But that’s only part of the process: what’s the point of developing new cultures if they taste worse than what’s already on the market? “We have an in-house trained tasting panel that tastes our produce every week,” says Sigal Meirovitch, senior director and head of R&D at Equinom, an Israeli company also focused on improving crops for use in plant-based alternatives to animal products. Unlike Benson Hill, Equinom has so far mainly focused on the yellow pea.
“After we see the results, we send the best performing varieties to an outside tasting panel that checks and validates the results,” says Meirovitch. The tests consist of comparing the crops that the team has selected with other varieties that are on the market. Equinom started by comparing the flour made from its peas with other commercially available pea flours. The company then used these different peas to create plant-based ice creams and also taste-tested them. Based on preliminary studies, Meirovitch says people consistently prefer the company’s yellow pea protein ice cream. Alongside the human testing of the products, Meirovitch adds that the team performs more stringent chemical analyzes through the use of an electric nose, which, like some kind of high-tech dog, can detect the aromas they are looking for or nope. for. The goal is a neutral aroma, eliminating the need to cover up off-flavors.
There are a few main arguments in favor of protein-rich crop variants. The first is that higher protein content alters the chemical composition of the crop in question, a process which, by default, will alter the taste. Reduced to its simplest form, taste is our tongue reacting to chemical stimuli.
Another is that processing cultures can add residual salty, metallic or artificial flavors, and with high protein variants there is less need to process. Youling Xiong, a professor of food science at the University of Kentucky, says processing can definitely impact taste when producing a protein isolate or concentrate, which are the products of these cultures used. in the manufacture of meat substitutes.
But Gary Reineccius, a University of Minnesota professor who studies flavors, is skeptical of the processing argument, saying unwanted off-flavors don’t come from processing, but are inherent. As a plant grows, the chemical processes it goes through create byproducts — “little molecules that don’t taste so good,” he says. “So even if you can create a very high protein vegetable source, there will still be off-flavors.”
Xiong agrees that bad flavors can also be due to biological molecules found in plants. Yet when it comes to creating plant-based meat alternatives, he believes flavor isn’t the most important thing – what’s vital is recreating the mouthfeel of the products. of animal origin, like the juiciness of a hamburger. Exploring other cultures could be a good way to find better tastes and textures, he says. “We shouldn’t limit our imagination to a few traditional proteins, we should explore everything possible.”
He cites the mung bean as an example and says it has a mild flavor and interesting properties, such as its ability to form a gel. Food company Eat Just has successfully created a plant-based egg alternative using mung beans that has been on the market since 2018. Other companies, like Mikuna, which produces edible vegetable proteins, are trying to introduce alternative crops, like Andean lupine, into our diet.
Regardless of the crop involved, Meirovitch is convinced that increasing the amount of protein in plant-based products is what will lead to their success. “We saw that protein overwhelmingly dictates taste and mouthfeel,” she says. “Of course, many factors influence the taste and texture of plant-based foods, but protein has by far the greatest impact because it is the largest ingredient by volume in a plant-based burger, other than water.” In his opinion, “protein is what separates a mediocre, dry, bean-to-cup burger from a truly delicious, juicy meaty burger.”
For Benson Hill and Equinom, the protein-rich products they’re working on are just the start. Begemann says Benson Hill plans to explore other things he could boost in his ingredients, such as water-holding capacity, which could improve juiciness. Meirovitch says Equinom would even like to tackle nutrition by combining different cultures, such as sesame and pea protein, to give its foods a more complete nutritional profile. If the results match the team’s aspirations, Begemann’s daughter has a lot to look forward to.