It’s never been easier to go vegan. From chicken to beef and seafood, plant-based alternatives can increasingly be found in restaurant menus and along supermarket aisles. As global demand for dairy increases, researchers have turned the spotlight on a market that is ripe for disruption: the yogurt industry.
Through decades of trial and error, fermentation has evolved into an industrialized process where dairy yogurt is given its flavor, texture and health benefits. But because plant-based kinds of milk naturally tend to be lower in sugar and protein content, they are less-than-ideal candidates for fermentation. Where dairy yogurts are rich and creamy, plant-based counterparts are either too starchy, watery or clumpy, making for an overall disappointing product.
In search of a plant-based alternative to dairy yogurt, a research team led by Christiani Jeyakumar Henry, Director of A*STAR’s Clinical Nutrition Research Centre (CNRC), sought to develop a method that skipped the fermentation step entirely.
“Instead of fermentation, we used a technique called high-pressure processing (HPP) to form plant-based yogurts by pressure-induced protein gelation,” Henry explained. “The products are packaged in a flexible container, and all food components are subjected to uniform pressure in a high-pressure chamber.”
Starting with a variety of plant protein powders (mung bean, chickpea, pea, lentil and faba bean), Henry and study first author, Shaun Sim tested how well the protein gels that were formed could mimic the texture and consistency of Greek dairy yogurts. To mimic whole milk yogurts, they added 5% by weight of sunflower oil to the protein gels. In the end, faba bean and chick pea (with sunflower oil) had the closest viscoelastic properties to the skim and whole milk yogurts, respectively.
Decoupling flavor generation (still a work in progress) from texture formation via HPP allows manufacturers to optimize flavor production without having to worry about texture, Henry noted. However, the high pressure may potentially be detrimental to gut-healthy probiotic bacteria cultures. More work in this area is needed, Henry added, before these high pressure-processed yogurts can be found on supermarket shelves.
“Our proof-of-concept study showed that HPP can be used to generate plant-based yogurts with comparable texture to dairy yogurts, using minimal ingredients, and much more quickly compared to traditional fermentation methods,” Henry said. His team is now exploring novel flavors not resembling dairy yogurt and collaborating with industry partners to commercialize the technology.
The A*STAR-affiliated researchers contributing to this research are from the Clinical Nutrition Research Centre (CNRC) and the Singapore Institute of Food and Biotechnology Innovation (SIFBI).