Dolphins use ultrasound waves to navigate the world underwater. Medical professionals use ultrasounds to scan the body. Now, Dr. Filiz Koksel is using ultrasound waves to understand—and help improve—the structural qualities of plant-based meats.
Canada-based GFI research grant recipient Dr. Koksel is analyzing the texture and nutritional quality of plant-based meats during extrusion with ultrasound. She aims to characterize how the mechanical properties of different foods change during manufacturing. A better understanding of these characteristics will help make plant-based meats more delicious and satisfying.
How do you describe your research project?
This project seeks to identify which processing conditions ideally create the desired structural, nutritional, and textural quality attributes of plant-based meats. A quality control tool using low-intensity ultrasound waves will be adapted for the first time onto a food extruder (currently the most common way to produce plant-based meats).
Rising interest in plant-based meats has driven food processors and food development researchers to create novel structures and textures that significantly increase the economic value of plant proteins. However, due to their less than satisfactory sensory properties, many plant-based meats fall short as alternatives to animal-sourced meats.
We are using ultrasound waves to understand properties of plant-based meats. Simply put, when different components of foods (proteins, carbohydrates, and even pockets of air) come across ultrasound waves, they dance to different beats with the incoming ultrasonic music. The beats that they dance to depend on properties like their size and how they interact with other food components. By recording these beats, we can extract information on food structure and link them to texture (like hardness and chewiness).
What about this project most excites you?
Plant-based meats can be affordable, healthier, environmentally-friendly, and humane. However, there are several unanswered questions about how to improve their sensory or nutritional quality. We would like to change that. We will give the industry an option to manipulate the sensory and nutritional quality of plant-based meats during manufacturing. We are very excited to try ultrasonic techniques to achieve this both at the lab- and pilot-scales.
What are the advantages of researching plant-based meat in Canada?
In Canada, especially in the Canadian prairies, we grow lots of cereals, pulses (beans, peas, and lentils), and oil seeds. These crops are perfect candidates for producing plant-based meats!
In your opinion, which sensory qualities need the most improvement in plant-based meats?
In my opinion, textural characteristics like chewiness and springiness are the key to making plant-based meats more appealing. There is still so much to understand about how food microstructure affects its texture. The microstructure of plant-based ingredients is determined by conditions used during processing. Understanding it will allow us to better manipulate the texture of plant-based meats and increase consumer appeal.
What kinds of mechanical properties change during manufacturing? How does this affect the end product?
During extrusion, food ingredients (in our case, plant proteins) are deformed under pressure. Their structure can change with changes in temperature. Other properties of food like stiffness, rigidity, or flow also change during processing. These changes substantially affect the textural properties of foods: chewiness, hardness, stickiness, and springiness, to name a few.
Why did you choose to use ultrasound waves to monitor plant-based meat production?
Ultrasound waves are very well-suited to monitor plant-based meat production because they are non-destructive, meaning they do not change the properties of the foods tested. Ultrasonic tests are fast, making them suitable to be used on-the-go during processing. Ultrasonic techniques can also be easily adapted onto processing equipment, providing real-time data. This way, the on-line control needs of high-speed food manufacturing operations can be readily met.
How will your research improve food sustainability and security?
When scaled-up, the use of our on-line ultrasonic tool as a feedback loop during processing will allow the manipulation of end-product quality in real-time. Hopefully, this will reduce material losses and down-time during manufacturing. On a more general scale, our research will help to enhance the quality of existing plant-based meat products and to create various novel plant-based food alternatives. We are helping to sustainably meet the nutritional needs of a steeply rising world population.