GFI Research Grants Update: Introduction to the Plant-Based Research Projects
In February, we announced the winners of GFI’s inaugural Competitive Grant Program for critical plant-based and cell-based meat research. The fourteen selected research projects are now underway!

These research initiatives span the entire breadth of the supply chain: from crop breeding to product formulation for plant-based meat and from cell line development to bioprocess scale-up for cell-based meat.

Over the next few months, we’ll be giving GFI blog readers an inside look at each of these projects and the researchers behind them. But first, we wanted to share the big picture around the landscape of scientific exploration and why we at GFI are so excited about these particular lines of inquiry for plant-based and cell-based meat.

In this first installment, we’ll focus on plant-based meat research. (Cell-based to come shortly!)

The basics of plant-based meat production

The process of creating plant-based meat can generally be thought of as involving three steps. First, we must grow the source materials. Plant-based meat manufacturers have most frequently relied on common land crops like soy or wheat as their source materials. However, the industry is diversifying into other crops, such as peas and other legumes. We’re also starting to see researchers and companies think more broadly and creatively about whether water plants (like seaweeds) and even other organisms such as fungi (like mushrooms) can be sustainable sources of protein for human food consumption.

Second, parts of those source materials (such as proteins) must be extracted to become raw materials or ingredients. Third, the “recipe” of ingredients and flavors must be combined and formed in a way that produces the desired sensory experience (taste, texture, aroma, and appearance) of the final product. Whether we’re making soy-based chicken strips or a pea-and-bean-blend salmon fillet, these three basic steps apply.

We’re just at the beginning of innovation for plant-based meat

Though plant-based meat products have been in restaurants and on grocery store shelves for decades, each step of the production process offers phenomenal opportunity for innovation. The eight plant-based meat research projects funded through our competitive grant program address critical scientific barriers across the plant-based meat production process.

To visualize this, take a look at the plant-based meat technology mind map below. The funded projects are predicted to advance our knowledge in all of the areas boxed in red.

Click to enlarge.

We’ll now briefly present the overall goals of each project and what technical barriers they seek to overcome in order to enable more economic and efficient production of delicious, nutrient-rich plant-based meat.

Crop characterization and optimization

Very few crops are currently used to make commercially-available plant-based proteins. Even those that dominate the market – namely, soy and wheat – have historically been bred for oil or starch rather than protein. Characterizing additional crops and optimizing soy, wheat, and novel sources (including seaweeds, fungi, etc.) for plant-based meat will likely yield improved variety and sensory appeal of plant-based meat products.

While protein is often the primary ingredient consideration for plant-based meat, it is also important to consider sources of fats and other ingredients that contribute to the sensory and nutritional profiles of plant-based meat products. All decisions related to choosing sources for plant-based meat applications must be made with an eye toward balancing the desirability of the end-use characteristics with overall suitability for commercial-scale production in particular geographic regions and climates.

Both Dil Thavarajah (Clemson University, USA) and Ofir Benjamin (Tel Hai College, Israel) are focused on growing protein-rich crops for plant-based meat applications. Dr. Thavarajah and her collaborator Dr. Rick Boyles are breeding organic field pea and sorghum varieties, respectively, while Dr. Benjamin is evaluating quinoa as a potential sustainable source for plant-based meat. Their research will improve our understanding of the nutritional and functional properties of these crops and identify cultivars with superior yield and protein quality. The outcomes of their work should also translate to other crops. It’s incredibly exciting to see crops being bred, selected, and optimized specifically for plant-based meat. This type of integrated research from field to fork – with a plant-based meat end-use focus throughout – has tremendous potential to lead to the development of more and better plant-based meat products.

Raw material sourcing and optimization

Once a plant protein source is identified, the plant is usually harvested and milled. To obtain refined ingredients such as proteins, fats, and starches from plants, the plant is then typically processed to acquire more purified and concentrated ingredient fractions. The extraction methods used to collect, concentrate, and purify proteins can affect the sensory experience and nutrient profiles of the resulting protein ingredient.

Because of this, Beth Zotter (Trophic LLC, USA) is developing a process for protein extraction from seaweed (macroalgae) specifically for the production of high-quality plant-based meat. This research will help identify low-cost ways to isolate high-quality protein from seaweed. Additionally, Zotter and her team will characterize the sensory and functional properties of proteins from several different seaweed species to better understand how different macroalgaes may best be utilized as protein sources for plant-based meat. Win. Win.

The inherent characteristics of proteins, such as molecular weight and amino acid composition, are the primary drivers for how well a specific protein concentrate or isolate will perform in the final product. Different protein fractions from different crops will contribute different sensory and nutrient profiles to plant-based meat products. Consumers consistently cite sensory experience as the most important attribute for plant-based foods.

Unfortunately, plant proteins are often prone to bitter or “beany” off-flavors. Jian Li (Beijing Technology and Business University, China) is addressing this issue head-on by studying the molecules in different varieties of pea protein to determine which ones are responsible for the beany flavors. His research will provide a basic theory for how to remove these off-flavors. This work will ultimately lead to pea proteins with improved flavor profiles, enabling pea-based products to better meet consumer taste expectations. Dr. Li’s research should also inform our understanding of off-flavors in other plant-based ingredients.

Taste isn’t the only part of the plant-based meat sensory experience that is important to consumers. Texture also plays a big role in consumer perception. Creating a plant-based meat product with the right muscle-like texture of animal meat can be challenging. Mario Martinez (University of Guelph, Canada) is developing novel extrusion-based technologies that will improve the fibrous texture of plant-based meat products. Different fibrous structures will produce beef-like, chicken-like, and fish-like “tissues.” The methods developed will be able to operate at large scale and low cost.

Another idea for improving the nutritional and sensory aspects of plant proteins is being investigated by Raivo Vilu [TFTAK (Center of Food and Fermentation Technologies), Estonia]. Dr. Vilu and his team are exploring how fermentation can improve the taste, texture, and nutritional profile of oat protein. They will design a pilot-scale production method for the creation of plant-based meat from fermented oat protein. Though fermentation technology is widely accepted in the global food industry as a method to produce foods including bread, cheese, sauerkraut, yogurt, and tempeh, it has not yet been explored as a natural method for improving plant ingredients’ utility in extruded plant-based meat products…until now!

Formulation and process optimization

Product formulation is a complex process that includes the culinary art of flavor selection, consideration of nutrition and ingredient interactions, and testing for desired texture and other sensory attributes. After successful formulation, the mixture of ingredients that will become the final plant-based meat product must be structured and shaped into an appropriate form. Several methods for transforming plant-based ingredient mixtures into plant-based meat are used, but one of the most common is extrusion. Our remaining two plant-based meat grant recipients are carrying out projects that will help improve the formulation and processing of extruded plant-based meat.

Filiz Koksel (University of Manitoba, Canada) is looking to improve the efficiency of existing extrusion technologies through the creation of a non-destructive in-line quality control tool to monitor the manufacture of plant-based meats. Her work using low-intensity acoustics will generate new insights into how processing conditions, food formulation, and the mechanical properties of foods interact during manufacturing in real-time.

Last but not least, Ricardo San Martin (University of California, Berkeley, USA) and his team (including students from the 2017 Challenge Lab winning team!) are figuring out how to better incorporate and retain vegetable oils during cooking of extruded plant-based meat products. Adding oils (fats) to plant-based meat is important for mimicking the juicy taste of animal-based meat. However, the oils cannot be added prior to extrusion because they interfere with the ability of the proteins to form the desired texture. Dr. San Martin and his team hope to achieve a cooking and organoleptic experience of plant-based meats more comparable to those afforded by animal meat.

Together, these eight projects address critical technical barriers facing the plant-based meat industry. And because these researchers are committed to sharing their research and results with all of us, we cannot wait to see how their work will accelerate even more game-changing research and development aimed at bringing appetizing and affordable plant-based meat to consumers around the world.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of our research program update to learn more about our cell-based meat grant recipients. If you’d like an opportunity to meet all of our 2018 grant awardees in person, register to join us at the 2019 Good Food Conference in September!

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