Making processed plant-based protein healthier

Monday, 07 June, 2021

Making processed plant-based protein healthier

Due to the increasing consumer demand for plant-based food, the food industry is creating many new products, including meat, fish, egg, milk, cheese and yoghurt analogs. The main challenge in this area is to simulate the desirable appearance, texture, flavour, mouthfeel, nutrition and functionality of these products using healthy, affordable and sustainable plant-derived ingredients, such as lipids, proteins and carbohydrates.

Food scientists at the University of Massachusetts Amherst are aiming to help make plant-based protein tastier and healthier. In particular, its research is focused on understanding the chemical, physical and functional properties of plant ingredients; the processing operations used to convert these ingredients into food products; and the science behind the creation of some common plant-based foods, such as meat, egg and milk analogs.

It’s no simple task, said 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.

“Our research has pivoted toward this topic,” McClements said. “There’s a huge amount of innovation and investment in this area, and I get contacted frequently by different start-up 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”.

Plant-based products need to be fortified with micronutrients that are naturally present in animal meat, milk and eggs, including vitamin D, calcium and zinc. They also have to be digestible and provide the full complement of essential amino acids.

McClements said 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 said. “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.”

For this reason, McClements said, the UMass Amherst team of scientists is taking a holistic, multidisciplinary approach to tackle this complex problem.

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.

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