You have the ingredient, we design the food product

An ingredient supplier has a new raw material that likely holds some potential. But what kind of potential? Within TOP BV, specialists like Wouter Franken can uncover the answer to that question. Not because TOP is knowledgeable about musical notation, chords, and scores, but because the Wageningen-based technology company knows how to create a good food product.

When a supplier develops a new raw material, its full potential is often not yet known. Similar questions arise for food producers who can obtain a new raw material but don’t exactly know how it will perform in a final product. Both parties can turn to the Wageningen-based technology centre TOP, says food technologist Wouter Franken.

Recently, Franken completed a project involving a new and promising application. “We’re talking about an economical fibre pulp extracted from an agricultural byproduct,” says Franken. “Previously, this byproduct was used in animal feed, but a supplier discovered that this fibre fraction is interesting for the food industry.” The fibre pulp is colourless and has hardly any taste, but it has an excellent ability to retain water without binding it permanently. Franken quickly realised that the pulp was interesting for use in meat substitutes.

“The major challenge in designing meat substitutes is juiciness,” explains the technologist. “Meat substitutes tend to become dry quickly. As a result, the taste doesn’t come out well when eating them. In practice, producers try to make meat substitutes juicier by incorporating more fat or oil, but that’s not the most effective approach. The juicy mouthfeel occurs when moisture is released during chewing, carrying the right flavours. A bit of fat is mainly needed for creaminess, but too much fat can dull the water-soluble flavours.”

The food industry often uses hydrocolloids, vegetable pieces, or mushrooms to make meat substitutes juicier. These also release moisture during the chewing process. “Mushrooms are well suited for this,” notes Franken. “The problem is that mushrooms themselves have a strong flavour, which doesn’t always match the product you want to make. Additionally, mushrooms are expensive and unsuitable for processing in a product that needs to resemble meat closely.”

To assess whether the new fibre fraction was suitable for use in meat substitutes, Franken created vegan chicken nuggets, hamburgers, and sausages incorporating the new dietary fibre. It turned out to be a great move. “The end products were not only juicy but also required fewer binders,” specifies Franken.

Taste limitation
The search for interesting applications of new ingredients doesn’t always go as smoothly as in the case of the water-retaining dietary fibre, says Franken. Sometimes, the engineers and researchers at TOP have to acknowledge that while they can explore new avenues, certain applications might not be feasible or have little potential due to the properties of a new raw material.

“This was the case with a product from another byproduct, originating from a brewery,” explains Franken. “We had hopes that this might be a plant-based alternative to egg white protein albumin. Albumin is a good gelling agent. When we want to make purely plant-based foods, we essentially have only one good alternative to albumin: methylcellulose.” Although research has shown that methylcellulose is safe, some consumers prefer to avoid products containing it. For that group, the new application from the brewery byproduct might be interesting. It exhibited decent gelling properties, although it couldn’t match albumin and methylcellulose and was more expensive. “Unfortunately, the raw material also had a strong nutty and cheesy taste,” laments Franken. “It wasn’t possible to mask that taste to an acceptable level.”

Food companies
TOP can not only assist innovative raw material suppliers in identifying application possibilities. “We can also provide similar services to food companies that have discovered a new and potentially interesting raw material. It might replace a common and expensive raw material, but a company wants to know the consequences of such a substitution. Do they need to adjust their formulation? Or their process? We’re happy to figure it all out for them.”

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