The drivers underlying consumer demand for plant-based dairy alternatives remain, including health, environmental, and animal welfare concerns. Leading dairy companies have added plant-based dairy alternatives to their offerings and consumers now have a range of milk, cheese and yoghurt dairy alternatives produced from plant-based sources like legumes and nuts.
Further growth in this market relies on producing products with minimal additives that have desirable aroma, taste, and texture qualities, along with positive nutrition and good shelf life. Fermentation, used for centuries to improve food, holds huge potential for developing desirable qualities in plant-based foods.
In terms of nutrition, fermentation can help degrade anti-nutrients and reduce allergens, as well as increase probiotics and the bioavailability of nutrients. Additionally, fermentation can reduce unwanted flavours and improve texture (like creaminess) and it can lengthen shelf life.
For scientists, technologists, and industry, using fermentation technologies for plant-based products provides a significant opportunity to develop novel, clean-label dairy alternatives using diverse ingredients and a range of processing methods. However, there are gaps in the research and a lack of knowledge around the interactions of microbes and their metabolites with plant-based ingredients which makes predicting the effects of mixed cultures challenging.
Recent advances in systems biology approaches provide new avenues to study complex fermentation processes for plant-based products, with some encouraging success stories already. Further research is likely to enable the development of smarter and more predictable fermentation processes leading to improved products. Systems-level studies in fields like genomics, proteomics, and metabolomics will further enhance our understanding of plant material fermentation.
Plant materials are diverse and have unique physiochemical attributes so the fermentation technology will be different from dairy products. For example, dairy microbes are not efficient at fermenting plant materials into cheese and yoghurt. Many essential questions remain to be investigated. How does microbial fermentation impact nutrition in plant materials? How can off-flavours be avoided? How can we develop technologies to improve microbial fermentation so that we have better control over the process?
As the market becomes increasingly diverse, the fermentation of novel plant materials is likely to become an important trend. However, to develop unique fermentation technologies for plant-based foods, we still need to advance our knowledge.
Dr Jocelyn Eason has a PhD in Plant Physiology from Otago University and an MBA from Massey University. In her current role, Dr Eason manages Plant and Food Research’s Food Innovation Portfolio, which includes teams that investigate human responses to food, the influence of food on human nutrition and wellness, and the production and supply of nutritionally rich foods.
The information and opinions within this column are not necessarily the views or opinions of Hot Source, NZ Food Technology or the parent company, Hayley Media.