Innovation is not all Greek to us: Our vegan take on the classic gyro

Soya and plant based meatballs, vegan certified. Homemade flatsbreads, made with flour, water, salt and olive oil. Home made hummus. Herbs to garnish. Olive oil used in cooking.

The Brenntag Food & Nutrition North America application team has created something delicious to stand out from the meat substitute crowd. The plant-based Vegan Gyro concept will be showcased at the IFT20 Virtual Experience (July 13-15).

Whether due to animal welfare, health or sustainability concerns, or a combination, more and more consumers are looking to trim back on their meat intake. A 2019 Innova Market Insights consumer survey found 42% of US consumers and 38% of Canadians have increased their consumption of meat substitutes over the previous year. The primary reason for switching is “because it is healthy” as expressed by 51% of US consumers, and 45% of Canadians.

It’s never been easier to opt for a meat alternative option with plant-based meat substitutes. Thanks to a wider variety of available raw materials and better processing methods, there’s been a vast increase in the range and quality of plant-based options, and related product offerings. Innova Market Insights reports a 12% growth in meat substitute product launches in North America from 2018 to 2019. More than half of the 2019 launches (55%) featured a “vegan” claim, even though their appeal goes far beyond the vegan market.

Soya and plant based meatballs, vegan certified. Herbs to garnish. Olive oil used in cooking.

Standing out from the meat substitute crowd

Despite the strong overall levels of meat substitute product innovation, both the retail and foodservice sectors are saturated with burger options. As health-conscious consumers seek alternative sources of protein, there is certainly space for innovative alternatives. This is why food scientists from the North American Brenntag Food & Nutrition team set out to create a new concept based on a Greek classic: The Vegan Gyro.

This plant-based gyro is formulated through the creative use of a blend of pea and rice protein, textured soy protein, natural vegan flavors, natural color, and a specialty methylcellulose binder. The concept delivers 12g of protein per serving, which is in line with a traditional meat gyro's protein content. The team’s recipe will be showcased at the IFT20 Virtual Experience.

The appeal of vegan meat

Joanna Barker Business Development Manager, Food & Nutrition, believes that this plant-based concept has broad market potential. “This concept appeals to urban metropolitan consumers who have exposure to ethnic cuisines, especially Mediterranean foods. But it also addresses the demands of vegans, vegetarians, and flexitarians, who are looking to minimize their meat intake for health and sustainability reasons,” she explains. Joanna further notes that the vegan gyro meets the desire of a more adventurous consumer, willing to experiment with different flavors.

The concept is presented in a cone form that replicates what foodservice consumers would expect to see from a traditional lamb- or beef-based gyro. The recipe is intended for preparation on a spit cooker before being sliced to order, but it can be easily transformed into a pre-cooked and pre-sliced product for home use. It can be served together with an appetizing vegan tzatziki sauce that the team also worked on. The North American Brenntag Food & Nutrition succeeded in replacing dairy yogurt through a preparation made with pectin, modified corn starch, and coconut milk powder.

Stuffed with apricot and pine nuts and mashed potato

Stepping up to the challenge

The vegan gyro concept presented a number of technical challenges to the Brenntag North America team. As Terry Wagner, Senior Food Scientist at Brenntag North America explains, these ranged from matching the texture, visually mimicking the fat drippings seen in a traditional gyro, determining the appropriate delivery method of the natural flavours, through to understanding the gelling interactions at variable temperatures.

Terry outlined how these challenges were overcome:

  • 1. Texture mimicking: The texture challenge of mimicking real meat was met through the innovative use of a protein blend. “In this application, the pea protein helps with water and emulsion stability, while the rice protein enhances the product's physical integrity by increasing gel strength, and increasing the overall nutritional value,” he explains. “Textured soy protein is used for texture by mimicking the strand and particles of meat fiber seen in a traditional gyro. It also helps with water binding and mouthfeel,” he adds.
  • 2. Fat blending: Fat has a vital role to play in a traditional gyro. It oozes from the meat cone during cooking, provides juiciness, is a part of the semi-stable emulsion of the cone, and is a major contributor to flavor. Here the food scientists relied on the innovative blending of fats. “We opted for a blend of saturated (coconut oil) and unsaturated fat (canola oil) to mimic the nutritional label impact and functionality of the fat in a traditional gyro. In this way, we could create a product containing approximately 22% less fat than a meat gyro, without a loss of flavor or juiciness,” Terry notes.
  • 3. Flavor & color: The natural flavor challenge was overcome through the clever combination of base-notes (yeast extract) and top-notes. A yeast extract predominantly drives the umami and savory flavour in the concept. In contrast, natural meat "type" flavors enhance the overall product and deliver the expected sensory experience. “Having flavors with different solubilities is vital in ensuring that flavor is delivered up front during consumption but also through the entire eating process. This is why two natural vegan lamb type flavors (one water soluble and one oil soluble) were chosen,” Terry explains. Naturally sourced color from Chr. Hansen was selected to enhance the visual appearance and authenticity of the gyro meat.
  • 4. The changing matrix: Last but not least, the team had to consider how the ingredients in a vegan gyro would interact throughout the production process. “A gyro is subjected to a wide temperature range; it is heated to at least 165F° (74°C) on a spit style rotisserie grill, and then it is sliced and served on a pita with various cold toppings such as tomatoes, onions, lettuce, and tzatziki sauce, which cool the gyro meat during the serving and eating process,” Terry explains. These factors challenged the food scientists to achieve similar thermo gelling and texture characteristics to the traditional version at all relevant temperatures. The team opted for modified cellulose, carrageenan, and tapioca flour, as binding and gelling agents, each with their own specific purpose. “The thermo gelation properties of the methylcellulose deliver an optimum texture for the vegan gyro during hot temperatures while the carrageenan gum helps keep a firm texture while the product cools. These binding and gelling agents, along with pea and rice protein isolates and textured soy protein, create a carveable product with the appropriate texture at both hot and cold textures,” Terry concludes.

Plenty of plant-based options on the way

Through the careful combination of a range of innovative ingredients, the Brenntag Food & Nutrition North America team has succeeded in creating a vegan gyro concept that can be easily carved, placed on a pita with toppings and a vegan tzatziki sauce, and enjoyed.

The team’s work in the meat substitute space will continue beyond the vegan gyro. Plant-based burger, sausage, hot dog, shawarma, taco and deli meat alternative product concepts are all underway.

Pumpkin soup