Finetuning ‘beany, earthy, and bitter’ off notes in plant-based meat alternatives

By Donna Eastlake

- Last updated on GMT

Eliminating off notes in plant-based meat alternatives GettyImages/SolStock
Eliminating off notes in plant-based meat alternatives GettyImages/SolStock

Related tags vegan plant-based Meat alternatives Unilever Nestlé

Off notes or flavour challenges in meat-free products has been a headache for the food industry for years, but new research could put that problem to bed once and for all.

International Flavors & Fragrances (IFF) is partnering with British multinational Unilever, and Dutch university Wageningen University & Research (WUR), to address the issue of off notes in plant-based products. Off notes, often described as an objectionable taste and/or odour, are a widespread problem in meat-free foods.

What causes off notes?

Off notes are caused by plant proteins, which can create a lingering after taste and bitterness in meat alternatives. Manufacturers often mask these unfavourable attributes with a combination of flavours, however this can in turn result in an undesirable aroma from the food.

“There are flavour challenges of some kind with pretty much all plant proteins used as meat alternatives.” says Michel Mellema, global innovation director at Re-Imagine Protein, IFF. “They can include beany off notes, earthy flavours, astringency and lingering bitterness.”

What will the project involve?

The comprehensive four-year project will see researchers from IFF and Unilever working alongside scientists from WUR. Their primary focus will be to explore the ways in which flavours bind to protein molecules, with the goal of recommending novel flavouring strategies to improve the flavour of plant-based meat alternatives.

The project will target areas within flavour compositions, which the researchers believe hold the greatest chance of success. Using advanced analytical methods, WUR scientists will study the protein flavour interactions, while Unilever's will be able to guide them on consumer preferences, maintaining a consumer-centric approach throughout.

“To make the project as impactful as possible, we’re looking at the protein sources most commonly used in plant-based food products. So initially the primary focus is on soya,” said Mellema. He added: “There are two main routes to mitigation – via flavours, and via the protein itself. Altering the protein itself using biotech solutions is a major focus of IFF’s activity. In the case of this project, it’s all about gaining a better understanding of the ways that flavours bind to protein molecules.”

“Our mission is to understand and improve flavour quality in plant-based meat alternatives by unravelling the intricacies of protein interactions, to investigate flavour loss and elevate the overall flavour profile,” said Neil Da Costa, lead scientist, global product research, IFF. “This joint commitment aligns with our shared goal of improving consumer eating experiences and fostering positive change within the plant-based food industry.

This sentiment is echoed by Hans-Gerd Janssen, part-time professor at the chair group Organic Chemistry of Wageningen University and scientist at Unilever, “Unilever has a sound understanding of the consumer needs and has detailed knowledge on the consumer wishes and the areas where the consumers would welcome product improvements. For us at WUR that allows us to focus on specific off-flavours of plant-based meat alternatives. IFF has, largely based on trial-and-error experimenting, identified solutions to the problems indicated by consumers.

“At WUR we try to build the knowledge why these solutions work, and we try to develop flavour-improvement strategies that allow us to target specific off-flavours indicated by consumers to be the strongest obstacle for repeat purchase of meat alternatives. We try to deliver solutions for society. Unilever tells us what the most relevant problems are, IFF provides us with solutions that work that we can used to build our understanding.”

Why improving the flavour of plant-based products matters

The environmental impacts of the meat industry are widespread, from deforestation​ for cattle grazing to methane​ emissions from the rearing of livestock. Coupled with this, there are numerous studies to suggest that a plant-based diet can assist in everything from weight loss in overweight people to lowering the risk of gestational diabetes​ during pregnancy. It’s therefore essential that food manufacturers ensure plant-based alternatives are appetising to consumers.

“Moving to a more plant-based diet is very important for our health and for the planet,” said Manfred Aben, nutrition and ice cream head of science and technology at Unilever. “Technology is a key enabler for us to create plant-based products that have the same great taste and texture as animal meat but have a lower environmental footprint. We always strive to improve our products and satisfy our consumers’ changing needs and preferences. This research partnership will enable us to understand and control how flavours work to create superior plant-based meat products.”

Manufacturers across the industry are working to improve the flavour of plant-based foods, with a spokesperson for Swiss brand, Nestlé confirming, “We are constantly exploring the next generation of plant-based ingredients considering different taste, functional and nutritional aspects. For example, at the Nestlé​ Institute of Agricultural Sciences, we are working with farmers to select nutritious, tasty pulse varieties best suited for different plant-based alternatives. Additionally, through leveraging our long-standing plant-based innovation expertise, patented technologies, as well as our culinary expertise - we develop and launch plant-based alternatives to ensure our consumers get the desired taste profile.”

Unilever’s Janssen added: “Developing meat alternatives that are even tastier and healthier can drive the transition to more plant-based options.”

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