The plant-based drinks detective – FoodBev Media

Torri Donley

Theng Theng Sim, regional application manager at Palsgaard Asia-Pacific, can help create your next non-dairy beverage, but she’ll need to ask you a few questions first. The ‘plant-based revolution’ is gaining traction in Europe and North America, but ingredients such as rice and bean curd have been the basis of […]

Theng Theng Sim, regional application manager at Palsgaard Asia-Pacific, can help create your next non-dairy beverage, but she’ll need to ask you a few questions first.

The ‘plant-based revolution’ is gaining traction in Europe and North America, but ingredients such as rice and bean curd have been the basis of Asian meals for centuries.

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 Sim, regional application manager at Palsgaard Asia-Pacific, comes in. With over 20 years’ experience working with emulsifiers and hydrocolloids, she can help customers solve problems, improve recipes and launch new ranges.

Non-dairy detectives

Some of the most common problems facing manufacturers of plant-based beverages (separation, sedimentation and gelation, eg.) are similar to those encountered with dairy. That’s why Palsgaard’s 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, and customers can have very different requirements for their end products and their own manufacturing processes.

“Before we can start helping customers, we need the whole picture,” Sim said. “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!”

“Plant and dairy are very different animals,” she continued. “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 the 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,” said Sim.

“I like it when customers approach us with a challenge, and we need to do a bit of troubleshooting,” she said. “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-19

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 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,” she added.

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,” Sim said.

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.”

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 troubleshooting. At Palsgaard, we enjoy sharing our knowledge and there’s huge satisfaction when you’re able to help solve a problem.”

In the 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,” she added.

For more information on Palsgaard’s plant-based detective, click here.

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