New technology could improve, taste, texture, nutrition of plant-based meat and dairy, claims Motif FoodWorks

By Elaine Watson contact

- Last updated on GMT

Dr Mike Leonard: Motif will try and “recreate the attributes of animal fat”… without animals (Picture: Motif FoodWorks)
Dr Mike Leonard: Motif will try and “recreate the attributes of animal fat”… without animals (Picture: Motif FoodWorks)

Related tags: Motif Foodworks, plant-based meat, plant-based cheese, Coconut oil

New technology could reduce saturated fat and significantly improve the taste and texture of plant-based meat and dairy products, claims Motif FoodWorks, which is working on a variety of ingredients to make these foods more “craveable.”

Boston-based synthetic biology specialist Motif FoodWorks​ – which is developing ‘high impact’ protein ingredients​ that could be added to plant- based meat and dairy formulations in small quantities but make a significant difference to the eating experience – is now turning its attention to fats.

Teaming up with leading lipids researcher Dr. Alejandro Marangoni over the next 12-months, Motif will try and “recreate the attributes of animal fat”… ​without animals, by evaluating novel technologies for formulating lipids and fiber-forming ingredients in plant-based meats and dairy products, including:

  • Replacing saturated fat with an animal-free emulsion system that exhibits the physical properties of saturated fat at room temperature; 
  • Replicating animal fat structures, such as the pockets of fat in meat products that produce marbling;
  • Improving the texture of plant-based cheese to be more meltable and elastic.  

‘One of the top reasons people choose plant-based foods is because they think they are healthier’

Under the exclusive evaluation period, Motif can exercise options to acquire or license these technologies, explained CTO Dr Mike Leonard, who said coconut oil – the fat typically used in most plant-based burger formulations, often in combination with canola or sunflower oil – had drawbacks.

First, coconut oil is high in saturated fat, which means that many of the leading brands in the plant-based arena have the same amount of saturated fat as traditional 80:20 beef burgers (Impossible Burgers, Uncut Burgers, Awesome Burgers and McDonald’s quarter pounders contain around 8g per serving, while Beyond Burgers have a little less at 5g), said Dr Leonard.

“One of the top reasons people choose plant-based foods is because they think they are healthier, so our job is to help these foods deliver on that promise.”

‘Most major plant-based burger manufacturers will say a major problem they are trying to solve is how to make the fat perform better in their formulations’

Second, it presents technical challenges: “When you cook plant-based burgers made with coconut oil, you have to be very careful because the fat can leak out and will not be retained in the burger the way animal fat is in a conventional burger, plus it can fill up the whole room with a coconut smell,” ​he told FoodNavigator-USA.

“So we’re interested in tools that can help improve the way fats perform in those matrixes, and most major plant-based burger manufacturers will say that’s a major problem they are trying to solve: how can they make the fat perform better in their formulations?”

Structured fats for saturated fat replacement in plant-based meat

He added: “We’re trying to understand how could structured fat systems behave better and improve the juiciness, texture, and cooking performance of plant-based meats. Can we enable fat structures that continue to interact with the meat and help create a structure in the finished product as well as in the uncooked product?

“We’re not using interesterification​ [whereby enzymes are used to re-arrange the structure of fatty acids in order to alter a fat’s melting properties, functionality and plasticity],” stressed Dr. Leonard.

“We’re not looking to enzymatically modify liquid fats; we’re looking at novel processing techniques to create structured emulsions and pastes that can serve as a saturated fat replacement in plant-based meat, playing a similar role that coconut fat does today.

“We’re using familiar vegetable oils as the fat base and through a combination of other ingredients and processing we can create new products.” ​He would not outline what the ingredients were but said they were “hydrocolloid systems​” with which consumers would be familiar.  

There won’t be any novel regulatory path to follow here,” ​said Dr Leonard, noting that a lot of companies are currently exploring fat technology in the plant-based food space, with some synthetic biology players such as Perfect Day exploring using engineered microbes (rather than cows) to create milkfat,​ for example.

He added: “We’re certainly open to looking at this kind of thing if it makes sense for our portfolio in the future, but we’d like to take a robust but as simple as possible approach to begin with.”

‘We are looking at extrudable fats that have elongational properties’

As part of the collaboration with Dr Marangoni, Motif is also exploring how to replicate animal fat structures, such as the pockets of fat in meat products that produce marbling, said Dr Leonard.

“Think about fat marbling in meat, how the fat is intimately connected and interpolated within the protein fibers. Today, there’s no real way to do that through extrusion; if you put a liquid oil into an extruder, it’s going to coat the insider of the extruder and create a big mess and it won’t have any useful properties.

“But we are looking at extrudable fats that have elongational properties in extrusion; fat that is able to interpolate with plant-based protein fibers as it extrudes creating juiciness and structure in the finished product.”

‘Critical new building blocks in plant-based food design’

The third technology Motif is looking at (with the University of Guelph) is how (unspecified) plant-based fibers could be used to “really improve the stretchiness and meltiness of plant-based cheese​,” said Dr Leonard.

“Right now, a lot of vegan cheese behaves more like an oily starch paste than actual cheese, so we’re looking at how we can bring plant-based ingredients to the table that can form fibers and enable these vegan cheeses to melt, stretch, and have the elongation properties of dairy cheese. The initial proof of concept work that we’ve done is really promising.”

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