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The Three Pillars of Plant-Based Food Testing – Functionality, Composition and Safety

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The food industry has witnessed a considerable rise in demand for plant-based products, fueled by both changes in consumer habits and rising commitments to sustainability. Today’s food consumers are increasingly aligning their buying patterns with environmental and personal wellness goals. For example, climate-aware shoppers are seeking out foods that they perceive as more sustainable, have simple ingredient lists (also known as “clean label” products), or are meat and/or gluten-free. Such products are often foods developed with plant-based ingredients such as pulses like lentils or dried peas and upcycled ingredients.

This trend is reflected in the growing number of people adopting vegan diets, which rose in the United States by 500% between 2014 and 2017As a result, driving plant-based product innovation is becoming an attractive strategy for processors looking to meet customer demands and generate long-term brand value. However, processors must also deal with rising ingredient costs, supply chain insecurities, new regulations and tricky formulations as they use novel ingredients in new ways.

Leveraging accurate testing and analysis technologies is vital for processors to create scalable processes, and high-quality plant-based foods that meet the needs of both producers and consumers.

Functionality is foundational

When selecting a plant-based food product, consumers don’t want to compromise on taste, texture or mouthfeel. An in-depth understanding of ingredient functionality is therefore important at every step – from initial product formulation all the way through to processing – to ensure consumer satisfaction. This is especially relevant with the incorporation of novel ingredients which, by virtue of their very new nature, often come with sparse information on how they perform compared to more commonly used constituents like flour. Truly understanding how ingredients impact formulations and performance can help manufacturers distinguish an acceptable substitute from an exceptional one, thereby elevating brand power and customer satisfaction.

Whether in an R&D start-up or a large, established manufacturer, leveraging testing and analysis tools to gain detailed insights will always be important when assessing the functionality of novel ingredients. During product design and formulation, knowing how a new ingredient will react to heat, stress and other ingredients is essential. Failing to do so can lead to significant struggles at scale-up – even if the new product meets taste and texture goals. Innovative, agile companies test from the outset to reduce R&D costs, minimize scale-up issues and get new products to market rapidly.

Rheological instrumentation such as ingredient performance analyzers can provide manufacturers key functional data that helps speed product development and set ingredient specifications for successful production. Near-infrared (NIR) instruments provide fast, multi-constituent measurements such as moisture, protein, oil, fiber and more. These instruments generate information for ingredient screening, process control and final product quality. Process NIR instruments are also available for integration directly into existing process lines and process control systems allowing for automated or manual adjustments.

Even after stable processes are established, regular monitoring is necessary to ensure raw materials act as expected. Natural yearly crop variation can require adaptations and re-formulation. Through consistent monitoring, manufacturers can have more control over intake. This creates opportunities for vertically integrated companies or those that source directly with producers giving them a leg up by knowing what is coming in the door sooner.

Understanding the functionality of ingredients with smart testing and analysis can also help processors create sustainable “leftover” plant-based foods such as okara flour, a gluten-free, high-protein, high-fiber flour alternative generated from upcycled soybean pulp. Manufacturers have found ways to leverage by-products, to create novel products that meet customer demand and reduce food-waste.


The importance of sustainable and efficient testing

By selecting technologies and developing processes with green practices in mind, manufacturers create the opportunity to better align to customer demands. Increased sustainability and less wastage also means more work hours dedicated to food production.

Leveraging instrumentation such as NIRs, which are fast, use few if any consumables, and require no harmful testing chemicals, offer food processors the opportunity to reap these benefits and align with the sustainability targets set by their businesses. By ensuring finished products are within specification through proper testing, the number of rejected or re-worked batches is reduced, further cutting costs and waste.

Overall workflow efficiency also plays a key part in sustainable and effective plant-based ingredient testing. Not only do more efficient technologies result in higher output and quicker turnaround, but it also gives manufacturers a more rapid return on investment. Choosing testing technologies that are easy to operate and interpret allow plant operators to perform tests quickly and accurately with minimal training in complicated analytic methods. Instruments that provide easy-to-read, visualizable data and basic sample prep can also help support operators to quickly make adjustments based on the data obtained from ingredient and in-process monitoring.


Confidence is key

In addition to functional and compositional analyses, safety testing is paramount to assuring customer confidence. As with more conventional foods, testing plant-based ingredients for heavy metals, pathogens, pesticides and mycotoxins is a cornerstone to creating safer food products.

Safety testing needs to take place at every stage of food’s journey. Cost-effective lateral flow strip tests offer a simple and rapid way to test for a range of mycotoxins at ingredient intake, preventing potentially contaminated batches from mixing with others. With quick results available, and suitable for both the lab and the field, they are versatile and can be easily integrated into a processor’s workflow. For more labor and expertise intensive tests for pathogens, metals and pesticides, a composite sampling protocol should be the very least for manufacturers. In heavy metals analysis for instance, inductively coupled plasma optical emission spectrometry (ICP-OES) offers a powerful way for manufacturers to accurately detect heavy metals within compliant limits across a range of matrices. Other high-end techniques such as liquid chromatography and LC-MS/MS also can test for pesticides, mycotoxins and other analytes.


Testing to the future

Whether it’s a new, burgeoning R&D start-up or established manufacturer, the need for versatile testing technologies to inspire creative products will continue to persist. The food industry has always been an evolving and dynamic sector. With the ability to rely on robust analysis instrumentation and technology solutions, processors can forge a path to provide novel, high-quality plant-based products to consumers that fit their demands.

In the rapidly growing plant-based food market, characterizing novel ingredients is fundamental to further growth. Attributes such as ease-of-use, speed, descriptive results for decision making and sustainability are all important to consider when selecting tools to obtain comprehensive ingredient and product knowledge. With demands for sustainability, safety and palatability – alongside rising efficiency expectations of producers, processors and labs – leveraging accurate testing tools is more important than ever.