Imagine you’re at a family barbecue and you’ve just bitten into a fat, juicy burger. As you savor the rich, familiar flavor, the host informs you that it’s made not of beef, but of peas—or fava, or seaweed.
Now imagine that it tastes exactly like a real beef burger, and you know that it’s far better for the environment and doesn’t require harming any animals. Would you take the next bite, or even consider changing your own purchasing habits in the future?
Meat consumption is at an all-time high globally, and is projected to double by 2050, according to the UN.
At the same time, there is growing consciousness of the environmental ills associated with meat and dairy production, including environmental degradation, antibiotic resistance, and greenhouse gas emissions driving climate change.
Consumers, particularly younger ones, are increasingly interested in reducing their meat consumption, yet their taste for meat remains.
Fortunately, meat analogs are seeing a new renaissance. While meat substitutes have been around for decades, in just the past few years, companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are generating excitement with their ultra-realistic plant-based meat substitutes, which, for some, taste nearly indistinguishable from the real thing.
Meanwhile, funding has surged for research into developing new and better plant-based foods.
“This whole area of plant-based proteins has just shot off over the past three or four years with lots of new funding from industry and government,” said University of Massachusetts Amherst Distinguished Professor of Food Science David Julian McClements. “All of the food industry is now thinking about not only plant-based meats, but also about plant-based milk, cheese, and eggs in a new way, and are aiming to reformulate a whole range of processed food products to remove things like synthetic ingredients or animal-based ones and replace them with plant-based ones.”
The Department of Food Science at UMass Amherst sees plant-based foods as one of the most important strategies for combating the adverse effects of climate change, and is strongly committed to carrying out innovative research that will lead to important advances in this area. Indeed, many of its recent hires have a focus on this area, including their latest hire, Prof. Lutz Grossmann from Germany, who will conduct research on alternative proteins and plant-based foods.
Research on this topic is already well underway at UMass. With funding from the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) and the Good Food Institute, a multidisciplinary team of UMass Amherst food scientists, led by McClements, is working to develop the next generation of plant-based proteins. Using new approaches, they’re betting they can develop products that will be tastier, more realistic, healthier, and more versatile than the current offerings on the market—and ultimately, will revolutionize the way we eat.
McClements, who is consistently among the world’s most highly cited researchers and acclaimed for his pioneering work in food design and nanotechnology, has been studying plant-based milks for nearly a decade, building on his expertise in emulsions.
His approach is a new one. Cow’s milk, he explained, has a highly flexible protein called casein that gives milk its distinctive mouthfeel and flow.
This is very hard to replicate with plants, which contain “big globular proteins that behave very differently than the small flexible casein proteins in milk.”
Conventional cow’s milk substitutes are made by soaking plants (such as soybeans or rice) until they are soft, then grinding them up into tiny particles and adding water.
The result is a drink that is often a little gritty or chalky, and not an especially convincing substitute for milk.
McClements is working to isolate the oils and proteins from plants in order to “build from the bottom up,” allowing scientists to better mimic the appearance, flow properties, and mouthfeel of cow’s milk.
This “soft-matter physics approach” provides much greater control over the final quality of the product. The challenge comes in trying to extract the extremely delicate protein molecules from the plants, which tend to unfold when exposed to solvents or heat.
Instead, he said, “we’re getting whole peas and gently taking them apart so the proteins stay intact. Then we can use those proteins as functional food ingredients.”
In addition to making better-tasting, more realistic plant-based milks, McClements is aiming to develop products that can be used in all the same ways as cow’s milk—as the base for ice cream, whipped cream, yogurt, and cheese using the same equipment and processes that are done today with cow’s milk. This, he said, would help preserve factory jobs and reduce waste.
Moving on to Meat
A long-time vegetarian, McClements began research on meat substitutes more recently. Meat—or muscle—has a complex hierarchical structure with long fibers organized into a series of nesting bundles—which, unsurprisingly, looks completely different than plants. McClements’s lab is again taking a soft-matter physics approach to structuring plant proteins to form fibers similar to the ones found in meat, with an aim of giving them the same appearance, texture, and mouthfeel. They’re even trying to replicate the way the plants interact with saliva and break down in the mouth. “It’s very, very challenging to do,” he said.
The meat substitutes currently sold in supermarkets and fast-food chains are typically in processed forms like nuggets, sausages, and burgers, but McClements wants to simulate the properties of whole chicken, pork, and beef. His lab has been using pea protein to do this, but is also working with start-up companies to explore novel sources of plant proteins that grow sustainably, such as seaweed.
Amanda Kinchla ‘98, who studied under McClements as an undergrad and now is an extension associate professor leading the university’s Food Science Extension program, is exploring the feasibility of different types of plant proteins.
Prior to joining the faculty at UMass, she worked in industry on product development and food safety, including in the meat analog space. At the time, soy was the gold standard for producing meat analogs, but the industry has since begun to explore using many other kinds of plants, including peas, fava, and lupine.
Kinchla’s research compares these emerging proteins against each other to understand the advantages of each, and how they might be used synergistically in combination with other ingredients. It’s important to not only understand their behavior on a chemical level, but also to take into account practical considerations for commercialization.
Kinchla asks questions such as: If it works in the lab, can it be scaled up to work on a commercial level? Are the raw materials available at the necessary volume? Is there an actual market that would withstand the investment?
Tastes Like Chicken
Of course, one of the most important considerations in developing new food products is whether consumers will enjoy eating them—or, at minimum, whether they are “acceptable.” Alissa Nolden, assistant professor of food science, studies chemosensory perception in humans—or the integration of a number of different sensations caused by food. The flavor of food—comprised of smell and taste (specifically, sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami)—is highly important, but also key are attributes such as mouthfeel, texture, and visual appearance.
Transforming plants into a meat substitute that is appealing to consumers is a challenge. According to Nolden, plant-based proteins on their own generally have undesirable characteristics; in research studies, trained panels of consumers describe several “off” flavors such as bitterness, astringency, and beany flavors. Thus, food scientists must find ways to process these ingredients in order to minimize their contribution or to mask them in a final food product.
Achieving the texture of meat—mimicking that “first bite” feel—is also very challenging without the use of animal products. In addition, the appearance of food, often overlooked, has a major impact on consumers—particularly if the product doesn’t match the picture on the package.
“If a meat substitute looks unfamiliar or unappealing, consumers are going to be apprehensive about trying it,” Nolden said. She noted that with new food products, consumers may feel unsure about how to prepare them at home.
Though COVID-19 put a pause on a large-scale study she has planned with human taste-testers, Nolden is continuing to carry out online surveys and plan for further in-person research when safety conditions allow.
She noted that while past studies have used fairly small groups of participants, she’s aiming to target much larger numbers—150 participants or higher—in her study in order to account for the breadth of individual differences in food preferences, and to achieve diversity in the sample, particularly in the age of consumers.
The Nutrition Factor
Just because it’s made of plants, it’s not necessarily healthier. For example, cow’s milk, while designed to feed calves, contains many key components needed for growth in humans, such as digestible proteins with the right amino acid balance, calcium, and vitamins.
McClements said most plant-based milks come up short in their nutritional profile, as do many plant-based meat substitutes. Moreover, foods like veggie burgers generally have similar, or even more, calories than their meaty equivalents, and often have higher saturated fat content, salt, and sugar, in order to match the flavor profile of meat.
McClements is working to improve both the nutritional profile and digestibility of plant-based meat analogs and milks.
His approach starts by choosing the best building blocks—one or more plant-based proteins with the right digestibility and amino acid sequence to match the nutritional components of meat or another animal product.
These are assembled in a way to minimize salt and fat content, and to avoid adding sugars and starch. Then, he said, it’s important to fortify foods with vitamins and minerals in such a way that nutrients remain stable in the product and are bioavailable after consumption.
As the market for plant-based proteins expands beyond vegans and vegetarians, Kinchla wants to better understand the consumer segments and their tastes and preferences.
“Technologies are advancing quickly and distribution channels are improving, so food is becoming more accessible in general. Consumers, particularly Americans, are really picky. They want what they want, and they can drive choices,” she said. “With that comes the development of more products to cater to those needs.”
Kinchla added, “The future of food is customization.”
For example, Kinchla said, her meat-loving dad is never going to choose to consume a plant-based steak, but perhaps he’d be open to a product that combines meat with some portion of vegetables.
She cited an earlier study conducted at UMass that found participants in a blind taste test actually preferred a form of taco filling in which nearly half the meat was replaced with mushrooms and the sodium content was reduced.
For his part, McClements is optimistic about the future of plant-based foods. He believes that consumers, and young consumers in particular, are “incredibly enthusiastic about having food that’s healthier and more sustainable. I think there’s increasing consciousness about reducing the environmental impact of what we’re eating.”
Yet, as those in the food industry well know, the most important considerations for consumers in making food choices will always revolve around three things: taste, cost, and convenience. McClements is sanguine about the trajectory here.
“If they taste the same and they’re the same price, and one of them is good for the environment and the other is not, I think people will more and more start to choose plant-based options.”