To make the meltable Kerrymaid Vegan Slice, a global team of food scientists melded dairy heritage with plant-based protein innovations
The appetite for plant-based is growing, with flexitarians, vegetarians and vegans seeking meat and dairy alternatives to support a healthier and more sustainable lifestyle. Higher demand has led to higher standards for taste, texture and mouthfeel, spurring widespread innovation and acceptance of products such as plant-based milks and meat-free burgers.
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However, one product food brands have struggled to recreate in vegan-form is cheese—specifically a plant-based altervative that tastes great, melts like the original and, in the quick service restaurant (QSR) environment, comes in easy to separate slices.
Kerry food scientists recently cracked the code on this with the development of Kerrymaid Vegan Slices, coming to market in April 2021. We asked key players to share their own accounts of why now was the right time to invest in vegan slice innovation and explain how they solved common plant-based challenges to bring this first-to-market product to life.
In this piece you’ll hear from:
- Joan Tobin, Research Fellow, RDA, Kerry Foods
- Richard Troman, Senior Development and Application Chef, Kerry Europe and Russia
- Siobhan McNickle, Senior Marketing Manager, Kerry Europe and Russia
Making a business case for a better vegan slice
Siobhan: Kerry knows dairy. Processed cheese is a main category for us within the foodservice channel. We have a long history of making slice-on-slice processed cheese at our centre in Coleraine, Ireland, stretching back 40 years. Still, we can see the market in plant-based foods is growing. Recent research from our team found this is projected to be worth €21.3bn in Europe by 2023. With vegan alternatives in demand, and no stand-out cheese-inspired products yet on the market, we were sure our dairy know-how and technical and processing expertise would allow us to create a vegan alternative to cheese, specially developed for foodservice.
Richard: Recreating the quality of a dairy cheese product versus in a vegan format has always been an issue, specifically the taste, aroma and texture in application as well as ease of use operationally. The behaviours of dairy cheese under heating and cooking, as well as palatability, require very specific attributes that are difficult to replicate. Traditionally, most alternatives attempt to achieve both, which creates a good deal of internal tension in the development process.
Secondary issues include the heightened level of processing and the increased demand on raw materials, which lead to vegan products being quite expensive. While a premium is worth paying to access a growing demographic, the cost and complexity of bringing in another product must be balanced against it. Dairy cheeses often occupy a position as a core ingredient. In part due to cost, vegan alternatives do not occupy the same menu space and therefore need to deliver more value than the standard product they are replicating.
Joan: Complicating both of these issues is the key challenge of making a vegan alternative slice without dairy protein. Dairy protein is a key component in the manufacture of all dairy cheese, underpinning functional and sensory attributes. Vegan alternatives traditionally contain low level of soya protein, which hugely impacts the flavour profile. It is also an allergen, which brings about its own challenges.
Identifying the gaps in current vegan slice formulations
Richard: In vegan alternatives, poor taste is a classic complaint amongst chefs and consumers, with the flavour of dairy being difficult to assert over the flavour of the medium being used. This goes hand-in-hand with poor aroma: non-dairy dairy flavours often give an acidic aroma when used at the levels needed to overcome the natural flavour of the substrate.
Texture has always been a challenge, too, as vegan products tend to have a high starch content to allow them to be sliced, grated and formed. This leads to a rubbery and bouncy texture and an overall unsatisfying mouthfeel when consumed cold. The melt on typical vegan slices also leaves a lot to be desired, as those high starches prohibit satisfying melting under normal circumstances. There are also issues around handling, with the current competitive set often delivering very brittle slices and grates, which can break very easily in use.
Siobhan: From experience, we know the importance of a processed cheese slice in the burger build. Our mission was to make sure that those following a vegan diet can also enjoy great taste, texture, melt and cohesion experience associated with a dairy processed cheese slice.
Developing new plant-based innovations
Richard: The unique process we developed for the vegan slice allows us to create a slice that is formed on a roller, just like a conventional dairy-based burger slice. We use less starch than the block-formed process used by most of the competition, which leads to a far more pleasing texture in both cold and hot formats.
Joan: Our understanding of the process and key functional requirements was key to unlocking the development of the slice. This also highlights Kerry’s competitive advantage in both ingredients and technology. Kerry’s dairy heritage and processing capabilities also give us an edge.
Richard: The slice folds and peels just like a conventional slice, allowing it to be handled robustly without fear of breaking. The melt, or softening, is far more in line with the standard processed slice and will form to the shape of the core it is applied to, presenting a visual the consumer would expect.
Joan: The establishment of an integrated technology and innovation team for this cross-functional development was a key lever to making this a success. The team had expertise across taste, food protection, applied health and nutrition, sensory science, culinary and analytical services with further support from our global regulatory and nutrition functions.
Testing the product and gearing up for production
Joan: Our initial work was done in the development kitchen in Charleville, Ireland. The next phase was pilot scale; however, without a pilot casting belt we had to look to colleagues in North America for support. What followed was an intense period of development trials using pilot kit facilities in Beloit, WI, USA, where again we had huge collaborative support from our colleagues. Each step of the journey was evaluated with development chefs and then the customer. This collaboration became even more important when COVID-19 restrictions prohibited travel.
Plant trials were the next phase of development on site in Coleraine, Ireland. Despite all the learnings and progression, a steep development curve lay ahead with production scale kit. Weeks and months of testing, evaluating, modifying and further testing followed, and eventually with the help of in-house and on-site RD&A, process and engineering expertise a novel process was developed for a novel product.
We conducted technical and regulatory reviews to ensure the product was compatible with vegan accreditation. Foodservice culinary expertise ensured standard ways of testing the product and enabled us to bring our product to life. We now have a product and process that is unique and consequently we have filed for patent with European Patent Office.
Launching Kerrymaid Vegan Slices in Europe
Siobhan: After all the hard work from the wider teams in Kerry, we are excited to bring the Kerrymaid Vegan Slice to market. The product will be available in Europe from the beginning of April in pack sizes of 56. With the slice-on-slice format, it is easy to handle in busy QSR kitchens and our testing shows the great melt means they are perfect for vegan burger builds.
Richard: The product’s design is focussed specifically for use on hot applications, such as burgers, subs, wraps and sandwiches, and with speed and ease of use as key considerations. In application, best results occur when heat is applied after assembly to melt the slice or wrapping the assembled item to allow the product time to soften.
The ease of use and simple handling requirements mean the Kerrymaid Vegan Slice stands out versus the competitive set, offering operators the ability to create vegan builds with speed and little risk of wastage or customer dissatisfaction.
The taste and aroma have been formulated to offer a very close profile to that of a traditional processed slice, and when consumed in a build it is extremely difficult to discern that it is not a traditional processed cheese slice. While the product will work well in cold applications, this is not generally considered a primary use case for this product or for conventional dairy slices.