Learn How Extrusion Is Shaping The Next-Generation Of Alt-Proteins Right Now
Advances in extrusion mean alt-protein products are now more texturally and nutritionally authentic than ever before - opening doors for the next generation of products.
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Happy Tuesday Market Shakers. Today we begin the final chapter in our series asking: what are alt proteins and how are they made? In Alt-Protein Primer#5, you get the low down on the key technology used to turn alt-proteins into finished products.
As with all things alt-protein, the production processes vary for each product and are often proprietary. That said, extrusion has emerged as a key technology in the development of protein analogues. High Moisture Extrusion in particular has the potential to create realistic and satisfyingly meaty products, and it has the whole alt-protein industry excited.
In today’s article, we explore this technology in more detail with the help of Dr Aparna Venkatesh, Regional Innovation Lead at Bühler Group and Dominique Kull, Co-Founder and CEO of SGProtein. Check out our interviewee’s profiles at the bottom of this post.
Processing alt-proteins into finished products
Mixing, forming, cooking, cooling, and many other processes play an integral role in turning alt-proteins into finished products. Every step of the way researchers, engineers and producers are seeking to understand how different processes affect the finished alternative protein product.
Take plant-based meat. It aims to replicate the nutritional profile of animal-based meat, as well as the taste, texture and overall experience of eating traditional meats. Formulating these products needs a deep understanding of how ingredients interact and function, not only with each other but also during different stages of the production process, where heat, pressure and many other variables can change dramatically. Understanding this is key to creating the most realistic products possible.
To date, transforming protein powders and raw materials into analogues has relied on a few key technologies. Extrusion is the most widely used and researched. Other technologies, such as Bio-printing, Shear Cell, and post-fermentation processing, are also growing in use. We’ll cover these in a later post.
Right now, let’s dig deeper into this fascinating process of extrusion.
The extrusion process
Extrusion is a key process in the F&B industry for texturizing products, including pasta and cereals. In the case of animal protein analogues, it’s used to create the fibrous structure that makes our alt-burgers, nuggets and fillets so satisfyingly “meaty”.
So how does extrusion of alternative proteins work? Raw proteins (not just plant-based but fermented, cultivated, or even a mixture) are mixed with other ingredients such as colourings (i.e. beetroot), flavourings, and oils (i.e. coconut oil) forming what is essentially a mush. These extra ingredients are vital to recreating animal products' appearance, meat textures and moreish juiciness.
The mush is then fed into an extruder, where it is pushed through a large heated barrel by rotating metal screws. Varying degrees of heat and pressure are applied to the raw mixture during the process. According to Aparna Venkatesh, Innovation Lead at Bühler Group:
For creating high moisture products, the mixture eventually passes through a cooling die at the end of the extruder barrel which removes the heat, solidifies the unfolded proteins and helps it form fibrous meat-like textures.
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Low Moisture or High?
At this point, it’s important to highlight that there are two camps in the world of alt-protein extrusion. Low Moisture Extrusion (LME) and High Moisture Extrusion(HME).
As the name implies, LME uses less moisture. Alt-protein products made with this technology will generally be dried and sold, or rehydrated for further use as an ingredient.
HME is the extrusion camp that the alt-protein industry is flocking to in droves. Dominique Kull, Co-Founder and CEO of SGProtein explains why:
Depending on the specific parameters of the ingredients, process and recipe, HME proteins are likely to have high nutritional value, similar to the animal protein they replicate, but with higher fibre and lower cholesterol.
The extruded product is effectively handled in similar ways to meat.
Like regular meat products, extruded protein alternatives can also go through several preparation steps before being shipped.
The steps vary but may include further mixing with other ingredients like fats, maskers, salt, flavours and oils.
Due to the high moisture content, HME products have a similar shelf life to animal meats in both chilled and frozen states. LME products are often shelf-stable and freeze-dried, giving them a longer shelf life.
Pros and cons of extrusion
Both low and high moisture extrusion are flexible processes. They can be tweaked in several ways.
HME products are more meat-like and nutritious. HME has the potential to achieve high-fidelity meaty structures. Because the process is done at lower temperatures, the products maintain more of their nutritional properties compared to low moisture products.
HME is expensive.
Companies like SGProtein and Bühler are working to lower the barrier of entry for HME production to eventually support affordable HME products in the market.
Give your team the inside edge
Extrusion is complex. Both LME and HME are highly dependent on process variables such as moisture content, screw speed, die temperature and require extensive optimization. It relies on expert know-how and trial and error to find the parameters which work best for your product.
Examples of companies using extrusion to make alt-protein products
Beyond Meat, the Japan-bound plant-based pioneer uses a pea protein that has been extruded to form their impressively meaty textured ground-beef analogues.
A Japanese B2B plant-based ingredient maker. They use extrusion to process fermented soybeans into textured vegetable proteins. They sell the proteins B2B and also use them in their own alt-meat products.
Nowadays use proprietary low-moisture extrusion processes to create chicken analogues that, when rehydrated, are almost identical to real chicken strips.
Planted Foods is a Swiss plant-based meat maker that recently raised $72 million to level up their production of plant-based whole cuts such as chicken breast. The company uses high moisture extrusion technology from Bühler to achieve realistic textures.
This India-based company makes a range of plant-based protein products. Using Bühler’s HME technology, BVeg can produce the equivalent of 3,000 plant-based chicken breasts per hour.
Today’s post wouldn’t have been possible without Dr Aparna Venkatesh and Dominique Kull who helped explain extrusion technology. Huge thank you to both for interviewing and supporting this article. Special thanks also go to Dr. Dalal AlGhawas, Program Director, Singapore at Big Idea Ventures, for helping to arrange the interviews.
Dr. Aparna Venkatesh
Dr Aparna Venkatesh is an experienced leader in the field of agri-food technology. She has a scientific background in tissue engineering and played a pivotal role in establishing Singapore’s largest national cultivated meat program. At Bühler, Aparna leverages innovative capabilities in agri-food technology to develop high-impact, purposeful, sustainable transformation in the future of food. The Bühler Group is a Swiss technology solutions company that manufactures food processing equipment and are a world leader in extrusion technology. They provide end-to-end solutions to turn alt-proteins into finished products.
Dominique is the Co-Founder and CEO of SGProtein. An engineer by trade, he specialized in establishing production facilities for plant-based proteins. His career has taken him around the world but he is currently based in Singapore where he has been active in supporting Singapore’s food tech space. SGProtein offers scalability on demand by producing white-label protein ingredients which startups and companies can use as a base for their products to quickly enter a space which traditionally has high barriers to entry.
See you next Tuesday
Our Alt-Protein Primer has been an exciting exploration into the technology and processes used to make the future of our food system. There’s no denying it has taken our focus away from Japan for a little. Next week, we return with an interview with one of Japan’s pioneering startups that is at the forefront of one of the most exciting alternative protein categories. Stay tuned.
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