Transforming dry meat alternatives with water

Thursday, 17 August, 2023

Transforming dry meat alternatives with water

One of the obstacles to the uptake of plant-based alternatives to meat can be their very dry and astringent feel when being eaten.

Scientists at the University of Leeds, led by Professor Anwesha Sarkar, are now using one simple ingredient — water — to improve the sensation of plant proteins and make them more palatable as a meat substitute.

The researchers created plant protein microgels, through a process called microgeletion. In this process, plant proteins are placed in water and subjected to heating, altering the structure of the protein molecules which come together to form a gel.

The gel is then homogenised, breaking the protein network into a microgel made up of tiny particles. Under pressure, as they would be when they are being eaten, the microgels ooze water, creating a lubricity akin to that of single cream.

Plant proteins start off as clumpy and poorly hydrated. Water is added and they are heated. The proteins change shape and trap water around themselves, creating a gel. That gel is broken up into a plant protein microgel, with plant protein particles surrounded by water. Image credit: Ben Kew, University of Leeds

According to Sarkar, this turns the dry plant protein into a hydrated one, giving a juicy feel in the mouth when consumed.

The team hopes this will aid consumer interest in plant-based proteins.

Throughout the investigation, the team mathematically modelled the behaviour of plant protein microgels. The proof came in visualisations produced in the atomic force microscopy suite in the Faculty of Engineering and Physical Sciences at Leeds. Atomic force microscopy involves a tiny probe scanning the surface of a molecule to get a picture of its shape. The images revealed that the protein microgels were spherical and not aggregating or clumping together.

Due to their lubricity, the microgels may be adapted for other uses in the food processing industry, such as replacing fat that has been removed from a foodstuff to develop healthier options.

“This is quite a remarkable finding. It is striking that without adding a drop of fat, the microgels resembles the lubricity of a 20% fat emulsion, which we are the first to report,” said Ben Kew, doctoral student in the School of Food Science and Nutrition at Leeds and lead researcher in the project.

The research findings have been published in the scientific journal Nature Communications.

Image credit: Mironov

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