How Do They Make Plant-Based Meat Behave Like Beef?
- On March 3, 2020
Texture, appearance and flavor: These are the elements of meat that the new vegan alternatives from Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat are trying to capture, with varying degrees of success. Here’s how they do it:
In ground beef, animal protein provides springy texture and allows the meat to bind to itself. (Hamburgers would simply crumble if it didn’t.)
But mimicking the texture of animal protein using plant-based ingredients has always been difficult because of a fundamental difference between animals and plants: muscles, which are by necessity elastic and springy. To move their bodies, animals must be able to easily change the shape and tension of their flesh without damaging it. Plant cells, on the other hand, are relatively rigid and unflexing.
To put it simply, plants are crunchy, and meat is chewy. This is why veggie burgers can often feel crumbly or mushy in texture, without the bite and springiness of animal protein. To solve this problem, researchers have spent years isolating and cataloging a wide variety of plant-based protein sources. As a result, the texture of modern vegan meat — provided by wheat or pea proteins, among others — can be fantastic.
The other major factor in beef’s texture is animal fat, which provides mouth-coating richness and juiciness. Beef fat also tends to melt slowly, over a wide temperature range. This slow release of fat results in juiciness that lingers as you chew.
That’s very hard to capture with plant-based fats, because of a crucial difference between them and animal fats. The melting point of a fat is linked to its level of saturation — the number of single bonds versus double bonds in its fatty-acid chain. Animal fats tend to be more highly saturated than vegetable fats (usually referred to as oils in culinary circles), which is why beef and pork fat are solid at room temperature while olive and corn oils are liquid.
There are a few exceptions, notably palm and coconut oils, which are highly saturated and thus solid at room temperature. Both Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat use coconut oil as their primary fat, producing a mouth-coating texture similar to animal fat.
But coconut oil melts at a much lower temperature than beef fat, and much faster. In the mouth, this translates to bites that start off rich and juicy; but that juiciness wears off much quicker. In this department, plant-based meats still have a way to go.
The new vegan meats have also made great advances in replicating the red color we associate with beef.
n beef, that color comes from myoglobin, a compound that transmits oxygen from the bloodstream to muscle cells. Beyond Meat uses beet extracts to color its product, while Impossible Foods relies on another iron-containing compound called leghemoglobin, an oxygen transport molecule found in the roots of legumes, such as soy. Like myoglobin, it has a red color and — according to Impossible — a meaty flavor. (The company produces its leghemoglobin with the help of genetically modified yeast.)
In both products, the coconut oil is incorporated in small, solid chunks that mimic the appearance of animal fat. When you bite into a medium-rare Impossible or Beyond burger, the resemblance to ground beef in color and texture is uncanny.
The precise makeup of the flavorings used in Beyond and Impossible meats are harder to decipher. Food and Drug Administration labeling rules don’t require companies to disclose exact flavoring agents, only whether they use “natural flavors” or “artificial flavors.” And like most packaged products, Impossible and Beyond meats don’t disclose the sources of those flavors.
Even those terms can be misleading. Natural and artificial flavors can be chemically identical to each other, but only those chemicals derived from a natural source can be labeled “natural,” regardless of how refined or processed it is.
As it does with juiciness, the propensity of plant-based fats to melt quickly makes fat-soluble flavor compounds dissipate in the mouth faster than with beef.
At a Glance
Here’s a quick look at the primary ingredients used by the two companies:
Impossible Foods: Soy and potato protein
Beyond Meat: Pea, rice and mung bean protein
Impossible: Coconut and sunflower oil
Beyond: Coconut and canola oil