Imagine melted cheese with hues of brown bubbling on top of your favorite pizza. Pick up a slice and see the cheese stretch as if fighting for the slice to remain part of the overall pie. These texture traits make conventional cheese an appealing ingredient in pizza and other food applications. The traits also make it difficult to create satisfactory plant-based cheese alternatives.
“While the industry has made tremendous improvements, I have yet to see a plant-based cheese alternative in the marketplace that comes close to mirroring the ‘stretch’ of traditional pizza cheeses,” said Christine Addington, senior dairy technical service specialist for Cargill, Minneapolis. “It’s one of the challenges our team is working on, using combinations of hydrocolloids, starches and fibers to replicate the stringy-stretch consumers expect.”
Solving the stretching, melting and browning issues could boost a growing category. ResearchAndMarkets.com, Dublin, forecast the global vegan cheese alternatives market to have a compound annual growth rate of 13% from 2021-27, increasing to $4.4 billion from $2.1 billion.
The power of casein
Replacing one element of dairy may prove most difficult. Casein, among other things, adds melting characteristics to mozzarella and pizza cheese, said Sudarshan Nadathur, PhD, chief flavorist, dairy and protein, for Chicago-based ADM.
“Replicating the texture of dairy cheese is a technically challenging task since many cheeses often use rennet to coagulate casein and form a curd,” Nadathur said. “Casein is a unique and key component to making cheese as it is the main protein structure and helps create the sensory characteristics of different types of cheeses, including texture and appearance. Since plant proteins don’t function in the same way as animal-derived proteins and enzymes, mimicking this process can be difficult.”
ADM this year formed a partnership with New Culture, an animal-free dairy company that uses precision fermentation to make an animal-free casein protein.
“This is revolutionary for alternative cheese options, and we’re working toward accelerating New Culture’s foodservice and consumer applications with the support of our global product development resources and capabilities,” Nadathur said.
Plant-based proteins function differently than dairy proteins because of their differing amino acid compositions and protein structures, said Amr Shaheed, technical service manager for Innophos, Cranbury, NJ.
“Caseins have functional attributes that are difficult for plant-based proteins to mimic, including the ability to hold water, emulsify and absorb fat and solubilize under different conditions,” he said. “For example, caseins have strong solubility and heat stability, which both can have a direct impact on melt-ability and other sensorial attributes of a finished product.
“Working with a different type of protein composition when dealing with plant-based proteins can pose a significant challenge as you’re working with an ingredient that doesn’t possess the inherent functional attributes that caseins do.”
Phosphate-based emulsifying salts alter protein functionalities by changing the protein’s chemical and physical properties, Shaheed said.
“This can help improve such aspects of the protein like hydrophobicity, solubility, dispersibility and emulsification to aid in providing a similar functional benefit to mimic casein protein and thus produce a more enjoyable cheese substitute product that is in line with consumer expectations,” he said.
Fats, starches and hydrocolloids help with the melt-ability of plant-based cheese alternatives, Addington said.
“Fats have different melting points while hydrocolloids and starches have different temperature-dependent gelling properties,” she said. “Taken together, these ingredients all help contribute to the finished product’s overall melt. Adding to the melt-ability challenge, the type of oven used to prepare the finished product must also be considered. A home oven performs very differently than a foodservice oven, and these distinctions need to be factored into the formula.”
Coconut oil plays a role in how plant-based cheese alternatives melt and set as they emerge from the oven, said Diliara Iassonova, PhD, innovation architect, global edible oil solutions for Cargill.
“Coconut oil sets quickly, delivering a nice, melted appearance,” she said. “It is often paired with a liquid oil such as our Clear Valley high-oleic canola oil or Clear Valley high-oleic sunflower oil.
“Plant-based fats and oils also make big contributions to mouthfeel, mouth coating and the intensity of the aftertaste. For example, the starches used in plant-based cheeses tend to result in a sticky bite, very different than that of traditional dairy cheese. However, the right fat and oil solution can minimize that effect, providing the creamier, smoother mouthfeel consumers expect.”
Royal DSM, Heerlen, The Netherlands, this year unveiled a new portfolio of ingredients for plant-based cheese alternatives. Gellan gum, hydrocolloids, pectin and blends help create texture and mouthfeel. Gellan gum improves plant-based cheese texture, including the flexibility of mozzarella and the hard and brittle texture of Parmesan, according to DSM.
“Our customers have been consistently impressed by the balance of flavors and how accurately we have replicated traditional textures,” said Andre de Haan, business director, cheese at DSM. “We are already looking ahead at the next steps in helping brands and products develop further.”
Consider starches and fats first
Formulators, when considering the melt-ability, stretch-ability, browning and other characteristics of cheese, first should focus more on functional starches and fats than proteins, Nadathur said.
“There are a variety of starches and functional starch blends from which to choose, including native or modified corn, tapioca and potato, as well as fats such as coconut, canola and other oils,” he said. “Each of these options can help achieve the desired texture and melting point, depending on what the cheese formulators are looking to mimic. However, some of the starches may produce a sticky texture, becoming pliable and may have restrictive melting properties. There is much room for advancement in this space.”
Solubility then must be considered when adding plant proteins to cheese alternatives.
“High solubility makes it easier to incorporate the plant protein, helping to build and maintain a creamier texture in the finished application,” Nadathur said. “Soy and pea are exceptional plant protein options with high solubility, and we leverage our quality soy protein isolates and pea protein, along with our functional starches and fats, to build consumer-preferred non-dairy cheeses. On top of that, both of our soy and pea proteins are light in color and neutral in flavor, mitigating off-notes and providing a fantastic foundation for alternative cheese formulation.”
Researchers at the University of Guelph in Ontario are mixing and matching plant proteins and attempting to develop cheese alternatives that stretch and melt like dairy-based products do. They have analyzed proteins in peas, soybeans, fava beans and other plant-based ingredients, seeking ways to tweak components to work more like animal proteins in dairy cheese.
“Think of a cheese that melts,” said Stacie Dobson, a PhD candidate working with Alejandro Marangoni, PhD, in the university’s Department of Food Science. “You want it ooey and gooey and stretchy. That functionality comes from how proteins and processing work. We want to use plant proteins to replicate a broad range of properties in dairy products.
“I might want to slice cheese for grilled cheese, or grate it for pizza, or spread it like cream cheese. The options are not as wide as in dairy cheese.”