness), and it lacks the distinct flavour found in either pork, beef or mutton fat, therefore, requiring other food additives during processing to make it desirable. This challenge can be overcome by using microbes for example oleaginous fungi through genetic engineering to produce fats with characteristics similar to animal fats in plant-based meat products (Watson 2022a). The structure and fibrous nature of PBMs can be improved by incorporating fungi-based products and fermented foods to mimic whole-cut meat and seafood (Morrison 2022). Instead of producing PBFs to only mimic conventional sources with respect to sensory characteristics, producers should focus on increasing the nutrient composition of these products (Tso & Forde 2021) and providing a list of familiar ingredients on labels (Morrison 2022). In addition, further research should be done to develop products with reduced fat, sodium and sugar content which are major nutrition concerns.

The prolamin technology developed by Motif Food Works in partnership with scientists from the University of Guelph uses corn to make plant-based cheese with increased springiness (Cumbers 2021). In the extrudable fat technology, fat is passed through an extruder and mixed with plant protein to develop a final product with a marbling effect as seen in meat (Cumbers 2021). Beyond Meat has recently introduced a new burger with less fat (35%) (Synergy foods 2022). Approaches such as improving existing products based on consumers’ feedback when adopted by PBF manufacturers will help to maintain the industry.

The acceptance of plant-based milk will increase if they are formulated to have similar functional properties which include foaming and stability in beverages and structure, as conventional milk with no beany flavour. The beany flavour in soy milk may be eliminated through processing. Substituting non-dairy milk for conventional milk in products will be easier. To improve non-dairy milk, the natural structure of the plant sources which will be used should be disintegrated and other plant-based ingredients such as oils and emulsifiers should be added to create that colloidal effect which is a reason for the desirable attributes of dairy milk (Mcclements 2020).

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