As the barbecue season starts to heat up and the debate continues around the environmental cost of producing intensively reared red meat, two food research companies have recently launched completely vegan alternatives to minced beef and steak.
Dutch company Vivera is distributing 100 per cent plant-based steak through 400 TESCO supermarkets, produced from a combination of wheat and soy. Vivera claims that the smell, taste and bite can ‘hardly be distinguished from real steak’.
The UK launch of the product suggests that there is consumer interest in a plant-based meat alternative. A week after the product launch spokesperson Gert Jan Gombert said: “The first delivery of 40,000 has nearly sold out, with some supermarkets selling out within a day.”
Meanwhile, Silicon Valley-based Impossible Foods has produced a wheat and soy-based beef burger. The beef is flavoured by ‘Heme’ an iron-containing molecule that occurs naturally in animals and plants. Heme found in nitrogen fixing nodules of leguminous plants is called leghemoglobin, and this is apparently what gives the burgers their meaty flavour and texture.
Impossible Foods’ Heme is produced from genetically engineered yeast, which is not permitted to be used in the EU. Genetically engineered foods may be allowed in the UK post-Brexit.
Decades of development
It is the emphasis on taste and texture that sets these products apart. The original plant-based alternative to meat was textured vegetable protein (TVP) or textured soy protein, developed in the 1960s by US agricultural commodities and food processing company Archer Daniels Midland. TVP is a by-product of extracting soya bean oil.
A UK meat alternative, Quorn, is produced from mycoprotein (Fusarium fungus). It was developed in the 1980s and is exported around the world. Although TVP and Quorn products can be cooked as meat substitutes, neither product looks or tastes like meat.
Pressures to find alternatives to meat
Pressures to find alternatives to meat are coming from multiple directions. Many vegetarians and vegans are seeking sources of protein, iron and vitamin B12 from new types of foods rather than supplements. They are creating a demand for products that can be cooked in a variety of ways, including in burgers.
There are also health concerns about meat and the trend for ‘clean eating’. The health risks of consuming red meat have been well documented . Consumers are increasingly looking for ‘clean labelling’ of foods where lists of ingredients are more transparent and chemical additives are reduced.
Issues of sustainability are also being raised. Impossible Foods claims that producing its Impossible Burger uses 95% less land and 74% less water than beef, and creates 87% less greenhouse gas emissions.
Population growth creates a need for alternative foods
As the global population grows, so do the issues involved in global food production and food security. Increased competition for resources will impact on the amount of agricultural land and water available to produce food. Changes in consumer demand including a growing global middle class that can afford to eat beef, increasing numbers of vegetarian, vegan and flexitarian consumers, consumer-driven clean labelling movements, and the arguments for and against genetic modification are all issues that face today’s food scientists.
Current UK food science research
UK food scientists and researchers are studying all aspects of food production from agricultural innovations right through to consumer behaviour in dedicated food laboratories, using the latest technology.
Research into food products that use fewer resources to produce but still taste good is vital.
The Sensory Science Centre at the University of Nottingham is part of the Food Science Division. Some of the current research carried out there includes:
• crossmodal perception – how taste, aroma and texture integrate to elicit flavour perception,
• using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to understand flavour and taste signals are processed in the brain,
• investigating individual variation in perception due to genetics, age and our environment
• measuring emotional response to sensory properties of food
Taste, flavour and texture is all in the brain
Rebecca Ford, Associate Professor in Sensory and Consumer Science from the Sensory Science Centre, said: “In order for consumers to accept these alternative sources of protein in their diet, the products must delight their senses. Our research has shown the importance of the congruency in the delivery of taste, aroma and texture from food. Our sensory receptors receive information during consumption (detection) and send these signals to the brain resulting in perception.
“How our brains deal with this complex arrival of sensory information is fascinating. We see a synergistic response in brain activation when we receive sensory signals from products we are used to experiencing.
“Our brains learn what to expect regarding the taste, flavour and texture of products, such as meat, resulting in greater activation when this information is all sent to the brain at the ‘right’ time and at the ‘right’ intensity. When some of this information is missing, e.g. when the texture is ‘not quite right’, our acceptance and associated reward mechanisms are lower.
“This is why companies spend considerable time testing their products with sensory and consumer panels to measure our perception of them, as we’re yet to model how our brains integrate sensory information using instrumental techniques alone. “
The quality of food affects all of us
The Food Research Group at the University of Reading works closely with the food industry across the whole food chain, leading innovative research into sustainable and healthy food products that meet the preferences and needs of a growing population.
With its four research themes:
• food technology and engineering,
• waste valorisation,
• food chemistry,
• and food quality and consumer value
it spans the primary production of the raw materials at one end, and can take new products all the way through from processing to sensory and consumer trials, with a strong food chemistry group providing analysis and fundamental understanding throughout.
Food still has to taste great
Associate Professor Jane Parker, Associate Professor and Manager of Reading University’s Flavour Centre, said: “Food quality is of fundamental interest to us. We want a healthy diet, that is safe, nutritious and delivered with great taste, texture and appearance.
“All too often, as more healthy alternatives are developed, there is a compromise in flavour. One of our roles is to understand how to redress this balance, and to ensure that both taste and aroma are as close (or better) than the original product. No matter how healthy a product, it still has to taste great.
“The Flavour Centre draws on the research within the group and has many years’ experience working with the food industry in consultancy, training, knowledge transfer and technical service.”
Email Dr Parker at the Food Research Group here .
Food science short courses available through the AFTP
Both universities teach full undergraduate and postgraduate degree programmes but there is also a range of short courses available through the AgriFood Training Partnership.