Plant-based foods can taste better and be healthier, food scientists say

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Experts continue to work on ways to make plant-based options more attractive to consumers

Over the last few years, major retailers like Denny’s, Pizza Hut, Subway, and White Castle have rolled out plant-based options for traditionally meat-based products. This came on the heels of reports suggesting that consumers are likely to gain health benefits when they eat more plant-based foods

Now, researchers from the University of Massachusetts Amherst explained that they’re working on ways to make these choices taste better and be healthier for consumers. They explained that the goal is to make more plant-based proteins; however, there are several factors that come into play in the research process, and more work needs to be done. 

“With Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods and other products coming on the market, there’s huge interest in plant-based foods for improved sustainability, health, and ethical reasons,” said researcher David Julian McClements. 

“A lot of academics are starting to work in this area and are not familiar with the complexity of animal products and the physicochemical principles you need in order to assemble plant-based ingredients into these products, each with their own physical, functional, nutritional, and sensory attributes.”

Innovations in plant-based food science

Plant-based food options have gained popularity in recent years, and the researchers say there is interest and demand for eating fewer animal-based products; they cited statistics that show a nearly 30% increase in sales of plant-based items between 2017 and 2019. The goal now is to continue developing healthier products that taste good. 

Despite how well-received meatless options have been, McClements explained that many of these products aren’t as nutrient-dense as they could be. Rather than using plant-based proteins, which is the team’s goal for the future, these products are full of fats and sugars that can negatively impact consumers’ health. 

“Our research has pivoted toward this topic,” said McClements. “There’s a huge amount of innovation and investment in this area, and I get contacted frequently by different startup companies who are trying to make plant-based fish or eggs or cheese, but who often don’t have a background in the science of foods.” 

One of the roadblocks in this area is the nutrient make-up of plant-based foods. While there are benefits to eating plant-based foods, eliminating all animal-based products can leave consumers lacking some vital nutrients, including calcium and vitamin D. 

“We’re trying to make processed foods healthier,” said McClements. “We aim to design them all to have the vitamins and minerals you need and have health-promoting components like dietary fiber and phytochemicals so that they taste good and they’re convenient and they’re cheap and you can easily incorporate them into your life. That’s the goal in the future, but we’re not there yet for most products.” 

McClements and his team have received funding from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture and the Good Food Institute so that they can continue working on more diverse options of plant-based proteins. 

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