Sugar Talk Sugar Talk
Sugar’s role in plant-based foods – texture and mouthfeel
Plant-based food and drink demand has exploded in recent years and is predicted to keep growing. However, without many of the component ingredients found in meat- and dairy-based alternatives, plant-based products often fall short of consumer expectations. Taste is one of the top criteria affected. But it is plant-based product texture that often leaves consumers disappointed. Could introducing sugar to the composition create opportunities for plant-based food brands to create products delivering the texture and mouthfeel that consumers expect?
Plant-based foods: why so popular?
The plant-based food market is one of the fastest growing areas of the food and beverage industry. In the last five years, sales of plant-based products have increased by 40%, and with the annual Veganuary campaign currently underway, this month we can expect to see an even greater rise.
Last year, The Vegan Society reported that 582,000 people signed up for the January challenge, and that over 500 new plant-based products were launched ahead of it. However, the growing number of consumers adopting a vegan lifestyle is not the only factor behind the demand for plant-based substitutes. Concern over wellbeing is another core driver, with many consumers reassessing the effect that dairy and meat produce have on their health. Anxiety about the environment is also a key contributor, with a third of plant-based produce consumers justifying the alteration to their diet as an attempt to be more sustainable.
For manufacturers, it is never a better time to focus on the plant-based industry. At the end of 2021, 102 food and beverage decision-makers were surveyed in the UK, with 56% of them expressing that they were keen to broaden product ranges in 2022 to include more plant-based products.
The challenges of formulating plant-based products
While popularity is on the rise, the formulation of plant-based products remains a challenge to food producers. With the increased demand comes the pressure for manufacturers to deliver products that not only satisfy consumer appetite but also provide the same – if not better – taste, appearance, and texture as their meat/dairy-based counterparts. In response to the growth of the plant-based foods category, 29% of surveyed professionals said that formulation issues would be the biggest challenge to development.
Consumers expect plant-based alternatives to come as close as possible to the ‘real thing’, yet without many of the key components found in meat and dairy products, achieving the same results proves a difficult task. While there is a focus on taste when thinking about product formulation, texture is another fundamental consideration. Without the same components, plant-based replicas do not have the same textures as animal-based products, so alternative ingredients must be found to achieve a similar outcome.
What is texture and what gives texture to food?
Texture refers to the features of food or drinks that can be felt. The texture of a particular food is evaluated when it’s being chewed in the mouth, and the physical sensations it brings to your teeth and tongue. A product’s texture could be described as crunchy, chewy, soft, creamy, and so on. The term we use to describe this sensory experience, is ‘mouthfeel.’
It is easy to underestimate the importance of texture to food and drinks, yet as the sense that precedes even taste when consuming a product, getting it right is paramount. Texture is achieved through the complex interaction of a product’s many components. For example, the juicy, chewy texture of a burger is the result of its protein structures binding water and trapping fat. Similarly, the protein composition of eggs provides volume and structure to food products, particularly baked goods. Without the interaction of these components, the consistency we expect of a product will not be achieved.
Sugar’s role in facilitating familiar textures
Where plant-based products may lack in certain components key for achieving the texture of animal-products, sugar can be used replicate their functions and achieve desired consistency. Sugar is an extremely versatile product, employed not only to affect taste but also to increase shelf life, to stabilise other ingredients, and to alter the texture of a product. For example, sugar is a key ingredient in achieving the texture of ice-cream as it depresses the freezing point, preserving the iconic scoopable structure. It is also used in soft drinks production to help develop viscosity and its carbonated mouthfeel.
One of the functional characteristics that contributes to sugar’s facilitating properties is that it is a humectant, meaning it binds water molecules easily. Invert syrups in particular are a sugar product popularly employed by manufacturers due to their high affinity for water. Sugar helps products to retain moisture and this in turn affects texture. It could be used, for example, to retain the moisture of plant-based meat-alternatives, preventing the product from drying out and so replicating the juicy texture of meat.
Sugar also affects the make-up of products by acting as a stabiliser, binding together the other components and resulting in a more durable end product. This application of sugar makes it what we call a bulking agent, meaning it adds volume and weight to food products without affecting taste or function. It can be used to bulk preserves like jams and marmalade as well as adding body to beverages.
Industrial food producers rely on sugar to create a durable product. This is vital for plant-based products – particularly plant-based burgers and other ‘meat’ products – as they must be robust enough to hold their shape throughout production, transportation, and cooking. Sugar could be employed as a bulking agent to bind together the plant-based ingredients so the product would not lose its appearance as a meat, or dairy-based substitute, and consumers might be more inclined to try the products as a result.
Sugar’s function beyond flavour
Sugar is a product with a variety of applications, and while this fact is already appreciated amongst much of the food industry, the increased demand for plant-based products could make sugar an even more valuable ingredient. Sugar can perform many of the functions that are lost with the removal of animal-produce, facilitating a substitute product that fulfils consumer expectations and comes as close as possible to the ‘real thing’.