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Scientists discover natural way to make plant-based meat more “meaty”

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Plant-based substitutes like tempeh and bean burgers offer protein-packed choices for individuals looking to cut down on meat. However, mimicking the taste and smell of meat is difficult, and many companies use artificial additives for this purpose. A recent study in ACS’ Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry has revealed a promising solution: onions, chives, and leeks can generate natural compounds similar to meat’s savoury flavours when fermented with typical fungi.

Innovative Approaches to Natural Meat Flavoring

When food producers want to make plant-based meat alternatives taste meatier, they often add precursor ingredients found in meats that transform into flavour agents during cooking. Or, the flavouring is prepared first by heating flavour precursors, or by other chemical manipulations, and then added to products.

Because these flavourings are made through synthetic processes, many countries won’t allow food makers to label them as “natural.” Accessing a plant-based, “natural” meat flavouring would require the flavouring chemicals to be physically extracted from plants or generated biochemically with enzymes, bacteria or fungi. So, YanYan Zhang and colleagues wanted to see if fungi known to produce meaty flavours and odours from synthetic sources could be used to create the same chemicals from vegetables or spices.

Alliums Unlock Meaty Aromas

The team fermented various fungal species with a range of foods and found that meaty aromas were only generated from foods in the Allium family, such as onions and leeks. The most strongly scented sample came from an 18-hour-long fermentation of onion using the fungus Polyporus umbellatus, which produced a fatty and meaty scent similar to liver sausage.

With gas chromatography-mass spectrometry, the researchers analyzed the onion ferments to identify flavour and odour chemicals, and found many that are known to be responsible for different flavours in meats. One chemical they identified was bis(2-methyl-3-furyl) disulfide, a potent odorant in meaty and savoury foods.

The team says that alliums’ high sulfur content contributes to their ability to yield meat-flavored compounds, which also often contain sulfur. These onion ferments could someday be used as a natural flavouring in various plant-based meat alternatives, the researchers say.

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