May, 2023

The link between texture and functional properties

Together with taste and price, texture is the main factor that leads to the purchase, and especially repurchase, of a specific food product. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the study of food texture is one of the key issues for the food industry, especially in the development of new products using functional ingredients or innovative technologies, as a means of assessing their actual quality and appreciation by the consumer.

But let’s take one step back: what is meant by texture?

Food texture refers to those properties that are perceived by touch, through the mouth or the hands, and can be classified into three groups: visual, auditory, and tactile texture. Softness, glossiness, and viscosity are some properties that fall under the concept of visual texture. On the other hand, crispness, for example, is a property classified as auditory texture. Finally, the tactile texture is the best known, and describes how the food is perceived by the skin, i.e. by mouth or when touched. (See, for example, the book ‘Food texture and structure‘).

In fact, when we eat, receptors sensitive to temperature, touch, pain, and pressure are activated, carrying separate information which, when combined, result in the sensation of palatability, generated by the texture of the food. The main types of receptors include mechanoreceptors, which respond to tactile stimuli, such as pressure, thermoreceptors, which respond to cold and hot stimuli, and nociceptors, which respond to pain.

But what texture do consumers prefer?

The degree of appreciation of a given texture can be determined by several factors, such as personal taste and cultural differences. In Eastern countries, for example, there is a preference for certain textures, such as stickier or greasier foods, while in the West, these are less appreciated. An interesting study by Deakin University classifies consumers according to their preferred texture: crunchers, suckers, chewers, and squishers. According to the study, these characteristics also determine the preferred type of texture, from crispy to softer and velvety.

From the study, it also emerges that there is a general tendency to prefer crispy foods, which activate both tactile and auditory textures, generating a specific sense of satisfaction in the consumption of crispy foods. Foods with combined textures, such as a crispy on the outside and a creamy inside, also generate interest and are generally appreciated by consumers.

Functional properties: game-changers in innovative product development

The texture of a product is crucial when it comes to alternatives to animal products. Different textures can be the key to greater differentiation and segmentation of alternative products, promoting different shapes and products, and leading to greater consumer appreciation.

When developing a new alternative product, the choice of the right ingredient is crucial, as it can affect the texture and taste of the finished product differently. To understand the correlation between ingredient and texture, it is necessary to know its functional properties. Functional properties include solubility, water-holding capacity (WHC), oil-holding capacity (OHC), and the ability to produce foam, emulsion, and gel. In addition, colour and flavour are fundamental properties of an ingredient, which determine how it is used in food.

Each functional property can contribute to the improvement of texture in different applications: a high solubility will be suitable in beverage formulations, while an ingredient with a high water-holding capacity may help maintain an elastic and moist dough in a bakery product. On the other hand, a high oil-holding capacity may be suitable for making a soft and juicy vegetable burger, while an ingredient that can create a strong emulsion will be suitable for making creams and sauces. Finally, a high foam-creating capacity is good for products such as meringues, cakes, or egg-white alternatives, while an ingredient with a high gel-creating capacity can be used for egg alternatives or in gluten-free products.

Understanding the functionality of the ingredient can have a strategic significance in the formulation of a new product: it can reduce the time needed for development, save money, and achieve the desired texture and taste in the final product. What’s more, knowing functional properties is crucial to understanding whether an ingredient can replace another in the formulation of a food product. For example, a protein with a strong gelling capacity could replace gelling agents in a food formulation, resulting in a ‘cleaner label’, plus the advantage of a higher protein content.

Yet functional properties are a little-known topic, as are the methods to evaluate them. Although scientific literature proposes a number of methods for assessing the functional properties of protein ingredients, they differ greatly from one paper to another, making it impossible to have standardised and clear information on these properties.

We at Protilla are aware of the importance of functional properties, which is why we have developed the first tool that allows food companies to find the right ingredient based on functionality, colour, protein content, certification and much more. If you don’t know Protilla Finder yet, try it today!