3 Key Food Safety Considerations of Plant-based Foods

By Akhila Vasan

A walk through the grocery store aisle looks differently today compared to even just a couple of years ago. There are a wider variety of products, including several plant-based ones next to their traditional counterparts. For example, one can easily find meat analogues next to traditional sausages or ground beef; cashew yogurt next to cow milk yogurt and others. According to data from the Plant-based Foods Association, a trade association representing over 190 companies, US retail sales of plant-based foods grew by 27% in 2020, bringing the total market value to $7 billion. In fact, in just the past two years, plant-based food sales have grown 43%, nine times faster than total food sales.

So, what exactly constitutes a plant-based product? Plant-based products are most often extruded plant proteins, formulated with various ingredients to simulate the texture and mouthfeel of meat. Soy protein, pea protein and wheat gluten are the most commonly used plant protein alternatives, with several other components such as rice, potato starch, mung bean, and flavorings used to serve functional needs.

How do these novel processing methods and ingredient combinations impact food safety? Larger companies have access to product safety and supply chain experts who can ensure the safety of finished products and protect brand value, while smaller companies may struggle to budget in these expenses. With the development of plant-based food innovation, some companies who are new to the market do not have the same resources or experience that traditional manufacturers have with respect to food safety and supply chains. That said, innovation must continue, science and industry practices must keep up with consumer preferences and demand. From a food safety standpoint, there are several things to consider, and three areas of focus are listed below.

1. Allergens – Food Allergy Research and Resource Program (FARRP), at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln has an interactive allergen map to understand ongoing allergen labeling requirements globally. Many ingredients used in finished plant-based products are allergenic and have the potential to cause serious reactions in susceptible populations.
2. Ingredient microbial burden – Having an understanding of supplier practices, including growing, storing and handling of ingredients, is key to understand how it impacts the safety of the finished product. Plant-based proteins are much more complex compared to traditional, well-understood foods. The interplay of several ingredients, including proteins, sugars, fats, etc. impacts the microbial load of plant-based products. In addition, during processing, heating or solubilizing inherent properties of the formulation can change, thus having an impact on microbial load. This can lead to an increased likelihood for survival and growth of pathogenic microorganisms.
3. Processing methods – Many plant-based products are produced by a process called extrusion. Ingredients pass through a small opening to be extruded and then are formed and shaped into the final product. The safety of extruded products goes far beyond the extruder itself. It depends on the environmental conditions, the raw material used and the way the finished product is handled, traffic patterns, zoning and validation methods. Sound familiar? All of these are factors that impact the safety of other food products also impact the safety of plant-based proteins.

It should be noted that the list above is not exhaustive, but these are important issues which continue to impact traditional foods. Data, consumer trends and social media all point to a future where plant-based proteins are center stage, or at least, sharing the stage with animal protein, and the onus is on us to make sure all food manufacturers are working together to produce safe food. Of course, this cannot be done alone, and will require consensus from academia, industry and regulatory agencies. Rest assured, the next time you are in the grocery store and pick up a plant-based product, think about all the effort that’s required for ensuring a safe and innovative product.

About the Author:
Akhila Vasan, Ph.D. is Manager, Food Safety at the Institute for Food Safety and Health (IFSH) where she provides food safety advisory support and industry outreach through research and training programs. She works with IFSH members and FDA stakeholders on various public private partnerships to drive result-oriented impactful programs. Through her role, she helps members and researchers navigate the challenges emerging in product safety, identify opportunities to engage, and communicate results to stakeholders.

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