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A Path to Better Plant-Based Foods

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Credit: Enis Yavuz on Unsplash.
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With demands for food rising as the population continues to expand, and the ever-present threat of climate change, scientists are looking for innovative ways to feed society without adding to the planet’s burdens. Plant-based foods are one area of great interest to meet this need.

Whilst plant-based foods have come on leaps and bounds, there is still, however, a lot of room for improvement when it comes to satisfying the devout carnivore, such as replicating the juiciness of a steak or the stringy texture of melted cheese. Motif FoodWorks, an ingredient innovation company, are aiming to close this gap by re-writing the food design rules. With the help of scientific experts across a range of food and academic disciplines and by embracing technology, they aim to create plant-based foods that people crave.

We spoke to Stefan Baier, PhD, head of food science at Motif FoodWorks, about how they are addressing the need for plant-based foods that are nutritious, fulfil consumer expectations and keep them coming back for more.

Molly Campbell (MC): Motif will make different proteins via fermentation of engineered microbes, rather than through animal agriculture. Please can you talk us through this process, and the technologies involved?

Stefan Baier (SB):
Before we create a single ingredient, our first step is to analyze everything that makes good food crave-worthy by taking a holistic approach and studying food’s elements at a molecular level. That means diving deeper and studying factors like taste, texture, color, how you chew and the way food breaks down in your mouth. By developing a fundamental understanding of the individual aspects of the eating experience, we can uncover game-changing plant-based foods and ingredients. To do so, we leverage multiple technologies and sciences, from fermentation to materials science, to generate individual ingredients, protein systems, whole formula solutions and unique products.

Our process is rigorous and complex, but basically comes down to a four-step approach. As a hypothetical, take the case of an animal-free meatball. First, we analyze the sensory experience of the animal-based product — what makes a meatball taste and feel like a meatball? Then, we identify the component ingredients that are key to that sensory experience. From there, we decode the genetic information of that component or components, with the aim of finding a plant-based counterpart. Lastly, we replicate the ingredient using natural fermentation processes and the assistance of specially designed yeast microbes. All of this takes place without the use of animals.

MC: Motif works with a number of different academic partners. Can you discuss how these collaborations influence Motif’s products?

At Motif, we take a holistic approach to the science of food. The food science community, as a whole, tends to be insular, and R&D departments rely on tactics like sensory testing, flavoring and stabilizers to improve taste and texture. If we really want to take plant-based foods to the next level, however, we need to look beyond these traditional techniques. We are constantly exploring what other scientific disciplines can tell us about food: from how it is structured and how its chemicals break down in our mouths, to the psychology behind our favorite flavors.

Since we launched in 2019, Motif has partnered with science and technology researchers at the University of Illinois, the University of Queensland, UMass Amherst and the University of Guelph. Our academic partners are experts in their respective fields, from materials science to oral processing. The research we’re undertaking allows us to uncover new insights and develop new plant-based food design rules. For example, our partnerships with the University of Illinois (at Chicago and Champaign-Urbana) are zeroing in on rheology — the study of flow and deformation. By working with the schools’ experts on advanced rheological techniques from the fields of mechanical and chemical engineering, we’re unlocking insights that will help us improve the mouthfeel and texture of plant-based meat and dairy.

MC: Can you discuss the environmental impact of engineering proteins using microbes, rather than obtaining them through animal agriculture?

Animal agriculture is one of the leading contributors to human-made greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, raising livestock requires large amounts of water and land. With a growing population, we need to explore how to meet the increasing demand for protein while also combating climate change.

Plant-based food production is considered to be more sustainable for the global, growing protein demand, requiring fewer environmental inputs and less land for production of protein. This doesn’t mean that people must cut meat from their diets entirely, however. A 2019 study in Scientific Reports found that, if everyone in the US reduced their consumption of beef, poultry and pork by 25% and substituted plant proteins, the country would reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 82 million metric tons per year. Our goal is to encourage “flexitarian” diets by making plant-based foods that people crave.

Karen Steward (KS): What are the biggest challenges in replicating meat-based food textures and mouthfeel with meat alternative materials? How are these challenges being overcome?

Texture represents one of the biggest sensory gaps between current plant-based meats and their animal-derived counterparts, and the most significant challenge facing brands hoping to win over consumers in today’s crowded market. The main problem is that there’s still much to uncover on how texture is formulated on the molecular level — the interactions between fat, protein and water that give different types of foods different mouthfeels.

At Motif, we’re using a number of technologies, including fermentation, to tackle these challenges and create ingredients that will improve attributes like taste and texture in plant-based foods. We’re also partnering with some of the best sensory researchers in the world to tackle these challenges. For example, our research agreement with the University of Queensland is focused on testing and identifying new formulations that will improve the texture of plant-based meats. The team at Queensland has developed critical new methods to assess the mouthfeel qualities of foods and link these back to sensory perception. This partnership is the first time in vitro oral processing was applied in the category of meat analogs, arming us with hard data and insights we can next apply to our ingredient discovery process.

KS: Fats in plant-based foods have long been an area of dissatisfaction for consumers, how are Motif addressing this?

From the tenderness of steak to the creaminess of yogurt, fat is responsible for some of the most important qualities of the foods we love. One of Motif’s priorities is gaining a deeper understanding of how fat is structured and functions in animal-based foods, which will in turn allow us to craft better plant-based fats. Through our research partnership with the University of Guelph, we’re zeroing in on properties of fat: the mechanisms that ensure fat solidifies at room temperature, for example, and the marbling patterns characteristic of beef. Studying these mechanisms through the lens of basic science will give us a strong foundation to create better plant-based alternatives.

KS: What are the nutritional implications, good and bad, for using plant-based foods over animal-based alternatives? Are Motif looking at ways to engineer in enhanced nutritional values?

There are a number of elements that go into making an individual product — like an animal-free meat patty or plant-based milk — that might make it nutritious or not, so it’s difficult to make generalizations about the category as a whole. While companies are making great strides in developing exceptional plant-based food, there is still more to be done. At Motif, we want to be a part of the solution. For instance, we’re working hard to improve the quality of the protein you get from plant-based foods. We are also finding completely new ways to improve flavor and texture so these foods can taste and feel amazing without having to add so much salt, sugar or oil.

Dr Stefan Baier was speaking to Dr Karen Steward and Molly Campbell, Science Writers for Technology Networks.