When you bite into a juicy burger or sausage, you experience a unique taste and texture that many know and love. Scientists with the University of Guelph are using the Canadian Light Source (CLS) at the University of Saskatchewan to improve vegan meats and get them to taste more like the real thing.
Alejandro Marangoni, a professor with the Department of Food Science at the University of Guelph, says there are many advantages to plant-based foods, including health benefits, improved animal welfare, and a reduced impact on the environment.
“Agriculture is responsible for over 25 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions in the world, and by some calculations, it's even greater than the oil and gas industry,” says Marangoni. “So, any choices we make in terms of the food we eat will have a very large impact on the sustainability signature of food production.”
Marangoni lives a mostly vegan lifestyle and knows that the pleasure we get from eating plays a large role in what food we choose to eat. “Fat brings all the flavor and the juiciness that is associated with animal products, which plant-based products don't have,” he said.
The fat in animal products is in a completely different state than what is found in current vegan products; it does not easily separate when cooked.
“Many manufacturers of plant-based products just throw an oil inside the mix that then becomes a gel that is supposed to resemble a piece of meat,” explains Marangoni. “What you notice immediately when you put a vegan sausage in a frying pan is a pool of oil forming underneath. It all leaks out.” The product will then taste dry and grainy because most of the fat has separated.
Marangoni’s team has taken the first steps to remedying this problem. The researchers have developed solid plant-based fats and a vegan meat prototype with a similar texture to meat products. They published their recent findings in Food Research International. Yasamin Soleimanian, a postdoctoral research associate in the Marangoni lab, was lead author on the study.
They demonstrated that by rearranging molecules they were able to turn different types of liquid oils into solids without adding saturated or hydrogenated fat, and create vegan fats with similar characteristics as those of pork, beef, and lamb. “Our research at the Canadian Light Source has been essential for the development of these products,” says Marangoni.
The team used the BXDS, BMIT, and Mid-IR beamlines at the CLS to characterize the solid structure of the fats they created and understand the interaction between these fats and other components in the food. The group also showed that they could scale up the production of these oils, which would help make these products viable for manufacturers and ultimately more affordable for consumers.
The next step for the researchers is to trap this plant-based solid fat in a scaffold within vegan meats so it doesn’t leak out when cooked. They have identified promising scaffolds in waste plant products and are conducting this ongoing research at the CLS.
“I think it's going to be a game changer when people start eating this product we’re developing,” says Marangoni.
He feels his team’s research on vegan foods could create an opportunity for Canada to become a leader in plant-based protein production.
“There is a supply of proteins from legumes grown extensively in Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Alberta, and central Canada. Our group is working to use these crops in vegan meats that will be inexpensive, delicious, and what people want,” he said. “If those two things can come together, I think it could be a golden age for agriculture in Canada.”
Soleimanian, Yasamin, Saeed M. Ghazani, and Alejandro G. Marangoni. "Enzymatic glycerolysis for the conversion of plant oils into animal fat mimetics." Food Research International 174 (2023): 113651. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.foodres.2023.113651
Canadian Light Source