In the world of food processing, extrusion technology has been a staple for decades. The process involves pushing ingredients through a die to create a continuous shape, making it ideal for producing food at scale. High-moisture extrusion has developed this technology even further, enabling plant-based food manufacturers to emulate the tender, chewy texture of meat and seafood.
While extrusion has certainly broadened the horizon for alternative proteins, there are plenty more innovative technologies emerging that are taking plant-based food processing to the next level. These include ohmic heating, shear-cell technology, 3D printing, and electrospinning and they have given companies the opportunity to create authentic products with unprecedented precision and speed.
In this article, we'll explore the latest innovations in plant–based food processing and highlight some of the alternative protein companies that are leading the way in their adoption.
Ohmic heating, also referred to as power heating, is a process that involves passing an alternating current through a food product to generate a rapid and consistent increase in temperature. It is commonly utilized in food manufacturing for purposes like the sterilization and pasteurization of food products. Until recently, it has not been widely studied for the production of alternative proteins.
One of the benefits of ohmic heating is that it enables precise temperature control, making it a valuable tool for processing plant-based proteins that may undergo denaturation and coagulation during thermal processing. By transforming structural and techno-functional properties, ohmic heating can be used to improve the functionality of plant-based proteins, such as increasing their emulsification, gelation, or foaming abilities.
Additionally, the application of uniform heat can reduce levels of antinutrients and preserve the nutritional quality and sensory properties, while improving the texture, mouthfeel, and flavor of alternative protein products to produce a more authentic culinary experience.
Ohmic heating and other physical treatments, such as irradiation and pressure application, require fewer inputs and leave fewer undesirable residues than chemical and biological protein treatments and subsequently hold potential as cheaper alternatives. Further research is needed, however, since the use of ohmic heating is relatively novel within the alternative protein industry.
Shear cell technology, also called high-pressure processing (HPP), applies high pressure to raw materials to break down cell walls, leading to improved texture, digestibility, nutritional profile, flavor, and shelf life of alternative protein products.
In comparison to extrusion processes, shear cell technology provides more well-defined and constant deformation of plant-based proteins, enabling the production of fibrous meat analogs that remain stable and structurally consistent even after cooling. Further development of the technology, such as the design of the Couette shear cell, aims to improve productivity and precision.
Shear cell technology has numerous applications in the alternative protein industry, including the production of plant-based meat, dairy, and seafood alternatives, and is utilized by companies such as Rival Foods and The Vegetarian Butcher.
Rival Foods is a company using shear cell technology to produce whole-cut specialties with authentic texture, taste, and juiciness. The company is developing a commercially viable shear cell machine that can structure plant-based proteins and improve our understanding of shear cell technology’s potential in plant-based meat production.
Electrospinning is a type of plant-based scaffolding technology that is being explored in the development of alternative proteins. It involves the use of an electric field to produce nanofibers from a solution or melt of a polymer or protein. The resulting nanofibers can then be used to create authentic plant-based food products.
Electrospinning has the potential to create highly customizable and precise structures that closely mimic the texture of animal-based meat and seafood. However, more research is needed to optimize the use of this technology in the alternative protein industry.
One example of a company developing plant-based scaffolding technology is Meatable. In collaboration with contract manufacturer and product developer VIVOLTA, Meatable will test the feasibility of non-animal-derived electrospun scaffolds for use in the alternative protein sector.
3D printing technology is an additive manufacturing method of producing alternative proteins using a layer-by-layer printing process. The process involves creating a 3D model of the desired plant-based food product and then printing it using a specialized printer.
Its applications include the production of bioprinted meat but its precise control also enables the production of plant-based food alternatives with unique textures, shapes, and flavors that mimic animal-based products. For example, 3D printed steak. It also allows for the production of customized products tailored to individual preferences, such as personalized plant-based nutrition bars or dietary supplements.
While numerous challenges remain, particularly in regard to scalability, 3D printing technology has the potential to revolutionize the food industry by providing a sustainable and efficient way to process plant-based protein products. Some companies that are utilizing 3D printing technology for plant-based alternative protein production include Revo Foods, Redefine Meat, and SeaSpire.
Revo Foods is a company using 3D printing technology to produce fully plant-based seafood products including tuna spreads and whole-cut salmon with authentic texture, taste, and juiciness. The company is working in partnership with Mycorena to advance research into the use of 3D-printed mycoprotein to improve taste and texture, which will contribute to large-scale consumer adoption.
Ohmic heating, shear cell technology, 3D printing, and electrospinning are just a handful of the many exciting technological developments that are revolutionizing the production of authentic alternative proteins.
These plant-based food processing techniques offer numerous benefits, including improved organoleptic properties, enhanced nutritional profiles, and advanced functionality. For example, ohmic heating can increase the solubility of plant-based proteins, while shear cell technology can create a fibrous texture in plant-based meat alternatives. 3D printing and electrospinning technologies allow for the production of highly customizable products with precise structures. Moreover, these technologies contribute to an ever-growing pool of scaleable and cost-efficient plant-based food processing solutions.
As the alternative protein industry continues to grow and evolve, it can be challenging to navigate the field and make sense of the rapidly increasing knowledge and technology. To effectively transform the wealth of information into a high-level strategy and stay ahead of the competition, reach out to us at Bright Green Partners.
As the leading consultancy specializing in alternative proteins, our deep industry knowledge and experience with plant-based food processing techniques can provide invaluable insights and help guide your company's journey toward success. With our expertise, your company can leverage the power of innovative technologies to create game-changing alternative protein products and capture a share of this rapidly growing market.