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FPP Chicago Speaker Interview: Susanna Soares, Assistant Researcher, Faculty of Science, University of Porto

March 7, 2024

The Associated Laboratory for Green Chemistry of the Network of Chemistry and Technology is the Portuguese Research Centre for Sustainable Chemistry. Susana Soares is an Assistant Researcher there, so we caught up with her to discuss food chemistry, plant-based proteins, and the ever-present challenge of scaling up production

Please could you tell us a little about your career path so far?

I earned a degree in Biochemistry, and during my Master’s, I developed a keen interest in food chemistry. This field appeared to offer more immediate applications of research compared to health research, which often takes many years. However, it was after my PhD in Chemistry (2012) that I truly became passionate about food-tech research due to being involved in different applied projects with several Portuguese food industry companies.

At The Future of Protein Production Chicago, you are presenting on the subject of ‘Exploring the prospects of science and technology in taste improvement of the plant-based protein segment’.  Please could you talk us through what you believe the main prospects are – i.e. what are the main technologies that can be used to improve taste and how can they be applied?

Several technologies have the potential to modulate taste; the problem is to align efficiency to economic feasibility, clean label, health, and nutrition aspects. There is now a wide library of taste modulators – several companies provide functional ingredients for targeted modulation of the different tastes. From my point of view, I think that, in addition to functional ingredients, fermentation could also be a valuable tool.

And what are the biggest challenges associated with achieving parity in taste and texture with traditional animal protein?

The biggest challenges are related to the intrinsic differences in the protein structure of, for example, plant-based proteins, which leads to different taste and technological behavior. For example, some plant-based meat alternatives lack the umami and Maillard-related taste-active compounds that are typical for the meat taste. This is due to significant differences in amino acids composition and sugars present in plant-based alternatives.

In terms of real-world examples, could you any details about a recent project in this field that you have been involved with?

The projects that I can talk about are limited but I can share that my team has been involved in developing new mayonnaise-like products with alternative proteins, aligned with high content in bioactive compounds and appealing taste and color. Currently, our prototypes are being optimized by a Portuguese food industry company to reach the market. Since 2023, we have been using enzymatic hydrolysis to produce peptide extracts with taste-active compounds.

The problem is not how processing can be used but rather the balance between processing technologies, and their suitability for industrial processing and economic feasibility

Looking at the subject of processing, how do you believe that processing can be used to improve the functionality and nutritional profile of plant-based proteins?

The problem is not how processing can be used but rather the balance between processing technologies, and their suitability for industrial processing and economic feasibility. Currently there are several processing techniques (physical, chemical, and biological) that are very successful. Any processing that modifies the protein structure (e.g. promote unfolding) can impact their functionality and nutritional profile. However, there is not a one-rule-fits-all, so the application of different processing technologies must be studied case by case.

What about the hot topic of scale: what are the challenges of scaling up plant-based protein production to meet growing demand?

Scaling up faces several major challenges. Extraction efficiencies are typically low and it’s difficult to achieve high yields. There are also constraints concerning raw materials and the fragility of the supply chain, as we have seen regarding Russia’s and Ukraine war.

In your opinion, what is the most important criteria for consumers when buying plant-based proteins? Is it taste, price, nutrition – or perhaps a combination of several of these?

I would definitely say the taste. I think that, nowadays, the target audience for these products are the flexitarians rather than vegan or vegetarians. As you know, flexitarians are consumers that eat meat but for several reasons are reducing the animal protein intake. Focusing on meat, for example, most of these consumers like meat but the plant-based alternatives lack real meat taste. Food industry and researchers have found good solutions to mimic meat texture even meat color reasonably, but for taste not yet.

What research are you currently working on and what areas would you like to focus on next?

I’m involved in a variety of projects, some related to fundamental research and others applied research with different food companies. Fundamental research is focused on studying the food matrix’s molecular interactions and interactions inside the oral cavity behind some (undesirable) taste properties commonly related to plant-based food, namely astringency and bitterness, and finding methods for their modulation. Applied research is focused on developing new food products with alternative proteins, not only plant-based but also yeast proteins. In the coming years, I will be focusing on fermentation as a processing technique to improve plant-based food taste.

Susana will be giving a presentation alongside Nadji Rekhif, Principal Scientist at Nestlé at The Future of Protein Production Chicago called, ‘Exploring the prospects of science and technology in taste improvement of the plant-based protein segment’, which takes place at McCormick Place on 24/25 April 2024. Book your tickets today to come and hear a further +85 speakers, 30 presentations, eight panel discussions and network with +400 other attendees. Click here

If you have any questions or would like to get in touch with us, please email info@futureofproteinproduction.com

About the Speaker

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