Consuming less meat is better for the environment: the production of a small piece of meat causes the emission of large quantities of CO2 and other greenhouse gasses. The search for alternatives is therefore imperative. In the lab, researchers are already going one step further than tofu and veggie balls: the meat substitutes 3.0 will be here soon.
There are of course already many alternatives for meat. Products such as tofu, tempeh and seitan are the oldest traditional meat substitutes. In the East, they have been staples for a long time, but in this part of the world, they are mostly favoured by diehard vegetarians.
New flexitarians now have a range of options to choose from in second-generation meat substitutes: readymade burgers or sausages, veggie balls or schnitzels. These are either a mix of plant-based ingredients combined with egg or cheese, or vegan – entirely plant-based. But in all honesty, to the meat-eaters among us who just want to eat less meat, these products only look like processed meat. They neither have the taste nor fibrous texture of meat, and this is an obstacle to many consumers.
Soyabeans and peas
Hence the need for meat substitutes 3.0. In the supermarket, they might be called ‘veggie chicken pieces, bacon bits or beef strips’. In terms of taste and especially texture or mouthfeel, meat-eaters find it much harder to distinguish these products from genuine meat. “The basic ingredients are proteins from soyabeans, peas or wheat. These vegetal proteins are processed to produce protein filaments with the texture of meat”, says Professor Arno Wouters at the Laboratory of Food Chemistry and Biochemistry.
These new meat substitutes have often been developed in a relatively trial-and-error way, however. “We lack scientific knowledge about how to approximate the texture of meat with vegetal proteins. Our research is focused on attempting to understand that process”, says Wouters, who focuses on protein from soya.
TThe basic ingredients are proteins from soya beans, peas or wheat. These vegetal proteins are processed to produce protein filaments with the texture of meat.
Waste or meat substitute
Previously, soya proteins have been considered ‘waste’. A soya bean consists of fat, proteins, and carbohydrates. “The majority of soya beans are currently processed into soya oil. The residue of this process is soya flour – including high-grade soya proteins – that is largely used as an ingredient for animal feed. But there is now a growing conviction that it is better to use soya beans in the production of meat substitutes than as animal feed.”
To be clear, Wouters doesn’t cook soya beans in the lab. “This is fundamental research and we analyse the whole chain, from soya bean to end product. What are all the necessary steps to produce high-quality meat substitutes? There are many variables in every step of this process, so it is important to understand and control the whole chain.” This involves a considerable degree of chemistry and biochemistry.
There is now a growing conviction that it is better to use soya beans in the production of meat substitutes than as animal feed.
The proteins are first separated from the other components in the soya beans: in this step, it is important to retain the quality of the proteins to the greatest possible extent. The proteins and remaining carbohydrates are dried and then – at a suitable water level - pressed through a kind of mould, producing a fibrous mass that can be used as a meat substitute. This final step in the process is called high moisture extrusion and it is influenced by several parameters, such as the moisture level, temperature and pressure.
Because imported soya beans leave much to be desired in terms of sustainability, the research is conducted using Flemish soya. There are soya fields in various places across Flanders: some test fields are owned by the ILVO agency (Flanders Research Institute for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food) and by farmers who want to be pioneers of the new crop.
In the future, we will derive our protein from multiple sources rather than from one successful product.
ILVO has been championing the cultivation of soya in this region for a number of years, and has now joined forces with KU Leuven and Flanders’ Food (the Flemish strategy-driven platform for agrifood) to research the possibilities for processed soya products. “ILVO will use our findings on a small scale in the lab and test it on a pilot-scale, allowing further optimizing soya cultivation in Flanders.”
Wouters does not predict that our plates will be filled with ‘soya meat’ in the future. “We will derive our proteins from multiple sources, not from one successful product only. Alternatives are also being developed in the field of animal protein, just think of lab-grown meat and insects.” And we are just at the beginning of research into plant-based protein: “It isn’t just about soya. Peas, beans, and cereals – the major research object of our research group – are important sources of vegetal protein. So there is a great deal more work to do.”