The reason some vegan alternatives don’t taste like meat
“The challenge is that cow’s milk is very homogeneous – it all comes from the same animal,” says Cordelia Selomulya, professor of chemical engineering at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. “While with plant proteins, there’s an unlimited number of plants we could use.” Even within cultivars of peas or faba beans, for example, there is a wide variety of different protein profiles.
“We are in the process of determining which ones work best, which ones are the most soluble, which ones maintain their nutritional profile [after being spray-dried]and so on,” says Selomulya.
Just as scientists have discovered with vegan eggs, (find out more from BBC Future about the ingenious tricks used to make them), a pulse protein blend might be the solution. Peas, for example, have a high content of essential amino acids and bind well with fat and water, which means they can help froth milk. Meanwhile fava beans are rich in certain proteins less present in peas.
But, getting the right mix of protein is a challenge. Vegetable proteins tend to be larger and form thicker layers between oil and water, which means they are generally poorer emulsifiers than animal proteins.
So perfect recreations of some whole meat products might still be a long way off. However, there are reasons to think that we may soon be replacing animal-based ingredients with the right kinds of plant-based alternatives in many foods. It might be a while before you see a realistic veggie steak in the supermarket, but should that be the goal?
“We should focus less on turning plant proteins into meat and more on what they do well,” says Rana Mustafa, a food scientist at the University of Saskatchewan, Canada. Mustafa studies plant proteins in traditional Syrian cuisine and cites kibbe as a good example of a food that works equally well with or without meat. Kibbe are fried wheat and spice dumplings that can be filled with meat, chickpeas, lentils – just about anything. She envisions a future in which we eat less meat and more plants that are cooked to bring out their best qualities.
“It’s not just a fad, it won’t pass,” recognizes Lamas Bezerra. “We’re going to see more and more products with different varieties – pork, chicken, seafood, beef, whole cuts. It’s all here to stay.”
* William Park is a senior reporter at BBC Future and is @williamhpark on Twitter.
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