Kevin Zhang was excited about his scallop.
“When I showed it to the students in the lab—even to my wife—they said it really looks like a real scallop.”
The postdoc fellow held his phone up to the webcam to show me two pillowy, cream-colored scallops side by side on a dish.
One was formed in the ocean; the other was made from pea protein and waves—sound waves, specifically. Though he usually works with a simple stirring technique, recently Zhang has been experimenting with sound waves to coax pea proteins into fibrous networks resembling scallop proteins.
Zhang’s research is funded by GFI’s research grant program, which is designed to accelerate open-access research into the foundational science of alternative proteins. If Zhang’s project is successful, plant-based meat manufacturers around the world may have a simpler, lower energy way to make plant-based meat.
Fortunately, Zhang arguably has the best collaborator in the world for this project, Dr. Julian McClements. “I’m a very lucky guy,” Zhang told me.
Zhang is one of several researchers currently working under the guidance of McClements, a Professor at University of Massachusetts, Amherst and one of the world’s most decorated food scientists.
McClements and waves—both ocean and sound—go way back.
As a child, McClements saw his uncle, a food scientist, reduce waste and improve sustainability in the fishing industry. It inspired McClements to enter the field too.
During his PhD in ultrasonic spectroscopy, he fired sound waves through food to analyze its contents and structure. His research ultimately led him to specialize in colloids (think emulsions like mayonnaise and milk) and biopolymers (chains of biomolecules such as proteins, carbs, and fats).
McClements has been able to apply his expertise to a broad range of areas in the expanding field of food science. “Most foods are made of polymers and colloids. That science is really critical to almost any problem you have to deal with in the food industry,” McClements told me.
First he looked at making foods more nutritious and delicious: How can we make vitamins and micronutrients more bioavailable? How can we slow down the rate of digestion of processed foods? How can we use colloids to encapsulate flavor?
“It became clear that plant-based is really important. So five, ten years ago we started focusing there a lot more,” McClements said.
McClements’ work in alternative proteins, which began with coffee creamers and milks, now sets its ambitions in the world of plant-based meat as well.
Just like animal-based meat, plant-based meat is made of proteins, polysaccharides, and lipids. And though McClements has been studying these biopolymers for decades, applying that expertise to plant-based meat is a significant, albeit energizing, challenge.
Understanding the basic science behind putting them together into different structures, to get different textures, appearances, and nutritional aspects — it’s incredibly complicated. I think one of the most exciting areas from the scientific point of view is this idea of food architecture.
Dr. Julian McClements
McClements contends that designing food is very similar to designing a building. “You have to think about the aesthetics, the form, the cost, the time limitations, the building materials, what their characteristics are, and how you assemble them together into structures,” McClements told me.
That’s what he’s currently working on with Zhang as part of GFI’s grant program. In keeping with the architectural metaphor, you could say they’re working on a lower cost, lower energy “construction” method to address one of the biggest technical challenges in plant-based meat manufacturing—making plant proteins behave like animal proteins.
Plant proteins are globular, while animal proteins are long and fibrous. That’s what gives steak and chicken their signature textures. Plant-based meat makers often use a method called extrusion to apply heat and pressure to plant proteins in order to change their shape. It works reasonably well for plant-based meat. However, the process is energy-intensive and the equipment is incredibly costly.
Is there a way that we can produce plant-based meat that doesn’t require a huge facility with expensive extrusion equipment and people who have had years and years of training to be able to use it? That’s the question McClements’ lab is trying to answer.
Dr. Erin Rees Clayton, GFI Senior Associate Director of Science and Technology
Dr. Erin Rees Clayton oversees GFI’s grant program.
This program aims to fill gaps in the foundational science of alternative proteins with globally shareable research—following the model of clean energy, where industry breakthroughs have been largely enabled by publicly funded, open-access research. According to Rees Clayton, this basic science is a critically needed (and currently massively underfunded) category of research.
Cracking the plant-based meat manufacturing question is the sort of quantum leap that could eliminate a technological obstacle and accelerate the entire field. As Rees Clayton said, “If we really want to feed the world and massively expand the scale of plant-based meat manufacturing, we need to think beyond extrusion.”
Every week brings a new attempt at perfect biomimicry, with a slightly different combination of ingredients. “We use mixes of proteins and polysaccharides, and just by gently stirring them, they form these fibrous structures that we try to lock in place,” McClements explained. “We measure the texture,” said Zhang. “We measure the hardness, the cohesion, the springiness, the chewiness to figure out how to best mimic the real thing.”
Simultaneously, the McClements lab has won funding from the USDA to tackle the challenge of plant-based fat tissue. Most plant fats are unsaturated and therefore liquid at room temperature. Animal fats are generally saturated and therefore solid at room temperature. To bridge the gap, plant-based meat manufacturers typically rely on semi-saturated coconut and palm oils, which are suboptimal from a sustainability and nutritional standpoint.
The McClements’ lab is looking at using oil and water emulsions to create a plant-based facsimile of animal fat cells.
McClements explained, “This is called high internal phase emulsions. Basically you just make a very concentrated oil and water emulsion. So all the droplets are packed very close together, and when they’re packed close together, it gives semi-solid characteristics.”
Density is not the only factor. Xiaoyan Hu, a PhD candidate working on this project said, “My observation of beef fat tissue is that the fat cells are pretty big. If we want to use high internal phase emulsion to mimic beef fat, the size has to be similar. So we’re not trying to do a very fine emulsion, but rather a very structured emulsion.”
If they succeed, they’ll try to combine their plant-based fat tissue with their (non-extruded) muscle tissue to get higher quality plant-based meat. Hu said, “We are trying to develop each texture individually, and then if we get good results, we can combine them together to produce a marbled texture or whole-cut meats.”
Whole-cut meat is the elusive holy grail for the plant-based industry. While plant-based ground meats are now mainstays in most grocery stores, plant-based steak and chicken breast have yet to reach sufficient sensory appeal to break into mainstream markets. With any luck, the work coming out of McClements’ lab may help to change that.
“Julian is coming at this with an incredibly deep understanding of the properties of proteins and fats and how these biomolecules interact to influence the sensory characteristics of food,” Rees Clayton said. “It’s really cool to see someone with such a successful, world-renowned scientific career apply their skills to this space—for him to recognize that this is a really exciting scientific endeavor.”
McClements is the vanguard of a larger swell of scientists applying their technical know-how to new areas in food. “A lot of people who are pioneering work in the food industry now are not traditionally food scientists. We’ve got a lot of people coming in from different areas, which I think is fantastic.”
Hu, too, has noticed that a number of her classmates from different fields are getting involved in plant-based proteins, remarking on the team behind one startup in particular: “None of them are from food science. They are working on computer science, artificial intelligence, and cell chemistry. It’s really amazing to see people working on this area, using so many different subjects for the same purpose.”
Rees Clayton has been gratified to see the same trend among GFI grantees. “For many of these scientists, it’s the first time they’ve ever worked on alternative proteins,” Rees Clayton said. “Frankly, it’s one of our goals, to give researchers an on-ramp to alternative proteins. The science is fascinating, but funding opportunities were almost nonexistent before we started the grant program.”
To explain this surge of scientific interest, McClements comes back to the degree of complexity that underpins it all:
“When you talk to a lot of people, they didn’t realize how incredibly complicated foods were—all the different aspects it involves, from physics to chemistry, biology, sensory attributes, psychology, you know, gastrointestinal fare. It’s a really cool area to be working in. And then it’s a really important thing that could change the world.”
Dr. Julian McClements
In the face of climate change and COVID , McClements is nonetheless hopeful: “I’m just looking at the success of companies like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat,” he said. “I mean, it’s incredible what they’ve done in five years. It’s just really changed people’s perception.” He recounted that his mother, living in England, now sees entire aisles of high quality plant-based meat in the supermarket.
“It is affecting people’s eating behavior. Maybe not everyone is becoming a vegetarian or vegan, but they incorporate a lot more of these products into their diet.”
The excitement of students about this space is also cause for hope.
“I’ve never had so many students contact me and say—you’re working in this area. Can I work in your lab? The younger generation, they seem really passionate about this. So if we can create this future where you’ve got these options, I think it could really transform the food system.”
Dr. Julian McClements
And yes, transforming the food system will require not just academics like those in McClements’ lab, but the food industry itself. “We both need each other. As academics, what we’re trying to do is understand the science. What industry does is make it practical. We do a lot of work with industry and I think that’s some of the most useful work that I do.”
His students are looking forward to contributing to both sides of the equation.
Thinking about the plant-based entrepreneurs in her class, Hu said, “It will be really exciting for me if I can get a position after I graduate to apply my technology to the industry.”
Zhang has a different path in mind: “My goal is to become a professor like Julian. He’s my idol. He’s really my idol.”
Alternative protein research grants
Powered by donations from a small number of generous donors, our Research Grant Program funds open-access alternative protein research. Read on to learn about the projects we’re funding and find funding opportunities for your own research.