Meala develops clean-label methylcellulose replacement


Dive Brief:

  • Meala created a clean-label replacement for methylcellulose to use in plant-based meat alternatives. The Israel-based ingredient company’s ingredient can be a one-to-one replacement for methylcellulose, which is used as a binder or for gelation.
  • Meala’s ingredient is made using naturally occurring biocatalysts. It becomes a stable hydrogel when heated, but doesn’t change its behavior when cooled, the company says. It can appear on an ingredient panel simply as a protein from the plant it comes from, according to Meala.
  • Methylcellulose is a common emulsification ingredient used in all kinds of food. It’s made from chemically treated vegetable cellulose, and is commonly called out as an unnatural component in plant-based meat products.

Dive Insight:

While methylcellulose is used in many different products, its chemical name and the laboratory processes needed to create it make it stand out on a food ingredient list.

While someone eating highly processed foods with several more chemical ingredients might not notice methylcellulose, it’s likely to catch the eye of someone who is looking for plant-based substitutes. Many of these consumers want items that they think are healthier or have clean labels — often defined as having ingredients that are easily recognized by the average consumer. Methylcellulose is widely used because plant-based don’t often have good water retention capabilities, so it improves texture and binding. 

Methylcellulose has also been targeted by activists as something unnatural in plant-based meat. Beyond Meat’s use of methylcellulose is even called out in a pending lawsuit filed by competitor and former co-packer Don Lee Farms.

Meala’s solution, the company says, not only can replace methylcellulose in plant-based meat products but it also improves the texture of plant-based alternatives to make them more like actual meat. In a written statement, Meala co-founder and chief technical officer Liran Gruda said the ingredient has a more fat-like quality in meat analogs, making them juicier and more succulent. It also has no aftertaste, he said.

Meala is not the only company looking for a more natural methylcellulose replacement. Two other tech-enabled ingredient companies are also working on the same issue. As a part of its partnership with CP Kelco, Shiru — which uses tech including bioinformatics, artificial intelligence and machine learning to figure out individual protein functions and how to find replacements in the plant kingdom — is pursuing a replacement. Additionally, replacing chemical food additives including methylcellulose is one of the aims of Sigma’s partnership with the Live Green Group — which uses its algorithm with information about how plant ingredients have been traditionally used around the world to re-engineer food.

Meala, which is part of the Israel Innovation Authority’s incubator program and is backed by Strauss Group’s The Kitchen FoodTech Hub, said in its release it has passed proof-of-concept trials with several meat alternative makers and in foodservice. It will concentrate on the meat analog space before moving to develop a methylcellulose replacer for plant-based egg and dairy.

While Meala is one of several companies working on a methylcellulose replacement, there is likely a market for several different solutions. The controversy surrounding the ingredient, its wide use in food and the growth in products in the plant-based space make it a ripe area for more development.

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