Adopting a plant-based diet is the lifestyle trend of the moment. With the spotlight firmly on Veganuary, it has become a nationwide initiative that not only focuses on supporting those that want to be vegan but also highlights the benefits and accessibility of plant-based options. However, when looking under the hood of these perceived ‘better for you’ foods, being a healthy vegan does present more obstacles than people think.
It might be surprising to learn that many plant-based products contain allergens, E numbers and come with a high fat content, and whilst the ravenous appetite for vegan products continues to grow, there are mounting pressures from the industry to deliver improved nutritional profiles and ‘cleaner’ options.
Thankfully there are clean label alternatives available and it has been reassuring to see many of these already being integrated into plant-based products. In the last year in particular the uptake of Ulrick & Short’s complex™T16, a textured pea protein has increased significantly. Developed to mimic comminuted meat, complex™T16 is allergen free and delivers a meaty structure and fibrous visual. Requests for other pea and wheat proteins within the complex™ range have also sky rocketed. Designed to help bind and deliver firmness these solutions imitate meat textures making them ideal for vegan meat products.
The industry is facing its challenges head on and has welcomed the use of alternative ingredients to help improve its label declarations and nutritional profiles. This includes solutions such as delyte™, a range of tapioca starches which offer a functional, clean label and gluten free solution for directly replacing fats.
However, there is still a lot of work to be done and under severe scrutiny is the use of methylcellulose (methocel), which is found in an overwhelming number of vegan products. Used by both retail and food service industries, the declared E461 is a water soluble polymer, which is chemically derived from a plant-based fibre cellulose. It is most commonly used as a binder, thickener, emulsifier, stabilizer and gelling agent to prevent syneresis, where one of its key performance features is its ability to form a thermoreversible gel. Methocel is also used in bakery processes to deliver freeze/thaw stability and improved bite and can be included in many desserts, sauces and ready meals where the chemical has been included to help achieve creamier textures, improved mouth-feel and retain shape.
As a highly versatile ingredient solution, it is not surprising that methylcellulose is used across the food spectrum and in particular within vegan products. The challenge now is for food manufacturers to replace it with a clean and just as functional alternative. Whilst there have been some moves towards citrus fibre substitutes, questions are still being raised over their performance and whether they can adequately meet all the functional requirements of methocel.
The imminent arrival of a methocel replacement has further highlighted the need for plant-based food manufacturers to remove other allergens such as soya and textured wheat. Soya in particular is incorporated into many vegan products as it delivers a good source of protein. However, for vegans who have a soya allergy, this does eliminate a significant number of options for them.
With replacements readily available such as complex™T16, food manufacturers can confidently remove allergens without altering flavour profiles or product performance. Removing allergens from vegan food products will make them appeal to an even wider audience including coeliacs and is likely to be a key focus for many plant-based food manufacturers throughout 2021.
Being a vegan has never been easier than it is today. The availability of plant-based products is greater than ever and as it continues to become the diet choice there are still some misconceptions that need to be addressed. Aside from the perceived healthy connotations that are associated with plant-based options, the notion that being a vegan is an expensive lifestyle preference should also be debated.
It would be fair to say that a few years ago, when vegan products were still viewed as speciality items that their price tags were a little hefty. Nowadays, the cost of vegan products is being driven down thanks to the increase in production as more and more plant-based options enter mainstream product lines. Despite this, influencers and vegan celebrities continue to reinforce the idea that veganism is an expensive dietary decision. The truth of the matter is, that more needs to be done to make processed vegan foods more affordable. Food manufacturers will undoubtedly be feeling the pressure to review their ingredient lists and will be looking for efficient ways to not only reduce costs but also clean up their declarations.
With the industry focused on clearing up their labels and with considerable changes on the horizon, plant-based options will continue to soar and soon enough, being a vegan, or even just someone that welcomes plant-based choices more often into their everyday life, will become the norm and most certainly will not cost the earth.