The processing challenges of mixing plant based meat substitutes

In many communities around the world, a growing number of consumers are consciously choosing to reduce or eliminate meat products from their diet. As such, there is a growing market for plant-based meat substitutes.

There are many reasons why consumers may wish to reduce or eliminate their meat consumption. Among many vegans and vegetarians, their primary motivation is ethical: they are concerned with animal welfare and object to factory farming. For others, their decision revolves around health: they may believe animal products to be unhealthy, in part because of the widespread practice of prophylactically administering antibiotics to animals. Furthermore, rising awareness about climate change and the growing world population has led to an ever-increasing number of consumers who see vegetarianism or veganism as an effective way to minimize their carbon footprints.

Indeed, industrial animal agriculture is a leading source of CO2 emissions. According to the German Federal Environment Agency, if every resident in Germany were to convert to a vegetarian diet, this would reduce carbon emissions by approximately 600kg per capita, leading to a national reduction of 30%.

mixing plant based food products

Meatless meat becomes mainstream

Established meat processors and start-ups alike are pursuing this emerging market by using plant-based raw materials to create meat substitutes. Furthermore, many market leaders in the global food industry are backing this movement by investing considerable financial resources into the internal infrastructure and machinery needed to produce the perfect meat imitation.

In recent years, many meatless products, from sausages to cold cuts to burger patties, have increasingly come to rival traditionally produced meat products in taste tests. We still have a ways to go, however, before we can create a plant-based alternative that resembles a schnitzel or steak in terms of texture, taste, and mouthfeel.

If the goal is to convince more people to eat less meat, plant-based substitutes must not leave anything to be desired in terms of taste, texture, and even aroma. Furthermore, these products should be easy to cook in ways that are familiar to consumers, such as through grilling or pan frying. But in light of veggie alternatives becoming permanent fixtures on the menus of some of the world’s largest fast food chains, it is impossible to deny that meatless meat is now part of the mainstream.

Meatless manufacturing: unique processing challenges

Generally speaking, the production of plant-based meat substitutes involves many processing stages. In terms of the resulting product quality, mixing is among the most decisive steps in the entire manufacturing process. This is because base mixes for alternative meat products often contain over 30 different components with physical properties that vary hugely in terms of moisture, density, particle size, rheology, and stability. For some plant-based meat products, the premixes consist exclusively of dry, powdery ingredients. Other products use pasty, mushy premixes already containing a high proportion of liquid.

Plant-based meat substitutes are often manufactured, transferred, and packaged in a continuous process. This is especially true for sticky products that do not flow easily and for products that degrade with prolonged exposure to atmospheric oxygen.

Continuous production processes can become incredibly complex depending on the frequency of recipe changes and the number of individual components that need to be mixed. Unlike liquids, different powders can display tremendously different behaviors when dispensed, making it difficult to automate this processing step for continuous production. For this reason, it often makes the most sense to use batch production methods to prepare interim mixtures of bulk powders.

Continuous mixers for plant-based meat production

For this unique processing challenge, amixon® offers a state-of-the-art continuous mixing system which also doubles as a precision batch mixer.

The mixing vessel consists of a cylindrical top and conical bottom that house a centrally-mounted helical mixing tool. The mixer is upheld by loading cells and the discharge outlet at its bottom is fitted with zero-clearance closure devices. The outlet is programmed to open and close according to weight data, thus ensuring a constant filling level. Gravimetric powder dispensers are fitted above the mixer.

Excellent results from start to finish

The continuous mixer from amixon® is exemplary in its ability to produce nothing but top quality mixtures with zero product loss from start to end of a production campaign.

At the start of a production campaign, the mixing operation begins as follows:

  • The discharging outlet begins in the closed position.
  • All gravimetric feeding mechanisms start simultaneously, beginning with a low mass flow rate and automatically adjusting themselves in relation to one another.
  • The filling level rises gradually, and the mixing action begins once half-capacity has been reached. This is also the point at which transient oscillation in the feeding mechanism is completed.
  • Once the mixer has reached a filling level of 80%, the discharge slowly opens. From this point onwards, a filling level of 80% is kept constant. This is possible due to the gradual acceleration of the feeding mechanism until the maximal mass flow rate has been reached.

At the end of the production campaign, the mixing operation finishes as follows:

  • All feeding mechanisms gradually slow, reducing the mass flow rate until they come to stop and close.
  • The mixer then discharges its contents continuously until it is completely empty.
  • Flowable goods pour out completely.

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