Plant-based meat is about to get juicier

GFI research grant recipient Dr. Ricardo San Martin and bright minds at the Alternative Meat Program at UC Berkeley are using plant-based oils to help plant-based meat manufacturers achieve the juiciness of legacy animal meat.
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A burger’s sizzle is non-negotiable. The signature sputter and hiss of a burger cooking on the grill indicate that the burger is well-marbled with fat, which carries flavor and creates juiciness. Incorporating fat perfectly into plant-based meat products is crucial to creating high-fidelity flavors, textures, and cooking experiences.

However, bridging the sensory gap between unsaturated plant-based oils and saturated animal fats can be a challenge. GFI research grant recipient Dr. Ricardo San Martin is conducting open-access research to help plant-based meat manufacturers perfect this step. Along with bright minds at the Alt. Meat Program at UC Berkeley, Dr. San Martin is structuring plant-based oils to achieve the juiciness of legacy animal meat.

How are you creating the sensory properties of saturated fats with plant-based oil?

We are preparing gels containing nano-scale globules of healthy vegetable oils called oleogels. These structures have properties that resemble solid fatty products and can be incorporated in plant-based extruded products. We will improve the sensory experience of present products that lack enough fat or incorporate unsaturated oils that do not retain well during cooking.

What are the various challenges with incorporating oil into different forms of plant-based meat?

The main scientific challenge we face is the creation of structured oleogels. The oleogels must exhibit strong molecular interactions with plant-based matrices. They are important to plant-based meats because the surface properties of oleogels allow their retention during the process of cooking and mastication (chewing). As with all plant-based products, customer acceptability will be the decisive factor for adopting our novel solution.

You’re working with an ingredient called quillaja. What is that and what makes it appealing as an area of research?

Quillaja is derived from the endemic Chilean tree Quillaja saponaria. Its extract contains saponins, which have been used for decades as natural foaming agents by the food industry around the world (e.g., for root beer in the U.S.). In the last 10 years, research on their use as natural emulsifiers has spiked in key academic and private food labs around the world. Due to their unique chemical structure, they perform better than traditional emulsifiers such as soy lecithin. Soy lecithin faces increasing scrutiny for health and environmental concerns and alternatives are becoming more appealing. For our project, nano-structures produced with Quillaja are extremely resistant to shear stress and oxidation. These properties are key for formulating novel plant-based foods.

Which vegetable oils most interest your team for plant-based meat?

We are still determining which vegetable oil is best suited for the project. We will test different oils including canola and sunflower to find which one adapts best to the structures we want to create.

What do you find most exciting about this new technology?

The entire plant-based industry faces the challenge of replacing animal fats with healthier plant-based oils. We believe our project will establish the scientific basis to achieve this and improve the sensory experience of products now on the market. We also hope to open the path to structure more sophisticated plant-based products in the future, such as yogurt and cheese.

What are the advantages of researching plant-based meat in Berkeley?   We have access to extremely talented students and world-class academics with scientific backgrounds essential for the work being done at the Alternative Meats Lab. Our students are highly motivated to foster the next generation of healthy plant-based products. They strive to alleviate the animal suffering and lack of sustainability in conventional production methods. The Alt. Meat Program has become a hub for corporations, entrepreneurs, and venture capitalists interested in how to scale plant-based food alternatives and take these products to market. Psst— this research project stemmed from a student project that came out of this course!

Want to learn about more scientists advancing sustainable alternative proteins? Check out GFI’s 2019 Research Grant program here! Stay tuned for news of the 2020 cohort! 


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Tara DiMaio