Engineering Aromas in Meat Substitutes

One of the latest trends in the food industry is a growing demand for vegetarian alternatives to meat products.  This is the case even in countries that have traditionally leaned toward meat-centric diets.  For example, in the last two years 34% of German consumers have reduced the amount of meat in their diet. This trend is driven not just by vegetarians, but also by “flexitarians” whose diets are plant-based with the occasional inclusion of meat products.

In fact, the number of new vegetarian food and beverage product introductions increased more than 60% between 2011 and 2015, and high-quality, plant-based meat alternative product launches increased by 24% in the same time period. Flexitarians will be key to the continued growth of meat substitutes, but they may be pickier than vegetarians and insist on a genuine meat experience when they consume these substitutes. Only 38% of consumers in the United States report eating meatless meals at least once a week. However, this amounts to 120 million customers with the opportunity for rapid growth, given the right meat substitute products.

The need for meat substitutes is also driven by an even more pressing trend. The demand for meat is projected to double between 2000 and 2050.  However, there may not even be enough space and water available to produce that much meat. Even if there is, the environmental cost may be too high. More options are needed to satisfy the demand for meat without misuse of our resources.

Consumers who are primarily meat eaters may even be potential customers for meat substitutes. However, these substitutes would need to very closely mirror the texture, taste and cooking experience of meat products. In fact, a few companies are currently developing meat substitutes to achieve that exacting goal.

Beyond Meat recently debuted the Beyond Burger. Made of pea protein, it gives off beet juice “blood” and sizzles like a real burger when it cooks. After their unveiling at Whole Foods in Boulder, Colorado, the burgers sold out quickly.  Memphis Meats actually plans to grow meat in cell culture and produce burgers, sausages and hot dogs.

Another company that is creating quite a stir in food industry circles is Impossible Foods.  The Impossible Burger smells, tastes and sizzles like a real hamburger. It even oozes fat. A lot of research has gone into perfecting this burger. Impossible Foods set out to recreate the flavors, textures, aromas and nutrition of ground beef by identifying the molecular components responsible for these characteristics.

Recreating the Beef Burger Experience

One of the key technologies used to identify these components was gas chromatography/mass spectrometry (GC/MS) using the GERSTEL Multipurpose Autosampler (MPS) and Olfactory Detection Port (ODP). The MPS conducted solid phase microextraction (SPME) of headspace gases given off during the cooking of beef burgers, as well as extraction of flavor compounds from the beef itself. The key flavor aromas associated with beef were then incorporated into the Impossible Burger, and subsequent analysis was done using GC/MS and the Olfactory Detection Port to compare the Impossible burger flavors and aromas to a beef burger.

During the GC/MS analysis using Agilent Technologies instrumentation, the Olfactory Detection Port enabled Impossible Foods operators to actually smell each separated component of the aroma or flavor of the cooked beef burger. The effluent from the GC was split as it left the column, so that it arrived simultaneously at the operator’s nose and at the detector. The compounds that were found to be most characteristic of the aroma and flavor of a beef burger were then used to recreate the beef burger experience in the plant-based Impossible Burger.

The Olfactory Detection Port has been proving its worth in aroma analysis of foods and beverages for several years. It provides parallel operation with most standard detectors, including MSD, and the effluent gas is humidified for the comfort of the operator. It also features voice recording and voice recognition, so that spoken comments are transcribed and added automatically to the chromatogram as peak annotations. Full attention can then be paid to detecting and describing odors as they elute from the column.  All data is stored with the Agilent ChemStation results and can be presented as overlapping chromatograms and olfactograms, as well as data reports with descriptors that help with data interpretation and problem solving.

Researchers at the Department of Viticulture and Enology have taken the use of the Olfactory Detection Portone step further to develop a new instrumental technique: Gas Chromatography Recomposition-Olfactometry (GC-R). After compounds in an aroma have been characterized by GC/MS and olfactory perception using the Olfactory Detection Port, this method enables the reconstitution of the components at will, selecting sections of the chromatogram, peaks or individual compounds to generate new aroma mixtures. The system collects the desired components in a cold trap that is also accessed by the Olfactory Detection Port.

This method can them be used to perform reconstitution and omission experiments to determine the role of specific compounds in the aroma of a food, for example. Omitting one component of a mixture at a time and using the Olfactory Detection Port to determine if a significant difference is perceived in the aroma can help to identify those compounds that are important to the aroma.  Conversely, using the method to add components to a desired aroma can identify those compounds that can disrupt it. This approach gives food researchers an important tool for rapid characterization and improvement of food and beverage aromas.

Development of plant-based meat substitutes that can satisfy vegetarians, flexitarians and even meat lovers is in full swing.  These products will be essential to meeting the growth in demand for meat products, while conserving valuable resources that would be needed to produce enough beef and other meats to meet that demand.  Aroma analysis using GC/MS and the Olfactory Detection Port will be essential to identifying and reconstructing meat aromas that will assure that meat substitutes appeal to all of these consumer groups.