Plant-origin cheeses, or vegan cheeses, are non-dairy alternatives made from various plant-based ingredients like nuts, soy, and vegetables. These innovative dairy substitutes offer multiple benefits that attract health-conscious, eco-friendly, and ethically minded consumers. High in plant-based proteins, plant-origin cheeses provide a lactose-free solution for those with lactose intolerance or dairy allergies. Moreover, their production has a smaller environmental footprint, addressing sustainability concerns. The increasing demand for dairy free cheese stems from rising health awareness, ethical considerations regarding animal welfare, and growing environmental consciousness.
While the demand for plant-origin cheese is growing, consumers often raise several concerns when comparing these cheeses to their dairy-based counterparts. One key issue is texture, as some plant-based cheeses may not replicate the creamy or stretchy feel of dairy cheese, resulting in grainy or crumbly mouthfeel. Some plant-origin cheeses, particularly those used in frozen or refrigerated products, exhibit starch retrogradation, resulting in undesirable changes in texture and mouthfeel upon thawing and reheating. Plant-origin cheeses may not melt and stretch as well as dairy-based cheese, which can limit their use in applications like shredded cheese for pizza.
Manufacturers of plant-origin cheese are actively working to improve the texture and meltability of their products. Some common strategies that manufacturers typically adopt are:
- Ingredient Optimization: This involves fine-tuning the primary components to mimic the texture and properties of dairy cheese while maintaining a plant-based profile. Manufacturers experiment with a variety of plant-based ingredients such as nuts (e.g., almonds, cashews), legumes (e.g., chickpeas, soybeans), and proteins (e.g., pea protein) to achieve the desired cheese-like texture.
- Food Processing Techniques: Manufacturers often use extrusion, blending, and fermentation to create textures and structures resembling dairy cheese. Extrusion processes involve forcing the cheese mixture through a machine to create uniform textures and shapes. Blending techniques help combine different plant-based ingredients and emulsify fats for a smoother texture. Fermentation, using specific bacterial and yeast strains, can impart complex flavors and textures to mimic the fermentation processes in traditional dairy cheese production.
- Improved Emulsification: This strategy involves using emulsifiers and carefully selected plant-based fats, such as coconut oil or nut oils, to stabilize and disperse fats within the cheese matrix. Manufacturers employ blending, processing, and texture modifiers like starches to create a smooth and meltable texture that mimics dairy cheese.
- Texture Modifiers: Texture modifiers in plant-based cheese manufacturing are essential ingredients employed to improve the overall texture, mouthfeel, and consistency of the product. These modifiers can include a range of components such as starches (e.g., tapioca, potato, cornstarch), gums (e.g., xanthan gum, guar gum), and other hydrocolloids, which help create a cohesive and smooth cheese-like texture.
Manufacturers can now add two additional solutions to improve texture and meltability in plant-origin cheeses.
- Controlling Starch Retrogradation with TREHA®: By using TREHA®, the leading brand of trehalose, in plant-origin cheese formulations, manufactures can suppress starch retrogradation that causes undesirable changes in texture and mouthfeel upon freezing and thawing, and long-term refrigeration.
- Improving Stretchability with PULLULAN: With PULLULAN, manufacturers can improve the stretchiness of plant-origin cheese formulations.
Starch retrogradation is a common issue in plant-origin cheeses, especially those used in frozen or refrigerated products. It occurs when starch molecules crystallize during freeze/thaw cycles, leading to a gritty or unpleasant texture. TREHA® keeps moisture within gelatinized starch molecules during freezing. It inhibits the starch from recrystallizing upon thawing, effectively suppressing retrogradation.
Notably, TREHA® achieves this without adding excessive sweetness to the cheese, ensuring a more authentic flavor profile.
To test the effect of TREHA® on starch retrogradation, our team of food experts, working in collaboration with food scientists, developed several plant-origin cheese formulations with varying levels of TREHA® added as a key ingredient. The other ingredients added to the formulations were Soy Milk, Coconut Oil, Starches, Salt, Fermented Seasoning, Lactic Acid, and Flavors. Control formulations contained Dextrin instead of TREHA® at the same weightage. These formulations were then refrigerated for 3 days to stabilize fat crystals. Subsequently, the formulations were subjected to blast freezing for 7 days followed by 1 day of thawing. These formulations, with and without TREHA® were then evaluated by 10 panels. The chart below shows the result from the sensory evaluation conducted by the panels.