Scientists Search for Ways to Make Plant-based Protein Tastier and Healthier

As the demand for meat continues to increase around the world, a paper in the new Nature journal, Science of Food, that explores the topic of ways to create healthier, better-tasting and more sustainable plant-based protein products that mimic animal-based foods. 

It’s no simple task, said lead author of the article, renowned food scientist David Julian McClements, University of Massachusetts Amherst Distinguished Professor.

“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,” said  McClements, a leading expert in food design and nanotechnology, and author of Future Foods: How Modern Science Is Transforming the Way We Eat.

It’s a growing industry: in 2019, the US plant-based food market was valued at nearly $5 billion, with 40.5% of sales in the milk category and 18.9% in plant-based meat products. That reflects a growth in market value of 29% from 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,” McClements said.

With funding from the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture and the Good Food Institute, McClements is leading a multidisciplinary team at UMass Amherst that is discovering how to design better plant-based protein. Co-author Lutz Grossmann, who recently joined the UMass Amherst food science team as an assistant professor, has expertise in alternative protein sources, McClements noted.

“Our research has pivoted toward this topic,” McClements said. “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.”

While the plant-based food sector is growing to meet consumer demand, Prof McClements noted in the paper that “a plant-based diet is not necessarily better than an omnivore diet from a nutritional perspective.”

In order to provide the micronutrients that are naturally present in animal meat, milk and eggs, plant-based products have to be fortified with vitamin D, calcium, zinc and others. Adequate amounts of micronutrients are needed for, among other things, the proper functioning of the immune system. Meat-free diets presently increase risks for fractures and other conditions, although they have other considerable health benefits.

Plant-based foods also need to be digestible and provide the full complement of essential amino acids.

McClements said that many of the current generation of highly processed, plant-based meat products are unhealthy because they contain large amounts of of saturated fat, salt and sugar. But, he added, ultra-processed foods do not necessarily have to be unhealthy.

“We’re trying to make processed food healthier,” McClements explained. “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.”

To tackle these challenges, McClements said, the UMass Amherst team of scientists is taking a holistic, multidisciplinary approach.

Source: University of Massachusetts Amherst

Journal information: 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.

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