Meat has been a staple food for humans ever since the stone age. Meat products are high-quality food sources providing large amounts of proteins with very diverse amino acid profiles and high energy content. The cultural and societal value of meat products cannot be understated. Even as the consumption of meat had been rising across the world over the years driven by several factors, which include an increasing per capita average income and a rapid increase in the population growth rate, the production and consumption of meat has come under heavy scrutiny in recent years. This is largely due to numerous environmental, ethical and health concerns intrinsic to this industry.

Read: August 2023 Issue of Food Infotech Magazine.

Out of the various food products, meat (especially red meat) and dairy products have produced the most Greenhouse gas emissions in comparison to any food group. This coupled with the immense land use, which is required by this industry both to produce meat and the production of fodder has led to the increase in rampant and excessive deforestation of many of the world’s natural woodlands and rainforests. Additionally, the industry is riddled with ethical concerns over the cruel and industrial growing conditions faced by most of the livestock grown. Although, there has been an increased interest shown by many of the highly developed nations to control overly flagrant abuse by way of legislation, the effects have been minimal and limited to the nations passing such laws. Meat consumption has also been linked to an increase in the likelihood of contracting various chronic lifestyle disorders, such as colorectal cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and weight gain in adults.

Fig 1_ Projected Market Growth Of Plant-based Meat
Fig. 1: Projected Market Growth Of Plant-based Meat

Due to these reasons, there has been increasing efforts to produce alternatives to meat in our diets so as to gain the benefits associated with meat consumption, while reducing the aforementioned issues. One of the possible solutions that is being explored is the production of plant-based meat analogues. These are products produced entirely from plant products that attempt to mimic the aesthetic, organoleptic and chemical properties of traditional meat products. They are usually produced by the usage of certain processing conditions on legumes and cereals to texturize the proteins, the addition of various flavouring compounds to emulate the taste, texture, smell and look of meat. These products are often characterized as ultra-processed foods, i.e., foods manufactured with little to no whole foods and with processed ingredients or substances that are extracted/refined from whole foods.

While the general consumer prefers foods that are minimally processed, nutritious and healthy, this is one of the exceptions to that rule as we have observed an increasing demand for these meat analogues. The main ingredients in most commercially available meat analogues include protein ingredients, lipid ingredients, carbohydrate ingredients, flavour enhancers and colouring agents. The most used protein source is soy protein isolates/concentrates. This is due to the greater availability of essential amino acids as compared to other protein sources.

Cereal protein sources have also been commonly used in this field. The most historically used cereal protein that is used in these products is wheat, while other sources like rice, barley and oats are also being commonly utilized. Legume proteins from sources like peas, lentils, chickpeas, mung beans, etc. have also been gaining popularity as a protein source to produce meat analogues.

A variety of lipid ingredients are used in mixtures to simulate the lipid properties in traditional meat products. While the meat itself rarely contains carbohydrates, processed meat products like meatballs and nuggets frequently contain carbohydrates. However, meat analogues almost always contain carbohydrates serving various manufacturing purposes like starches and flours to improve textures and consistency or binding ingredients and gums. Flavouring and colouring agents are also very commonly used to improve the sensory characteristics of the product.

The main source of bulk of these products comes from soybeans. However, soybean production and consumption have also been controversial as of late. Soybean farming in Brazil, the second largest exporter of the same has been linked to the rapidly growing rates of deforestation of the Amazon rainforest. This has various catastrophic effects on the environment, including but not limited to a substantial loss in biodiversity, an increase in net CO2 emissions, mass displacement of indigenous people and a negatively altered water cycle. Additionally, the consumption of soybean has been controversial in recent years due to the presence of isoflavones, which are similar in structure to the female hormone oestrogen.

There have been conflicting results on studies related to the effects of the consumption of this compound, some arguing that the compound reduces the risk of breast cancer in women while some argue that it raises the risk of breast cancer. There have also been concerns that it might cause hormonal imbalances among men. While studies have shown that this concern is largely unfounded, there is still some resistance faced from amongst a significant population segment. The other cereal grains and pulses also have water usage issues, as the growth of these crops at the amounts required by the current global demand requires the application of intensive irrigation practices that place extreme stress on the rapidly depleting sources of freshwater on earth. This is especially true in drought-prone areas.

Fig 2_ Comparison Of Ingredients Of Conventional & Plant-based Meat Products (MeatBall)
Fig. 2: Comparison Of Ingredients Of Conventional & Plant-based Meat Products (MeatBall)

Millets provide a possible solution to the above issues. Millets require far less water and soil fertility to grow, which enables the increase in productivity of lands that have been degraded. They are also largely uncontroversial crops with no major health issues linked to their consumption yet. Additionally, millets have gained a reputation as a ‘superfood’ due to high amounts of dietary fibre and micronutrients. This lends a positive image to products utilizing millets.

Fig. 3 - Millet Based Alternatives To Common Ingredients In Plant-Based Meat
Fig. 3: Millet Based Alternatives to Common Ingredients In Plant-Based Meat

However, the usage of millet comes with several challenges. Millets have naturally low protein content. This leads to requiring more raw material in comparison to sources like legumes or cereals to achieve similar results. In addition to this, the high concentrations of dietary fibres make achieving the ideal textural properties more complicated. There are also several off-flavours present in millets that must be accounted for while processing. All these issues are compounded by the fact that there is very little research or precedent on using millets for this application. Millets have immense potential in the production of plant-based meat analogues. However, we must first strive to overcome the challenges inherent to using millet. This will require more research and testing to successfully attempt. The lack of research also presents an opportunity. The novelty of this field means that almost any progress made can be of great significance.

About the Authors:
1. Pranav Nanda Kishore
NIFTEM – Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu, India.
2. Santhoshkumar P.
NIFTEM – Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu, India.
3. Dr. R. Mahendran
NIFTEM – Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu, India.
Email ID: mahendran@niftem-t.ac.in

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An editor by day & dreamer at night; passionately involved with both print and digital media; Pet lover; Solo traveller.

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