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Finding the Right Mix for Plant-Based Alternatives

Both ingredient suppliers and CPGs are trying to discover the right proteins for the job as they play with plant-based formulations to get the taste, texture, mouthfeel—and scalability—they’re looking for.

Published by Aaron Hand on Jan 1, 2023

Protein powders can be made from a variety of plant-based substrates.Protein powders can be made from a variety of plant-based substrates.Marek Photo Design

Though it’s a very small percentage of people that label themselves as vegan or even vegetarian, there’s no mistaking the tsunami of support from consumers to move in the general direction of plant-based diets. “There’s a shift away from the animal-derived system we’re dealing with now,” says Christian Flinn of the Plant Based Foods Association. “This is related to health as well as planetary and environmental concerns.”

The plant-based market has grown 54% since 2018, Flinn notes, and grew 28% in 2020 alone. Plant-based milks are seen as the growth engine for the entire plant-based industry, he adds, with 42% of households purchasing plant-based milks in 2021.

The numbers aren’t nearly as high for plant-based meat alternatives—only 19% of households purchased meat analogues in 2021, up slightly from 15% in 2019, Flinn notes. Shoppers are trying to align purchases with values, and align themselves with choices that are healthier for both them and the environment.

But if they can’t align those purchases with their bottom line, it’s going to continue to be a difficult sell. Price parity will be key for the plant-based protein sector to really take off. Optimizing production systems, throughput, and energy will be vital to getting costs more in line with traditional offerings.

The plant-based industry has progressed from burgers to imitating whole cuts of meat. This chicken breast analogue is made through extrusion.The plant-based industry has progressed from burgers to imitating whole cuts of meat. This chicken breast analogue is made through extrusion.Photo courtesy of Clextral

Environmental or economic sustainability?

It is somewhat unclear how much importance plant-based food manufacturers put on sustainability. According to a survey-based analysis of the market by CRB presented at the most recent Process Expo, manufacturers seem to be able to get by on the idea that plant-based foods are a sustainable choice in themselves. “The industry is counting on the plant-based claim to communicate sustainability,” says Tony Moses, director of product innovation at CRB. “Sustainability really is at the core, but we think the industry is missing opportunities to produce sustainably.”

For plant-based production, equipment tends to be the key cost driver, CRB’s report showed, and energy and water consumption were the lowest cost driver. But this is not a reason for celebration, Moses notes. “It concerns us that it isn’t driving development work,” he says.

But it’s not only higher throughput from the production equipment that would help to bring costs down. Saving energy and water in the manufacturing process would go a long way to meeting those goals as well.

Consumer food producers might have room to reach high-value niche markets. But in the commodity-driven space of food and feed, ingredient manufacturers have little control over price. “So the only way that they can ensure economic sustainability, and therefore their profit margins, they have to focus on their cost of operation, which is where value engineering and optimizing their manufacturing processes system is critical,” says Greg See Hoye, market manager for the plant-based protein industry for Dedert. “And that’s where their equipment manufacturers can come in.”

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Drying the protein

Throughput isn’t the only way to bring costs down, See Hoye emphasizes, pointing to energy costs and water consumption as significant pain points. In this direction, Dedert has been working on various protein drying technologies as alternatives to the typical spray dryer.Wet fractionation is well established for yielding high purity rates from proteins. But it also creates a need for drying the protein again at the back end. Thermal drying is very energy-intensive, and spray drying—creating a liquid product to then bring it all the way down to a powder—leads to high costs of operation.

At this year’s Plant-Based Foods & Proteins Summit in Chicago, See Hoye presented some alternatives, including a ring dryer that would reduce the cost of drying by 30 to 40%.

“The technology that I’m proposing with ring drying is already well established for over 20 to 30 years in the wheat industry. Wheat gluten is a very, very difficult protein to dry. And in that time period, we’ve gone through many iterations of that technology until it’s gotten to the point it is at today—where we started small scale, then bigger industrial scale, and now super industrial scale,” See Hoye explains. “I want to take that same technology and apply it to pea protein. Why wouldn’t it work? It’s just a different crop source.”

Dedert is also proposing improvements to the spray dryer itself, including using a rotary atomizer instead of a nozzle atomizer. “A nozzle atomizer requires a high-pressure pump, which has a holdup capacity, and therefore is difficult to clean,” See Hoye says. “So for food safety and food-grade specifications, maintenance might be a challenge.” The rotary dryer, conversely, is easy to use and maintain, he adds.

Bepex has a different approach. “We have a drying technology that can take a material with less water in it that a spray dryer can’t really—a viscous paste—and dry it down to a final form,” says Jack Keeney, executive director of sales and marketing for Bepex. “This allows our customers to get the same product they’re looking for but at a fraction of the operating costs. It’s a smaller footprint, less emissions, and less water.”

Bepex’s PCX Flash Dryer is a dispersion-type dryer that accepts wet cakes, pastes, or slurries and dries them to a fine powder or small granules. The PCX is able to dry dewatered, non-pumpable wet cakes, significantly reducing the size and operating cost of the overall system.

An alternative to spray drying, which requires the protein to be in liquid form, Bepex’s PCX Flash Dryer is a dispersion-type dryer that accepts wet cakes, pastes, or slurries.An alternative to spray drying, which requires the protein to be in liquid form, Bepex’s PCX Flash Dryer is a dispersion-type dryer that accepts wet cakes, pastes, or slurries.Photo courtesy of Bepex

Spray dryers work by atomizing the protein material to then feed it into the dryer. The protein needs to be highly diluted so that it can be fed through a high-pressure spray nozzle to atomize it into a mist.

Within the plant-based realm, Bepex’s flash dryers are used for drying proteins, as well as byproducts such as starches and fibers, from a wide variety of plants, including soy, pea, fava beans, pulses, and lentils. “To get high-quality proteins, there’s a lot of separation, a lot of water, and you separate fiber and starch from that as well,” Keeney says. “Any mechanical separation our customers can do upstream of our dryer is only going to make their process more economical because it usually costs less to mechanically separate instead of putting thermal natural gas BTUs in use as we are. If you can squeeze the moisture out, it’s going to cost a lot less than using hot air to remove it.”

Taking advantage of existing equipment

In many ways, there’s no need for plant-based food producers to reinvent the wheel. “Proteins have been being dried for decades,” Keeney says. “We’re just trying to dry it in similar ways to traditional methods.” Bepex’s roots, for example, go back to the grain industry of the early 1900s. The plant-based protein industry can look to traditional vegetable or grain processing, for example.

“Manufacturers’ requirements, overall, are the same as all food processing requirements: consistent quality product, reliability, flexibility to manage multiple SKUs such as ingredient variation and machine configuration, food safety concerns being addressed by hygienically designed equipment, smart technology, and higher capacities,” comments John Barber, USA/Canada sales manager for Clextral USA.

Other equipment suppliers make similar assertions. At the Plant-Based Summit, both Flottweg and GEA discussed the suitability of their existing equipment lines for plant-based processing.

GEA’s Mission 26, presented in the latter part of 2021, is a five-year financial plan that focuses in part on sustainability, innovations, and new foods such as plant-based, cell-based, and insect-based proteins. “We’ve combined all product lines to specifically focus on plant proteins,” Mark Braun, international business development manager for GEA, told the plant-based industry audience. “We’ve combined all our product lines to specifically focus on plant proteins. A whole division was created to support you guys. We’re taking all our expertise and applying it to your specific needs.” GEA’s range of spray drying, evaporators, decanters, separators, extruders, and more cover 80% of the required process equipment for the industry, he adds.

Focused on wet fractionation, Flottweg provides decanters, centrifuges, and other parts of the line for a wide variety and ever-growing lineup of crops, notes Mathias Aschenbrenner, sales engineer for Flottweg.

Where plant-based protein manufacturers often need extra help, however, is the fact that many of them are small start-up companies that might not have the funds or expertise to ramp up production.

Zeppelin makes a range of equipment for both the ingredient manufacturers and food producers—bulk handling systems, rehydration equipment, blending systems—giving it a view on the industry as a whole. “A lot of these companies are very small, so they kind of need start-up systems, so that’s what we’re providing them: Here’s your first phase, get the bulk ingredients that you use the most of and get those automated, and then here’s your phase two and phase three approach,” says Lisa Arato, sales engineer for Zeppelin. We try to look at that and provide them that type of plan for the future.”

Plant-based needs

Though they share a lot of the same manufacturing concerns as traditional food producers, manufacturers of plant-based foods that are meant to mimic animal meat add a few other challenges to the mix: overall product appearance, texture, mouthfeel, flavor, and color all must be perfected to find success with consumers, Barber notes.

Having worked in fruits and vegetables for over 20 years, Dave Reynolds, sales and business development manager for Bühler’s protein solutions and ingredients group, has watched the transition as some of those produce items have become ingredients for plant-based alternative meats, cheeses, etc. “It’s been a pretty good swing of integrating a lot of the traditional ingredients into some of these mainstream burger patties and chicken, and getting their ingredients into some of the soy- and pea-based products,” he says.

It’s not just about soy and pea proteins these days. At this year’s IFT First—an exhibit focused on innovation—plant-based stole the show, with companies showing off proteins from chickpeas, mung beans, fava beans, algae, and more. There are a lot of decisions to be made when choosing ingredients designed for a plant-based product to replicate a meat product. What has the right taste might not have the right texture. Or what worked in a lab might not work as well when scaled up.

“The choice of the ingredients in the formulation is crucial for the success of plant-based foods. The functionalities provided by the protein are directly related to their source, their internal composition content, and the process that has been used to concentrate or isolate the protein,” Barber says. “After choosing those ingredients, the best way is to test them through an extruder to see their ability to create the expected fibration, expansion, texture, aspect, and more.”

A lot of researchers and start-up companies start with a good base, certain ingredients that they want to use, Reynolds comments. “Then we work with them to try to figure out—OK, going from making a couple of patties into making 6,000 patties or scaling them up from kitchen to commercial,” he says. “Do they want a product that is shelf stable? Or do they want to go straight to the frozen food or the meat section? Or is there a combination of both? A lot of where we fall in is trying to adapt and combine that capacity and the texture and the taste at those high rates so that they can sell it.”

The protein ingredients themselves have become a big business, with several startups realizing how expensive a full finished product line can be to develop. Instead, they focus on providing ingredients with good functionality to the larger finished goods companies. 

Beyond the burger

It’s not just the ingredients that are evolving. The plant-based products that were entering the market three or four years ago were largely burger formats like the Impossible and Beyond burgers. To make those, food producers would use the texturized vegetable protein (TVP) created with dry extrusion processes, rewet them, and add other ingredients to then form into burgers. These days, though, the Holy Grail of plant-based meat alternatives is to come up with analogues to whole cuts of meat. “The biggest thing is who’s going to come up with the best whole muscle—a steak, breast, chop, what have you,” comments John Sheehy, global key account manager for plant-based foods at Coperion K-Tron.

That’s a whole different beast than ground beef analogues. It requires a shift from dry extrusion to high-moisture extrusion. Instead of a typical shelf life of years for the TVP, the product that comes from wet extrusion has to be treated more like real meat, with refrigeration, freezing, and post-processing that goes along with it, Reynolds notes.

As a typical bottleneck, wet extrusion is seen as a key place to make improvements in plant-based throughput.As a typical bottleneck, wet extrusion is seen as a key place to make improvements in plant-based throughput.Photo courtesy of Clextral

But high-moisture extrusion also has throughput and size limitations that dry extrusion doesn’t face. “The high-moisture product, when it leaves the extruder, it’s only about 4.5 in. wide and maybe 0.6 in. thick,” Sheehy says. “The big push in the industry is to increase the capacity of the cooling die. Right now, it’s the bottleneck.”

It’s no trivial matter what type of protein formulation you ultimately decide on. Most systems will be modified to accommodate that specific recipe. Sheehy comments on just a few of the considerations for extruders: “The biggest thing you’re going to have to change is the inside of the barrel of the extruder. You have two twin rotating screws, or co-rotating screws. Inside there, the pressure and temperature can be adjusted based upon the process. A lot of times there’s anywhere from six to 13, 14 barrel sections, depending on the products,” he explains. “You can change the screw elements too. You can move the product faster or slower through the barrels, you could do a backfeed, so you push it back the other way.”

Collaboration drives the industry forward

For a cereal or pet food processing plant, it’s not difficult for an equipment supplier like Bühler to take care of a full line. “With the protein side, there are so many variations and so much technology and R&D going into this alternative protein market, we have to rely more on our partners,” Reynolds says. “Collaboration has been the key. A few years ago, we wouldn’t even publish an article about what we’re doing. And now, there’s a press release every other week about a partnership or a collaboration going on.”

This summer, Bühler announced a partnership with Flottweg to offer a full value chain of equipment for the plant-based protein market. The cooperation combines Flottweg’s wet fractionation expertise with Bühler’s dry process expertise to offer customers integrated solutions and optimized processes.

Bühler has partnered considerably with Germany’s DIL (Deutsches Institut für Lebensmitteltechnik) on the next generation of extruded meat substitutes, including work on a high-capacity cooling die for the extrusion process. Cooling dies work with extrusion technology to create meat or fish substitute structures and textures that closely resemble animal-based meat products.

“The cooling die has always been the bottleneck, and that’s where a lot of the development has gone into,” Reynolds says.

Bühler’s recently released PolyCool 1000 cooling die works in combination with an extruder to produce wet-textured proteins.Bühler’s recently released PolyCool 1000 cooling die works in combination with an extruder to produce wet-textured proteins.Photo courtesy of Bühler

Getting all the players working together is one of the best ways to help manufacturers optimize production and keep costs down, according to See Hoye. Dedert is trying to spearhead just such a movement, looking for the network connections between the various equipment suppliers to create more of an ecosystem.

Start-ups struggle to get help

Collaboration extends, of course, to customers. In the plant-based industry, it is very common for manufacturers to need some help getting their product from the lab to production. Clextral, which has been developing both high- and low-moisture extrusion processes for fibrated proteins for more than 30 years, has been helping its customers scale the technology to an industrial level, Barber says.

The ZSK Food Extruder with Coperion K-Tron Screw Feeder is used to produce plant-based proteins.The ZSK Food Extruder with Coperion K-Tron Screw Feeder is used to produce plant-based proteins.Photo courtesy of Coperion K-Tron

 “It’s not only a question of equipment—the product expertise and process know-how are key to reach the best fibrated proteins, and the snacks demanded, from plants and alternative protein sources,” he says. “In addition, we conduct research in cooperation with universities, government entities, and food industry partners around the globe. So when a processor comes to us for R&D or tests, we are able to start at a higher level that can typically shorten the product development cycle.”

Given the investment needed for start-up companies to get equipped enough to scale up production, many are turning to co-manufacturers for help. But getting the help needed is not always easy. “The traditional co-manufacturers are already busting at the seams and expanding and trying to keep up with their previous demands,” Reynolds says

“A lot of these smaller companies are looking for co-mans,” Sheehy says. “And I’ll tell you what: I know where the co-mans are, but none of them have machine time.”

With that in mind, Coperion is working with as many customers as it can to help them test out new products and get scaled up. “One of our goals in the next year is to really increase our testing capabilities for our customers to develop new products and also to scale up to manufacturing levels,” Sheehy says.