Plant-based for centuries
The “plant-based revolution” is getting plenty of attention in Europe and North America, but ingredients such as rice and bean curd have been the basis of Asian meals for centuries. “We’ve been using plant-based ingredients for many years, so for us it’s nothing new. You could say Asia is ahead of the game,” says Theng Theng Sim, Palsgaard’s Application Manager for Asia-Pacific.
What is new in Asian markets, however, is a growing demand for healthy, convenient plant-based beverages inspired by popular dishes. Increasingly, the question is “How do you take a traditional meal and turn it into a drink?”
Manufacturers pondering this puzzle can encounter a range of technical challenges, which is where Theng Theng comes in. With over 20 years’ experience of working with emulsifiers and hydrocolloids, she can help customers (and potential customers) solve problems, improve recipes and launch new ranges.
Before we can start helping customers, we need the whole picture. We have to understand things like the kind of heat treatment they’re using – is it pasteurised? Are they using UHT? What’s the mixing process? What’s the pH? Different processes will affect stability in different ways, so we need to understand it all before we can recommend a particular product and dosage. We need to ask a lot of questions – sometimes it’s like being a detective!”
Some of the most common problems facing manufacturers of plant-based beverages – separation, sedimentation and gelation, for example – are similar to those encountered with dairy. Reflecting this, many of the solutions in Palsgaard’s range of emulsifiers and stabilisers can be used in both dairy and non-dairy applications.
However, working with plant-based raw materials throws up some unique challenges, one of which is the sheer number of variables involved. “Plant and dairy are very different animals,” Theng Theng explains. “Dairy is dairy, but in plant protein you have soy, pea, rice, coconut, walnut, peanut, black bean ― it’s a very long list. Soy alone can vary depending on country of origin, how it’s extracted and whether you’re working with a powder or an extract. Because of this, there’s not one simple solution for every single plant-based product.”
Furthermore, there’s a growing trend towards the addition of other ingredients, either for flavour (cocoa powder, for example) or nutritional benefits (such as fortification with calcium). “This makes the situation even more challenging, because you need to suspend all these insoluble particles to create a homogeneous product that looks appealing.”
Add to the equation the fact that customers can have very different requirements for their end products – should they be thin or viscous, for example? – and their own manufacturing processes. “Before we can start helping customers, we need the whole picture,” Theng Theng says. “We have to understand things like the kind of heat treatment they’re using – is it pasteurised? Are they using UHT? What’s the mixing process? What’s the pH? Different processes will affect stability in different ways, so we need to understand it all before we can recommend a particular product and dosage. We need to ask a lot of questions – sometimes it’s like being a detective!”
I like it when customers approach us with a challenge, and we need to do a bit of trouble-shooting. At Palsgaard, we enjoy sharing our knowledge and there’s huge satisfaction when you’re able to help solve a problem.
Customer care in the age of Covid
After considering customers’ specific needs, Theng Theng typically recommends a particular product from Palsgaard’s extensive range of plant-based emulsifiers and stabilisers and offers it for testing. However, she says the service goes far beyond that: “Usually, if the customer doesn’t have a start-up recipe, we’ll provide one as a guideline. Others will already have recipes, but need some help with using our product, in which case we can give them detailed advice. We can also help if they have any manufacturing issues, for example with stability. In those situations, it’s common to think that the problem is with the stabiliser, but It could be the process parameters, the raw materials or the mixing method. We’ll work with the customer to understand where the problem has occurred ― and usually it’s not with the product!”
Theng Theng prefers a hands-on approach. Until recently, she would proactively offer to meet customers in person, for example attending trials to observe and advise. Sometimes she would invite them to the Palsgaard application lab to run trials together and sample new concepts, which the team often develops after visiting supermarkets to get a feel for trending ingredients in different countries.
Of course, Covid-19 has changed the game. “We can’t really travel at the moment, so we’ve been communicating with customers through virtual meetings and webinars. Initially there were some technical difficulties, but practice makes perfect! We’ve also been sending out samples, so customers can still physically see and taste our concepts. You can talk about recipes all you like, but when you send out physical prototypes, people get to see and taste.”
Solving problems, building relationships
The enjoyment Theng Theng gets from problem-solving is clear: “I like it when customers approach us with a challenge, and we need to do a bit of trouble-shooting. At Palsgaard, we enjoy sharing our knowledge and there’s huge satisfaction when you’re able to help solve a problem.”
One example of a satisfied customer is the company in the Southeast Asia region that needed to improve stability in a new range of flavoured plant-based milks. “They came to our lab to run trials for a few days, and we worked with them to adjust the recipe on the spot. They’ve now approved the product and it’s due to launch next year, which is very exciting,” Theng Theng says.
Working closely with customers, she often develops strong bonds: “They’re always very appreciative, especially if they’re working in R&D and you help them develop a new product. You start to build relationships with them and sometimes they even become friends.”
So, which does she enjoy more? The problem-solving or the relationships?
She grins: “It’s both! You can’t choose just one of those. In order to solve a problem, you need a lot of communication to get the full picture of a customer’s production process. And it’s easier to talk through a problem when you have a good relationship.”
Bespoke solutions for a plant-based future
An unexpected upside of the Covid-19 crisis is that there has been additional time to develop new concepts. So, what can we expect from Theng Theng’s team in the future? “Plant-based beverages are a relatively new area, so many of the projects we’ve been working on with customers are still in the pipeline. Behind the scenes we’ve also been doing a lot of work on improving and developing our products and we’ve been working on a solution for better suspension.”
Theng Theng finds such projects benefit from Palsgaard’s global set-up. “We have application centres and experts across the world, so I can bounce ideas off my colleagues in Mexico, for example” she says.
In future, she foresees the development of more bespoke products in response to the need for a wider variety of dairy alternatives. “We’re always listening to customer demands. If there isn’t an existing solution, we’ll try to develop something new for them. It’s an area where we’re keen to move even faster because we’re definitely going to be working a lot more with vegan products in the future.”