Alternative protein products and other analog foods are red-hot markets, with no sign of slowing down. That has led to an increasing number of food manufacturers—both start-ups and legacy companies—looking to get a foothold as consumer demand continues to grow.
But these products differ from traditional food products in a number of ways, and they create a number of production challenges. While the characteristics of products such as beef or cheese are well-known among processors, their analogs behave differently. Those analogs also act uniquely depending on their base ingredient; chickpea protein has different characteristics than soy protein, which has different characteristics than mushroom protein.
To successfully produce analog products, manufacturers need to understand those characteristics and how they affect both the production process and the equipment used to process them. That means setting clear goals up front and understanding both the short- and long-term targets, says Jonathan Buettner, West Coast Market Manager, Fruits and Vegetables, and Alternative Protein, North America, Deville.
“They need to know what they’re trying to accomplish first off, and that’s going to be both immediate on startup and then a long look down the pipeline,” says Buettner. “It’s all going to depend on their capital budgets and other factors, but you can’t set a target and hit the target if you don’t know what you’re actually going after.”
Once those goals have been identified, understanding the production challenges of the specific products is the next step. That requires an understanding of the ingredients, their characteristics and how products can be produced and equipment can be cleaned.
Understanding the ingredients
Food products and ingredients act differently based on their exact make-up, so that’s not a new challenge for processors. As an example, two different mozzarella cheeses can have different protein structures and shredding characteristics, meaning they must be handled in different ways.
“We also see this in meat; meat changes as it ages. Vegetables also change as they age, the starch content changes,” says Jonathan Pinchbeck, Head of R&D and Technology, Deville. “Therefore, if the starch changes the sugar content changes, and fruits or vegetables that oxidized prematurely have an impact on presentation, yield, and shelf life.”
Analog products add another layer of complexity because they’re still relatively new and can have so many different base ingredients. If a production facility is producing sausage, the characteristics for slicing and shredding the pork will be similar regardless of what the hogs were fed. But sausage analogs made with soy protein will have different characteristics than sausage made of pea protein.
“If they’re making pizza and they want to cut up vegan sausage as a topping, they may need to make sure that their sausage retains physical integrity after being cut,” says Pinchbeck.
Maintaining integrity is an important consideration for cutting and slicing analog products, as they act differently from traditional products. While a half-inch tooling produces half-inch chicken strips, that doesn’t always apply to alternative proteins, says Buettner.
“You run that through a pea or a soy-based protein, and you may have mush,” says Buettner. “Chickpea protein is also going to react differently than soy does.”
Production isn’t the only area of concern for analog products. Cleaning is a big consideration as well. Cleaning techniques and products that work for traditional food items often don’t work for analog products.
Consider degreasers. If you use a degreaser on a piece of equipment that was processing something like chicken, the solvents typically turn the fat residue into soap and it washes away. But if you’re processing an alternative to chicken that doesn’t have much fat, those degreasers likely won’t work. The alternative product might also be using gelatin or pectin as a bonding agent, and the usual cleaning tactics may have poor results.
Part of this challenge can be handled on the equipment side, as equipment is designed for ease of disassembly, cleaning and reassembly. As with other food products, processing equipment for analog foods can be and is designed to cut down on cracks, crevices and corners where bits of food can get caught and be harder to clean. But internal components or food production surfaces still need to be cleaned properly, and the different characteristics of analog products mean new cleaning challenges.
“If I use the same degreaser on something that’s not greasy, it’s not really necessarily going to work as well,” says Pinchbeck. “It’s not an optimized solution for that system. Someone’s going to need to figure that out.”
This becomes a greater challenge when trying to adapt existing equipment to producing analog foods. A slicer might work well for cutting a soy-based sausage, but be harder to clean because of how the sausage sticks to the surfaces or bits of it get caught in the machinery. There can also be different cleaning requirements based on the ingredients, which can cause processors used to one cleaning standard to have to adapt to a new set of guidelines. Buettner points out that even a processor that makes ready-to-eat products would need to adapt.
“We fight sometimes between easy to use and easy to clean with a lot of legacy equipment,” says Buettner. “It is very difficult for processors coming from maybe a fruit and vegetable norm walking into, say, chickpea protein or soy, realizing that’s even further beyond the ready-to-eat they might be used to on the hygienic design standards.”
A new process
Understanding the challenges of analog products is critical for manufacturers who want to produce them, regardless of whether they are starting up new production lines or overhauling existing production lines. Because the ingredients act differently than traditional products and the characteristics of the ingredients can vary greatly compared to one another, there is no such thing as a one size fits all solution.
With many analog products focused on health as a selling point, ingredients can also create challenges when they are changed to appeal to a new market. For example, if an analog product is produced with gluten, removing it can cause a cascading effect, says Buettner.
“If you have gluten in some of these protein substrates and then we want to be gluten-free, that completely changes all of the production process that has to happen, including the cutting process that we focus on,” says Buettner. “But it’s going to change the temperatures at the end feed, it’s going to change how the product is formed, and how product might be injected if that’s part of the process.”
None of these challenges are insurmountable. But understanding how they affect the production process, equipment needs and cleaning is critical to successfully producing analog food products.