FOR many consumers, nothing beats the taste and texture of a big juicy burger – but how do manufacturers recreate that eating experience with plant-based protein alternatives?
That is the culinary quest University of Queensland engineers and food scientists are undertaking as part of a three-year Australian Research Council project in partnership with US-based food technology company Motif FoodWorks, whose mission is to make plant-based food taste better and be more nutritious.
Professor Jason Stokes from UQ’s School of Chemical Engineering said attributes like taste, texture, and smell combined are primary drivers for consumers when considering a meat-free option. It’s not just the taste, it has to be the texture as well, Professor Stokes said, so his team wanted to understand the mechanics that occur during eating and simulate them in a laboratory.
Flow properties, friction and deformation could all influence how the product was perceived by consumers, in terms of texture, taste and aroma.
“Some consumers want to continue to eat meat but supplement their diet with a plant-based protein for environmental or sustainability reasons. They’ve started to demand quite a bit from the product, and want it to have the same characteristics as a normal meat experience while also being healthy.“
Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation’s Associate Professor Heather Smyth said innovations around texture mechanics were the key to creating the best plant-based eating experience.
“The reality is that plant protein burgers did not functionally behave the same way that meat proteins do,” Prof Smyth said.
“They don’t release juiciness like a beef burger does; they don’t break down in the same way; they don’t have that lovely elastic quality that you get when eating a meat burger. Plant protein burgers simply do not cut the mustard, just yet.”
“Are there different ways of pre-treating plant protein in a way that makes it behave more meat-like in the first place, rather than just compensating burger formulations with various synthetic additives?” she asked.
Such processes might include fermentation, extracting them differently or structurally modifying the plant-protein.
“Making the plant protein behave differently as an ingredient is really the space where we can have those breakthroughs, and already we’re seeing some interesting results,” she said.
“Over the next three years, we’re hoping to make some real breakthroughs in understanding how to modify and change plant proteins in a way that makes them just as good as beef. But it’s going to take some breakthroughs in understanding how to either pre-process, or add particular ingredients to make those proteins as delicious as a beef burger.”
“Through this work, we’re bringing together the physics and sensory aspects of eating,” Dr Stefan Baier, head of food science at Motif FoodWorks said.
“This project will unlock the secrets of food to help us design plant-based options that live up to the taste and texture expectations of consumers.”
“We really have been leading this area of research for some time and that’s why companies like Motif and others have come to us in Australia, even though we’re a long way away from where they do their work,” Professor Stokes said.
“The landscape’s changed and people now recognise the challenges in food research, and they’re large challenges in terms of how we perceive food and how we understand food, and rationally design and engineer their microstructure.”