Healthy landing

It was only a matter of time before the taste of plant-based foods across the board was brought into the spotlight. We have seen plenty of developments over the past few years around plant-based burgers, yet other foods have sometimes left something to be desired. With huge interest in plant-based foods for improved sustainability, health and ethical reasons, a team from the University of Massachusetts Amherst is working to change that.

And why not? Alternative meats are on an uptick around the globe. Food science has little choice but to embrace the growth as meat-eating continues to increase around the world, meaning food scientists are now focusing on ways to create healthier, better-tasting and more sustainable plant-based protein products that mimic meat, fish, milk, cheese and eggs.

It’s no simple task, says renowned food scientist David Julian McClements, University of Massachusetts Amherst Distinguished Professor and lead author of a paper in the new Nature journal, Science of Food, that explores the topic.

McClements, a leading expert in food design and nanotechnology, and author of Future Foods: How Modern Science Is Transforming the Way We Eat, says a lot of academics are starting to work in this area and are not familiar with the “complexity of animal products and the physicochemical principles” to assemble plant-based ingredients into these products, each with their own physical, functional, nutritional and sensory attributes.

With funding from the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture and the Good Food Institute, McClements leads a multidisciplinary team at UMass Amherst that is exploring the science behind designing better plant-based protein.

Co-author Lutz Grossmann, who recently joined the UMass Amherst food science team as an assistant professor, has expertise in alternative protein sources, McClements notes.

“Our research has pivoted toward this topic,” McClements says. “There’s a huge amount of innovation and investment in this area, and I get contacted frequently by different startup companies who are trying to make plant-based fish or eggs or cheese, but who often don’t have a background in the science of foods.”

While the plant-based food sector is expanding to meet consumer demand, McClements notes in the paper that “a plant-based diet is not necessarily better than an omnivore diet from a nutritional perspective.”

McClements says that many of the current generation of highly processed, plant-based meat products are unhealthy because they’re full of saturated fat, salt and sugar. But he adds that ultra-processed food does not have to be unhealthy.

“We’re trying to make processed food healthier,” McClements says. “We aim to design them to have all the vitamins and minerals you need and have health-promoting components like dietary fibre and phytochemicals so that they taste good and they’re convenient and they’re cheap and you can easily incorporate them into your life. That’s the goal in the future, but we’re not there yet for most products.”

Like many people now, incorporating plant-based foods into our diet is not daunting. For this reason, the “multidisciplinary approach” of McClements and that of the UMass Amherst team of scientists, to tackle this complex problem of palate busting proteins is definitely one to follow.

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