Meal Replacements Multifunctional Food Solutions

Tuesday, June 26th, 2018

Consumers today need nutrition on-the-go and functional meal replacements are the way to meet their lifestyle needs, says Ieva Jureviciene, beverage developer & consultant.

Today, one of the biggest consumer trends is fast consumption—the ability to be flexible, independent, convenient and healthy at the same time. In general, the fast food category is losing the negative image is has cultivated over the years as consumers are demanding fast food options that are adjusted to their needs and trends. This is, in part, due to consumers’ lifestyles—many are focused on their careers, and thus, have less time to prepare healthy and nutritious food at home. They also have less time to plan their daily food supplements and vitamins. An easy method to make up for this lapse in nutrition is multifunctional food or snack solutions.

Meal replacement options exist to fulfil the requirements of necessary vitamins and nutrients, as well as to fight hunger pangs while saving time. In addition, it is interesting to mention that once thought to be a niche food category, meal replacements can now be divided into different types according to the final consumer needs—it can be a healthy snack, meal replacement or food fortifier for athletes, meal replacer for weight loss or weight gain. One noteworthy fact is that the main ingredients are staying the same, but their ratios have been reformulated in the product development process.


Carbohydrates: Not Always A Bad Idea

Natural Sweeteners

Sugar tax is a hot topic that many are concerned about. Among all the discussions demonising sugar, many consumers are afraid of incorporating any kind of carbohydrate into their diet. However, carbohydrates are an important energy source for the human body and, therefore, it is important not to forget about the healthy functional carbohydrates that could be consumed.

There are several types of carbohydrate sources. Number one is used to sweeten the product—analysts in the industry are noticing more and more products with natural sweeteners such as de-ionised grape juice concentrate, apple extracts, agave or maple syrup. All these solutions are getting more popular because they have lower glycaemic indexes, are sourced from natural origins and have a more natural production process.

Dietary Fibres

Another source of carbohydrates is functional dietary fibres. This ingredient not only enriches the final drink with fibre content, it also makes an impact to gut health, provides texture and slight sweetness to the end product. Therefore, manufacturers can replace approximately 30 percent of sugar or other sweeteners with fibre to fortify their products.

An important factor to note is the origin of dietary fibres. It can be produced from various plants, but the most common variety is made from chicory (inulin). This type of inulin has no specific aftertaste but it only has a 30 g per day level of digestive tolerance. According to recent studies, corn fibre has almost double the level of digestive tolerance but has a slightly bitter aftertaste. The main side effect is bowel laxation, so it is important not to overconsume it.


Grains, Fruits Or Vegetables

Most importantly, a source of carbohydrates in meal replacement products come from various grains, such as oat, buckwheat or rice. These ingredients provide not only energy from their carbohydrate levels but also the feeling of fullness. Fruit or vegetable purees also provide sweetness, texture, taste and colour, as well as natural fibre content.

The energy content provided by grains, fruits and vegetables should not be less than 200 kcal (840 kJ) and should not exceed 250 kcal (1,046 kJ) per meal.


Protein: A New Focus In The Food Industry

For the past five years, the interest in bodybuilding and health consciousness has sky-rocketed, thus increasing the demand for protein-enriched products significantly. Protein content is one of the most important components in meal replacement products. There are two main types of protein that should be taken into consideration: dairy and plant protein. An important note to keep in mind is that the protein contained in the meal replacement product should provide not less than 25 percent and not more than 50 percent of the total energy content of the product. The chemical index of protein should be equal to that set by the World Health Organisation in “Energy And Protein Requirements”.


The most popular milk-based protein is whey protein, which is extremely important for athletes. Whey protein isolates or whey protein concentrates can be a great solution for protein content formation in meal replacement drinks. However, even with the benefits of this milk-based protein, there is a huge increase of interest in plant-based protein from consumers with plant-based diets.

Plant protein

Oat protein, rice protein, pea protein or even coconut protein are being used in meal replacements. The trend of such ingredients is a result of vegan and vegetarian consumer demand, as well as increased attention brought to allergens. Plant proteins can form texture and provide protein content to give a specific taste based on a certain vegetable or grain. Another advantage is that plant protein requires less complicated production as compared to dairy proteins.


The Functionality Of Meal Replacement Drinks

Meal replacements can be categorised according to their specific functions, depending on their functional ingredients—for example, energy meal replacements are usually fortified with natural caffeine from green coffee beans or guarana. A focus on function could determine the targeted markets: for example, office people who needs to stay focused and full, or athletes who require energy for strenuous sporting activities. Functionality could be fulfilled with a formulated combination of natural caffeine and natural L-theanine from green tea. Vitamins and minerals are also a necessity in order to categorise a product as a meal replacement.

There are ways to source for naturally occurring vitamins and minerals. For example, minerals can come from Salt Lake’s mineral extract, vitamin C from acerola, and B-group vitamins from potatoes. However, these ingredients have a strong taste, and sometimes impact on the appearance of the final product and price. In addition, functional ingredients such as various herbal extracts, omega-3 fatty acids, matcha extracts, lycopene or even collagen can be added naturally as a benefit with additional health and marketing claims.


Fat Content

It is necessary for meal replacements to have a certain fat content. Most times, the fat content comes from liquid oils because fats such as cocoa butter or coconut oil are ‘hard’ oils. Oils such as avocado oil, flaxseed oil, sunflower oil or any other oil with a nice taste profile, functional properties and, of course, positive marketing claims, are recommended for use in meal replacement beverages. Coconut powder could actually be a substitute for coconut fat as well as provide some texture and taste. The energy derived from fat should not exceed 30 percent of the total available energy content of the product.


Smart Flavours For Smart Drinks

The most popular flavour for meal replacement beverages is chocolate or cacao, strawberry, banana or vanilla. These are flavours which are common and recognisable for the consumer. They also have a thicker texture, which has a filling effect upon consumption.

Recently, there has been a noticeable trend for more savoury flavours for meal replacements that call to mind soups more than drinks. Such flavours can be based on tomato puree, fortified with some dried basil, onions and garlic or even cheese powder, in order to create a Gazpacho-type product. These savoury products could be enriched with pea or bean proteins that pair well with a tomato taste profile. Cheese powder would not only be a great source of natural fat but it also helps enhance the notes of tomato. Another unusual solution is spice—it can be incorporated in the fruit puree, with a noticeable dosage of ginger puree or even chili extract. Milder flavours could be created using nut milks, such as almond milk or hazelnut milk, although producers should note that nuts are allergens and some consumers might take this fact into consideration before purchase.


The most popular packaging types within this meal replacement range is HDPE plastic bottles or cartons due to their heat resistance, which might be required during the production process. Most of these products are supposed to have longer shelf-life and ambient storage due to flexible use and consumer convenience.

Simple plastic bottles are available when applying the HPP production technique, which might be a solution for less processed meal replacement products. In this case, products would have a shelf-life of approximately 40 days in refrigerated storage (with no heat treatment). One more solution for meal replacements is to have powdered mixes—however, these types of products are getting less popular due to the lack of convenience. Consumers are expecting to get a ready-to-use product that wouldn’t need any additional equipment likes shakers.

Old Or New?

When producers and innovators think it is impossible to come up with something new, it is important to remember that updating something that already exists is a good solution. Sometimes, finding the right way to innovate a good old product might be even more successful than creating something completely new. Consumers are providing great guidelines with their lifestyle, hobbies or culinary habits.


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