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Sustainable emulsifiers help meet plant-based demand

The FIE 2017 events in Asia and Germany were packed with them, and they’re here to stay: Plant-based ingredients and formulations are one of the hottest trends in the food industry. And sustainably sourced and produced emulsifiers are perfectly positioned to support plant-based success stories.

It’s a thing

With one in 10 Germans now declaring themselves to be vegan, and almost 1 in 20 Americans professing the same, the trend toward plant-based food products and away from animal-based ones has become a major blip on the radar of any large food producer. In fact, the number of vegans in the UK has risen over 350 percent during the past decade, with young people, in particular, giving plant-based diets a go.


Clearly, a demand trend of this magnitude is of great interest to food industry marketers. Already, today’s consumers can walk into virtually any supermarket and find dairy-alternative beverages and other vegan-friendly products. And at FIE 2017 in Frankfurt, Germany, companies such as Sweden’s AAK, with delicious, non-dairy ice creams, and French-based Roquette with indulgent muffins based on pea protein, added more exciting products to the line-up.


Early days

For now, most of the attention is on plant-based protein sources, and here too, the emerging nature of the plant-based production model is apparent. The truth is, there’s a lot of development work left to do before producers have conquered the all-too-obvious issues of bitterness, modest shelf life, varying mouth-feel and more. Plant-based products, therefore, may have a ‘green’ image, but they typically require a long list of additional ingredients to overcome challenges that are currently putting the brakes on their flourishing market.


And that’s exactly where sustainable, plant-based emulsifiers can come into play, helping to provide functionality that can address these challenges.


Commonly used emulsifiers in modern food production include lecithin, mono- and diglycerides, polyglycerol esters, polysorbates, sucrose esters and various acid esters of mono- and diglycerides. Many are already based on plants, of course, but not just any plant-based emulsifier has the sustainability credentials to be a perfect match for today’s consumer priorities.


Case in point

Take plant protein-based sports drinks, for example. A San Francisco-based5 beverage brand is marketing a family of plant-based protein beverages that promise “whole-body replenishment”. The products feature a blend of plant proteins derived from chia, cacao, pea, and hemp (13g protein per carton), virgin coconut oil and coconut water for on-the-go consumers. Each beverage is made with all vegan, kosher, non-GMO, dairy-free, gluten-free and soy-free ingredients. And it’s sweetened with coconut sugar and monk fruit.


That’s quite a cocktail of ingredients – and a good emulsifier is needed to achieve and maintain long-lived product quality. In the case of this beverage brand, a plant-based emulsifier in the form of lecithin extracted from sunflower seeds is used.


Plant-based but not so friendly

Note the words “soy-free” in the list of ingredients above. Lecithin is perhaps the most established of today’s emulsifier line-up. Originally, lecithin was isolated from egg yolks, but most is today extracted from soya beans. And it offers strong functionality that has contributed to the success of countless food products.


From a sustainability point of view, however, the majority of lecithin comes up a little short. The problem is that soy crops require more arable land to yield the same quantity of emulsifier than more sustainable crop alternatives. And that’s not good for the planet, whose arable land resources are both finite and under intensifying pressure due to the twin demands of a more affluent middle class and an impending population explosion.


Sustainable sourcing

The idea then, is to use more efficient, more sustainable, yet still highly functional sources of emulsifier ingredients. And that, for now, is provided by two main sources: sunflower-based lecithin and sustainable palm oil (the latter sourced from suppliers and supply chains that comply with the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil’s supply models). Sunflower yields somewhat higher quantities of lecithin per acre than soy plants, but in general, it is slightly less efficient than palm oil as a key ingredient for emulsifiers.


Sustainable production

Selecting an emulsifier for attractive, plant-based product launches is about much more than which specific crop is involved. That’s because even a sustainable palm oil-based emulsifier could be produced in a factory that operates with a heavy carbon footprint and which generates far too much waste water. So how the emulsifier is produced needs to be part of the story, too. And in today’s market, emulsifiers that are based on sustainable ingredients, and which are sustainably produced, too, are being produced in volume.


Clearly then, making the right choices when choosing a plant-based emulsifier will add more power to (and consumer trust in) the story around your new, plant-based food or beverage. Food ingredient manufacturers looking to create all-around success stories in the emerging plant-based market would be wise, therefore, to ask searching questions of their suppliers – ensuring all the boxes are checked when it comes to plant-based emulsifiers.

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