One of the biggest complaints about plant-based proteins (politics aside) has generally always been taste. While the past few years has seen advancements on the palates of plant-based burgers, other meats, fish, milk, cheese and eggs have sometimes left something to be desired. Now, with alternative meats on an uptick around the globe, a team from the University of Massachusetts Amhurst is working to change that.
And yes, it will be as complicated as it sounds.
“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” says food scientist David Julian McClements, UMass Amherst Distinguished Professor and lead author of a paper in the new Nature journal, Science of Food, that explores the topic.
The past couple of years, plant-based foods have been flying into the baskets of grocery shoppers. The paper notes that in 2019, the plant-based food market in the U.S. alone was valued at closed to $5 billion, with north of 40% of sales in the milk category and just shy of 19% in plant-based meat products. That represented a market value growth of 29% from 2017.
Commercially demand has been on the rise as well. Cases of plant-based proteins shipped to commercial restaurants from broadline food distributors increased by 23% in the year ending in November of 2020. All the while, regular meat grew by only 2%.
“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,” says McClements.
The study helped gain funding from the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture and the Good Food Institute. With the assistance, the UMass Amherst team is not only going to try to improve the taste, but the overall healthiness as well. Many current plant-based meats are still lacking in that department since the current generation of foods are highly-processed with larger amounts of saturated fat, salt and sugar. However, McClements adds that it does not have to be this way.
“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.”