Making plant-based meats ‘foodilicious’
A team of University of Manitoba researchers led by food engineer Dr. Filiz Koksel are among a select group of international scientists awarded grants from the Washington-based non-profit Good Food Institute (GFI) to explore plant-based and cell-based meat processing.
GFI’s inaugural Competitive Research Grant Program selected 14 projects from eight different countries to receive up to US$250,000 over two years. One of the program’s key goals is the generation of open and accessible research and tools, and all findings generated through research supported by this program will be published under the Creative Commons license.
Koksel’s project will identify the optimal processing conditions for plant-based meats, research that will be critical to the food manufacturing industry as it seeks innovative techniques to create nutritious and appealing protein-rich plant foods. While gaining popularity, plant-based meats are a relatively new consumer product which sometimes lacks sensory appeal.
“The recent changes to Canada’s Food Guide, and the current U.S. Dietary Guidelines, place strong emphasis on the inclusion of plant-based proteins into the North American diet,” said Koksel, assistant professor in the Department of Food and Human Nutritional Sciences.
“We continue to investigate improvements in the sensory and nutritional quality of plant-based meats, and a key to that puzzle lies in understanding how processing conditions, like temperature, affect mechanical properties of various protein sources and the resulting food microstructure,” she said. “This will help processors formulate nutritionally-rich palatable foods.”
The challenge in plant-based meats, which are most commonly produced through extrusion, is the limited information available about how certain textures are generated during processing of cereals and food legumes. With the use of a twin-screw extruder, the protein-rich fractions of these crops will be texturized at high moisture contents to produce highly structured meat analogs that mimic the juicy and fibrous texture of animal meat.
The team, which also includes University of Manitoba nutritional biochemist Dr. James House and physicist Dr. John Page, and food processing expert Dr. Mehmet Tulbek from AGT Food and Ingredients Inc., plans to develop a quality control tool using low-intensity ultrasound. Ultrasonic techniques are not only rapid and non-invasive, they are well-suited to studying optically opaque systems.
The tool will be adapted to operate on a food extruder to non-destructively characterize changes in plant proteins during processing and allow process interventions to be made in real-time. As this tool can be used directly on the food production line, it will enable food processors to reduce material losses and down-time while ensuring end-product consistency.
“This will be the first time that ultrasound will be used to quantitatively characterize melt mechanical properties in an on-line manner during food extrusion in real-time,” said Koksel.
“I believe our work has the capacity to lead to break-throughs in value-added processing of plant proteins. It is exciting for our team to be at the forefront of an emerging field of food processing research.”