Food scientists aim to create healthier and tastier plant-based proteins

As meat consumption grows throughout the world, food scientists are working to develop better-tasting, more sustainable, and healthier plant-based protein products that replicate cheese, fish, eggs, milk, and meat.

Image Credit: RHJPhtotoandilustration / Shutterstock
Image Credit: RHJPhtotoandilustration / Shutterstock

 

But it is not an easy task, according to a leading food scientist David Julian McClements, Distinguished Professor from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and the primary author of an article published in the new Nature journal Science of Food, which investigates this topic.

With Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods and other products coming on the market, there’s a huge interest in plant-based foods for improved sustainability, health and ethical reasons.”

David Julian McClements, Leading Expert, Food Design and Nanotechnology

The study titled, “Future Foods: How Modern Science Is Transforming the Way We Eat” was written by McClements.

According to the study, the plant-based food industry in the United States alone was valued at about $5 billion in 2019, with 40.5 % in the milk category and 18.9 % in plant-based meat items. This represented a 29 % increase in market value over 2017.

A lot of academics are starting to work in this area and are not familiar with the complexity of animal products and the physicochemical principles you need in order to assemble plant-based ingredients into these products, each with their own physical, functional, nutritional and sensory attributes.”

David Julian McClements, Leading Expert, Food Design and Nanotechnology

McClements heads a multidisciplinary team at UMass Amherst that is investigating the science underlying producing a better plant-based protein with support from the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture and the Good Food Institute.

McClements noted that the study co-author Lutz Grossmann, who recently joined the UMass Amherst food science team as an assistant professor, is an expert in alternative protein sources.

Our research has pivoted toward this topic. There’s a huge amount of innovation and investment in this area, and I get contacted frequently by different startup companies who are trying to make plant-based fish or eggs or cheese, but who often don’t have a background in the science of foods.”

David Julian McClements, Leading Expert, Food Design and Nanotechnology

Although the plant-based food industry is growing to satisfy customers’ needs, McClements has observed in the article that “a plant-based diet is not always superior to an omnivorous diet from a nutritional standpoint.”

Plant-based foods must be supplemented with micronutrients found naturally in milk, animal meat and eggs, such as calcium, zinc, and vitamin D. They should also be digestible and offer the complete set of essential amino acids.

According to McClements, many of today’s highly processed, plant-based meat products are harmful because they are heavy in saturated sugar, salt, and fat. However, he emphasized that ultra-processed food does not have to be harmful.

We’re trying to make processed food healthier. We aim to design them to have all the vitamins and minerals you need and have health-promoting components like dietary fiber and phytochemicals so that they taste good and they’re convenient and they’re cheap and you can easily incorporate them into your life. That’s the goal in the future, but we’re not there yet for most products,” added McClements.

Due to this reason, the UMass Amherst research team is adopting a multidisciplinary, holistic approach to handle this complex problem, concluded McClements.

Source:
Journal reference:

McClements, D. J & Grossmann, L., (2021) A brief review of the science behind the design of healthy and sustainable plant-based foods. npj Science of Food. doi.org/10.1038/s41538-021-00099-y.

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