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A TASTE OF SCIENCE: How scientists make plant-based foods taste and look more like meat

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Appearance, texture and flavour are the three main challenges food scientists face when developing a convincing plant-based meat. These are what give meat its characteristics and essence.

MARIANA LAMAS: Plant-based meats are products designed to imitate meat. While earlier products like tofu and seitan were meant to replace meat, newer products are trying to mimic its taste, texture, smell and appearance. Plant-based burgers, ground meat, sausages, nuggets and seafood are now in grocery stores and on restaurant menus. They aim to redefine our understanding of meat.

Achieving such standards is not an easy task. It took Beyond Meat more than six years to develop the Beyond Burger. And since its release in 2015, it has been through three reformulations. The science behind trying to build the perfect plant-based meat is full of trial and error — and involves a multidisciplinary team…

Appearance, texture and flavour are the three main challenges food scientists face when developing a convincing plant-based meat. These are what give meat its characteristics and essence… What’s known as the Maillard reaction is responsible for that distinctive “meaty” aroma and savoury flavour. Understanding it helps food research and development teams replicate it in plant-based meat products…

Ingredients also influence appearance, texture and flavour. Soy, wheat, pea and fava proteins, as well as starches, flours, hydrocolloids (non-digestible carbohydrates used as thickeners, stabilizers and emulsifiers, or as water retention and gel-forming agents) and oils, can make a plant-based meat more or less similar to the animal meat it is trying to replicate.

Finally, the processing method influences the product’s final characteristics. “High-moisture extrusion” and “shear-cell” technologies are two of the most common processes used to transform vegetable protein into a layered fibrous structure that closely matches the appearance and texture of meat… Beet extract, pomegranate powder and soy leghemoglobin have been used to mimic the red colour of fresh or rare beef…

Animal protein texture is difficult to copy with plant-based ingredients because plants do not have muscle tissue… A key ingredient in any plant-based meat is the plant protein… Soy protein is still the plant protein that delivers the most meat-like taste and texture… Pea protein, made popular by Beyond Meat, is the fastest growing segment in the plant-based market because of its complete amino acid profile…

Companies don’t have to disclose flavouring ingredients… so it’s hard to know what exactly gives plant-based burgers that meat-like flavour… The industry standard has been to use coconut oil to replace animal fat… However, coconut oil melts at much lower temperature than animal fat. In the mouth this translates to bites that start off rich and juicy, but wear off quickly… New replacements for animal fats using sunflower oil and water emulsions…

Food scientists have only scratched the surface when it comes to unlocking the potential of plant-based meats. There is still a lot to explore and improve. The current commercially available plant protein ingredients come from two per cent of about 150 plant protein species used for food supply. SOURCE…

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