As meat consumption continues to increase around the world, food scientists are focusing on ways to create healthier, tastier and more sustainable plant-based protein products that mimic meat, fish, milk, cheese and eggs.
It’s no simple task, says food scholar David Julian McClements, professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and lead author of an article in the new Nature newspaper, Food Sciences, which explores the subject.
âWith Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods and other products coming to market, there is huge interest in plant-based foods for the sake of improved sustainability, health and ethics,â said McClements, a leading expert in food design and nanotechnology, and author of Future Foods: How Modern Science Is Changing the Way We Eat.
In 2019, the plant-based foods market in the United States was valued at nearly $ 5 billion, with 40.5% of sales in the milk category and 18.9% in plant-based meat products. , notes the newspaper. This represents a market value growth of 29% compared to 2017.
“Many academics are starting to work in this field and are unfamiliar with the complexity of animal products and the physicochemical principles that you need to put together ingredients of plant origin in these products, each with its own physical, functional properties. , nutritional and sensory attributes, âsays McClements.
With funding from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, USDA and the Good Food Institute, McClements is leading a multidisciplinary team at UMass Amherst that explores the science behind designing better plant proteins. Co-author Lutz Grossmann, who recently joined the food science team at UMass Amherst as an assistant professor, has expertise in alternative protein sources, McClements notes.
“Our research has been directed towards this topic,” said McClements. âThere is a tremendous amount of innovation and investment in this area, and I am frequently contacted by different startups that are trying to make plant-based fish, eggs or cheese, but often have no training. in food science. . “
As the plant-based food industry expands to meet consumer demand, McClements notes in the article that “a plant-based diet is not necessarily better than an omnivorous diet by one point. nutritional point of view “.
Plant-based products should be fortified with micronutrients naturally found in animal meat, milk and eggs, including vitamin D, calcium and zinc. They must also be digestible and provide all of the essential amino acids.
McClements says that many of the current generation of highly processed plant-based meat products are unhealthy because they’re loaded with saturated fat, salt, and sugar. But he adds that ultra-processed foods don’t have to be unhealthy.
âWe’re trying to make processed foods healthier,â says McClements. “We aim to design them to contain all the vitamins and minerals you need and to contain healthy components such as dietary fiber and phytochemicals so that they taste great. that they are practical and that they are inexpensive and that you can easily incorporate them into your life. That is the goal in the future, but we are not there yet for most products. “
For this reason, says McClements, the team of scientists at UMass Amherst takes a holistic, multidisciplinary approach to tackling this complex problem.