The plant-based foods trend is nothing new, but it does seem to be growing as fast as a weed. In particular, plant-based proteins are gaining attention and consumers are gradually becoming more interested in diversifying their plates to include more plant-based proteins. Although plant-based alternatives to animal products have been around for millennia, it seems that new options arise constantly, as innovators redesign everything from milk, to burgers, cheeses and even eggs. While products like soy milk and veggie burgers are now commonplace in many coffee shops and burger joints, new technology is bringing goods like plant-based cream cheese, hard-boiled eggs and chicken nuggets to our grocery stores.
For the bagel connoisseur: plant-based cream cheese
First in our new foods round-up is plant-based cream cheese. Vegan cheeses that use soy or nuts to mimic the texture of dairy-based cheeses have existed for decades, but cheese-derived products like cream cheese have constantly been in development to mimic the characteristic creamy texture. Current plant-based cream cheese products are typically soy or nut-based, similar to other plant-based cheese products, and will usually have lactic acid or lactic acid-producing bacteria added during production. Despite what its name implies, lactic acid does not add lactose; rather it is needed to acidify the product to make the plant-based “curds” that are essential in dairy-based cream cheese production. Acidification changes the structure of the start product, which is often liquid drained from soaking nuts or soy, creating a thicker, creamier structure, which is expected in cream cheese. Additionally, since milk fat isn’t inherent in these plant-based alternatives, some manufacturers may use coconut in their formulations to add more creaminess.
For the champion of breakfast: plant-based hard-boiled eggs
Plant-based eggs have been around for a short while, though typically in liquid form, which makes for easy scrambled eggs or egg patties for breakfast sandwiches. However, the first commercially produced plant-based hard-boiled egg products use mycoprotein, a fungus-based protein that closely resembles the protein structure of animal protein used in other plant-based alternatives. Mycoprotein needs to be fermented before it resembles meat, but it can then be molded into the desired product shape, such as a hard-boiled egg. For these plant-based eggs, additional ingredients including carrot juice, almond milk, and potato starch are used for color and flavor, and to help create the two distinct textures of hard-boiled eggs – the outer white and inner yellow-orange yolk.
For everyone’s inner child: plant-based chicken nuggets
Plant-based chicken nuggets have also been around for a long time and have used a variety of protein sources including soy and wheat proteins, and the same mycoprotein used for plant-based hard-boiled eggs. However, producers have over time been toying with their formulas to perfect the texture of plant-based nuggets to create the characteristic crunchy breading and soft inside that chicken nuggets are known for. While the breading is easy to make plant-based, as it typically does not contain any animal products, the interior structure requires more experimentation to be a perfect mimic. In some cases, a mix of a few plant-based proteins is key to creating the soft yet firm chicken-like interior. Some producers may even add extracts of chicken flavor to help mimic the flavor in addition to the texture, resulting in what could be an ideal plant-based nugget.
Regulation of the new plant-based foods
With many new products on the marketplace, it seems nearly impossible for a consumer to keep up to date with them. Thankfully, the country’s regulatory agencies can, and they do so to ensure that all new products that enter the U.S. market are safe for human consumption. Both the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) closely inspect all food products for safety, though each agency serves different roles. In the case of new and emerging plant-based foods, the FDA is the primary regulatory agency. It’s important to note that all new plant-based foods in your local grocery store are safe for consumption and have undergone the same inspection and compliance process as all other commercially available foods. In addition to ensuring safe consumption, the FDA also ensures that the labeling on these new products is clear. The FDA ensures that the product is not claiming to be something it is not. For example, it will be clear from the front of the package that plant-based nuggets do not contain any animal products; so you should not need to dig through the ingredients list to figure that out.
Time for a taste test!
With an array of new products on the marketplace and a growing hunger for plant-based foods, you may be eager to get out and try something new. Whether it’s spreading soy-based cream cheese on a bagel, heating up a mycoprotein hard-boiled egg, or reliving childhood with some upgraded plant-based chicken nuggets, the options are seemingly endless.
This article was written by Courtney Schupp, MPH, RD