CHICAGO -- Plant-based innovation dominated the conversation at IFT FIRST, the virtual conference from the Institute of Food Technologists held on July 19-21. Dairy alternatives, everything from fluid products designed as a substitute for milk and cream, to cultured, frozen and even desserts, were a focal point for many ingredient suppliers who have spent the past year developing ingredient technologies that focus on protein, fat and flavor to deliver cleaner, simpler and more authentic analogs.

“Unlike traditional dairy, which mostly comes from one single source, cow’s milk, vegan dairy products could be made with a much broader selection of base ingredients, such as nuts, seeds, legumes, vegetables, etc.,” said Heidi Liu, product manager-dairy, Synergy Flavors Inc., Wauconda, Ill. “Each base ingredient presents its unique set of taste and texture challenges, for example, the astringent and bitter aftertaste of pea protein, the cereal and cardboardy notes of almond milk or the gritty texture of chickpeas. The taste challenges get intensified when these plant-based ingredients go through further processing, such as fermentation, prolonged cooking or ultra-high heat treatment.” 

Protein profiles

Whey and casein proteins are unique to mammalian milk and are present in all traditional dairy products. They assist with emulsification, texture, mouthfeel and gelling, all while having a clean flavor profile. They also have a protein digestibility-corrected amino acid score (PDCAAS) of 1, making them a complete protein.

“When they are removed, it is extremely difficult to replace both the functionality and sensory character properties,” said Christine Addington, senior dairy technical service specialist, Cargill, Minneapolis. “Solubility also comes into play. When a protein has low solubility, it produces a gritty or sandy texture, which is not desirable in most dairy-alternative applications. Choosing plant proteins that are highly soluble helps ensure the end product is creamy and smooth. Pea protein is very soluble and works great in these applications.”

Protein solubility and suspension are critical in fluid products, which are unforgiving when it comes to grittiness. The more plant protein added, the greater the challenges and, the farther a beverage’s pH is from a protein’s isoelectric point, the easier it is to keep the protein in suspension.

Ingredion Inc., Westchester, Ill., offers a range of North American-sourced plant-based proteins, including pea protein isolates (80% to 85% protein content), pulse protein concentrates (55% to 60% protein content), and flours (10% to 20% protein content) from quinoa, pea, lentil, fava bean and chickpea. De-flavored versions of these isolates and concentrates make these proteins suitable for dairy alternatives that require a cleaner, mild flavor.

“Our technical team has formulated these proteins into several plant-based dairy alternative applications at different protein enhancement ratios,” said Ivan Gonzales, director-dairy, confectionery and bakery at Ingredion. “The plant proteins bring other attributes to the bench, such as emulsification, foaming and more, depending on the application.”

Ms. Addington said, “No single botanical protein on the market today provides all the functionalities and benefits of dairy proteins.

“In applications like cheese, dairy proteins play a huge role in forming the product’s structure, as well its meltability. That’s why producing a vegan cheese is so challenging. Ingredients like modified and native starches can begin to help mimic the performance of dairy cheese from a melt standpoint, however, mirroring the stretch of dairy cheese has proven even more difficult.”

Mimicking milk fat

Part of those melt challenges also exist because milk fat’s complex composition is difficult to replicate. It is comprised of short- and medium-chain fatty acids and a unique triacylglycerol structure, along with numerous volatile flavor compounds.

“Plant-sourced fats and oils can help formulators address these functional properties, from mouthfeel and creaminess to product structure,” said Diliara Iassonova, innovation architect-global edible oil solutions at Cargill. “They also offer key advantages over their animal-based counterparts, including high-oxidative stability and easier storage.” 

For example, from a functional perspective, plant-sourced fats, such as palm, palm kernel and coconut oils, help replicate the creamy mouthfeel consumers expect in dairy-alternative applications. Flavor is another challenge.

“While achieving balanced milk fat flavor in dairy-alternative products can be difficult, we’ve found that careful ingredient selection especially around protein, fat and oil choices, can go a long way,” Ms. Iassonova said. “As an added bonus, the clean flavor profile of refined oils and the high oxidative stability of plant-based oil solutions are instrumental in delivering flavor stability throughout product shelf life.”

Milk fat also provides a desirable mouthfeel and texture, which typically cannot be replicated with one single ingredient. For high-fat products, such as coffee creamer and pudding, texture challenges may require a multi-ingredient, functional systems approach to formulation. This includes fat or oil, along with texturizers.

“Native starches, citrus fiber and pectin can help fill in the remaining texture gaps, building back the creamy, rich mouthfeel consumers expect,” Ms. Addington said. “These label-friendly ingredients also provide functionalities such as stability, mouthfeel enhancement and syneresis control, while standing up to the harsh processing parameters that often exist in non-dairy applications.”

Beneo Inc., Parsippany, NJ, has used its clean-label rice starch in dairy-free vanilla yogurt and a dairy-free, oat-based dulce de leche spread.

“Replacing the integral texture of dairy fat is no small challenge,” said Steven Gumeny, regional product manager-rice ingredients. “Rice starch naturally provides a similar texture and mouthfeel, along with great stability and process tolerance.”


Keeping sugar in check

Tate & Lyle, Hoffman Estates, Ill., has developed three no-sugar-added dairy-type concepts sweetened with the company’s stevia and allulose. There is an oat milk and ultra-filtered cow’s milk 10% fat creamer, an almond-based mocha latte and an oat-milk based coffee latte. The two lattes contain plant proteins and prebiotic fiber.  

“In dairy alternatives, sugar content can be a concern,” Ms. Addington said. “Many consumers are attracted to plant-based alternatives because they perceive them as healthier options to their full-dairy counterparts. But, if formulators bump up the sugar content to combat off-flavors, that may be a non-starter with shoppers.

Cargill created a reduced-sugar plant-based yogurt prototype using stevia leaf extract and erythritol. This yogurt prototype features a 70% reduction in sugar, with just 6 grams of sugar per serving, compared to the full-sugar option packed with 20 grams. 

“Using coconut cream as the starting base, we turned to pea protein, a functional label-friendly starch blend and pectin to control syneresis and create the rich, creamy texture and mouthfeel consumers associate with yogurt,” Ms. Addington said.

Kerry, Beloit, Wis., offers functional oat powders for a range of applications. They are readily soluble and assist with emulsification.

“After sourcing our oats, they are steeped in hot water to create a mash,” said Kyle Kamp, director of business development for dairy at Kerry. “This process emphasizes texture control, bringing out the natural sweetness of the oats while eliminating sliminess and grittiness. The result is no separation, no waste product, 100% of the oat is utilized and the quality maintained.”

Ingredion’s functional native starches and flours from corn, tapioca, rice or potato deliver thickness and creamy mouthfeels for plant-based yogurt, sour creams and ice cream applications. The company offers a systems approach that may leverage three or four ingredients from its portfolio of ingredients to reach finished product attributes. 

“We work closely with R&D teams to discover the right combination of ingredients for ease of use in the manufacturing process while providing quality, consistency and formula protection,” Mr. Gonzales said. “These clean-label ingredients help brands differentiate their products by creating texture stability requirements, all while maintaining a simple label.”


The uniqueness of cheese

With vegan cheese, where unique functionality is required, Ingredion has a portfolio of modified food starches and hydrocolloids that have been tested and proven to deliver functional differentiation. Through the careful selection and combination of these ingredients, the company has created vegan cheeses that shred, melt, spread and slice.

Planteneers GmbH, Ahrensburg, Germany, offers alternative dairy ingredient systems made from vegetable proteins and starches. This allows for the manufacture of a range of cheese alternatives, from standards such as slices and grated pizza toppings to specialties such as vegan alternatives to cream cheese, cottage cheese and feta.

“Each component of the system fulfills a specific function,” said Brian Walker, global commercial director. “This includes adjusting the melting behavior, shredding ability and elasticity of the end products. The actual manufacturing process of the plant-based cheese alternatives takes place in a mixing system with heating capability and high shear force, which is relatively simple to implement if the right ingredients are available.”

Plant-based yogurts are not as challenging as vegan cheese, as it is a much less complex system that is less dependent on milk fat. Chr. Hansen, Milwaukee, now offers a culture kit designed specifically to make vegan yogurt. It is comprised of customizable starter cultures, probiotics and bioprotective strains.

“Because the composition of plant bases is more varied than traditional dairy products, it is particularly important to utilize cultures expertly selected to meet the performance demands of dairy-free applications,” said Ross Crittenden, senior director for commercial development. “We aim to leverage our deep expertise in food fermentation and history of close collaboration with producers to help the industry elevate the art of fermented plant-based craftsmanship.


Taste matters

In the end, if it does not taste great, consumers won’t buy it. If they are expecting traditional dairy taste, flavor systems are paramount. 

Synergy Flavors conducted several primary research consumer studies to better understand plant-based consumers and what they are looking for. While 41% of respondents wished non-dairy alternatives tasted more like traditional dairy, 36% wished they tasted more like the base ingredient, but with a more indulgent and creamy taste. 

“To meet the different consumer needs, we have added vegan dairy taste modulators to our portfolio,” Ms. Liu said. “These modulators neutralize the base without imparting flavor and elevate the base ingredients with mouthfeel and creaminess without changing its directional flavor. For instance, when a modulator is applied to an oat milk, it will still taste like oats, but much creamier and richer.”

Travis Green, vice president of wholesome food ingredients, ADM, Chicago, said, “As flexitarians seek out plant-forward dairy products, many are looking for specific plant protein sources. In fact, our research shows that the type of plant protein is important to 88% of global plant consumers and 92% of US plant consumers. On top of that, consumer perceptions of factors like the taste of plant proteins vary and are often connected to awareness levels of the plant protein type and ingredient label expectation. Nuts and seeds have the most positive plant consumer perceptions, with beans coming in a close second.”

ADM’s lineup includes ingredients from more than 30 distinct plant-based sources, including peas; chia, flax and hemp seeds; and ancient grains, such as amaranth, sorghum and quinoa. These come in raw, pasteurized, roasted, crisp or powder forms. 

Edlong Corp., Elk Grove Village, Ill., developed vegan dairy flavors to provide dairy taste in plant-based and vegan applications. Jessa Friedrich, digital marketing manager, said the flavorists leverage dairy ingredient building blocks to develop non-dairy, masking, and mouthfeel flavors.

“Using flavors in vegan products can help on all fronts to recreate the real dairy taste and mouthfeel as well as to mask any off-notes from plant-proteins,” she said. 

“Dairy has a very unique milk flavor that is not duplicated with a natural flavor,” said Brian Riesterer, manager of dairy innovation, First Choice Ingredients, Germantown, Wis. “We use proprietary fermentation and reaction technology to create dairy concentrates in paste, powder and liquid forms. We are now using that technology to make vegan ingredients with familiar dairy flavors and authentic mouthfeel and aroma.”

This story is featured in the September issue of Dairy Processing.