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Transforming sustainable plant proteins into high-performance lubricating microgels

May 14, 2024

Scientists have developed a new method to turn plant proteins into high-performance lubricating microgels, a significant step towards tastier plant-based meat alternatives. This research was conducted by Ben Kew, Melvin Holmes, Evangelos Liamas, Rammile Ettelaie and Anwesha Sarkar from Food Colloids and Processing Group, School of Food Science and Nutrition, University of Leeds, and Simon D. Connell from the Molecular and Nanoscale Physics Group, School of Physics and Astronomy, University of Leeds, as well as Daniele Dini from the Department of Mechanical Engineering, Imperial College London. Published in the journal Nature, the findings of the research could address a major hurdle in the development of palatable plant-based foods.

Meat production has a significant environmental impact, and plant-based alternatives are increasingly seen as a more sustainable option. However, many plant-based meat products lack the desirable texture and mouthfeel of real meat, often due to high friction between plant protein ingredients.

Plant proteins often have a grainy texture and a chalky mouthfeel because of the high friction between protein particles. This is unlike animal-derived fat, which provides lubrication and a smooth texture in meat.

The researchers described a method to create microgels from plant proteins. Microgels are tiny gel-like particles. The researchers found that their method significantly reduced friction between plant protein particles. This made the plant-based protein mixture comparable to oil-in-water emulsions, which are commonly used as lubricants in food applications.

The authors believe that their method could be a major breakthrough in developing plant-based foods with a more pleasant mouthfeel and texture that are more comparable to real meat. This could significantly improve the consumer experience and accelerate the adoption of plant-based alternatives.

While this research is a promising step forward, further development is needed to bring this technology to market. The researchers will need to scale up the microgel production process and ensure it can be incorporated into large-scale food manufacturing. Additionally, sensory testing with consumers will be crucial to determine if the microgel-enhanced plant-based foods are truly indistinguishable from their meat counterparts in terms of taste and texture.

Overall, this research offers an exciting glimpse into the future of plant-based foods. By addressing the challenge of friction, scientists are paving the way for tastier, more sustainable meat alternatives.

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