But that’s only part of the process – what’s the point of developing a new crop if it tastes worse than what’s already on the market? “We have an in-house trained tasting panel that tastes our products on a weekly basis,” said Sigal Meirovitch, senior director and head of research and development at Equinom, an Israeli company that also focuses on improving crops for plant-based alternatives to animal products Taste. Unlike Benson Hill, Equinom has so far focused primarily on yellow peas.
“After we see the results, we will send the more successful varieties to an external tasting panel, who will verify and validate the results,” Meirovitch said. Testing involves comparing the team’s crop with other varieties on the market. Equinom first compared its pea flour with other commercially available pea flours. The company then used these different peas to make plant-based ice cream and taste-tested it. Meirovitch said that from preliminary research, people have consistently preferred ice cream made with the company’s yellow pea protein. In addition to testing the product on humans, Meirovitch added, the team performed more rigorous chemical analysis by using an electronic nose, like a high-tech dog that can sniff out the scents they look or don’t in order. The goal is a neutral aroma without masking any off-flavors.
There are several major arguments in favor of high-protein variants of crops. One is that higher protein levels alter the chemistry of the relevant crop, a process that alters taste by default. Simply put, taste is our tongue’s response to chemical stimuli.
Another is that processed crops can add salty, metallic or artificial residual flavors, and with high-protein variants, less processing is required. When producing protein isolates or concentrates, processing definitely affects taste, said Youling Xiong, a professor of food science at the University of Kentucky, whose products are used to make meat substitutes.
But Gary Reineccius, a professor at the University of Minnesota who studies flavor, is skeptical of the processing argument, saying bad off-flavors don’t come from processing, they’re innate. As a plant grows, the chemical processes it goes through produce byproducts — “small molecules that don’t taste very good,” he said. “So, even if you can make a really high-protein plant source, there’s still some off-flavor.”
Bears agree that odors can also be due to biomolecules found in plants. However, when it comes to creating plant-based meat alternatives, he believes that taste isn’t the most important thing – what’s important is recreating the texture of animal products, like the juiciness of a burger. Exploring other crops could be a good way to find better taste and texture, he said. “We shouldn’t limit our imagination to a few traditional proteins – we should explore whatever is possible.”
He uses mung beans as an example, saying it has a mild taste and interesting properties, such as its ability to form a gel. Food company Eat Just has successfully created a plant-based egg substitute using mung beans, already listed Since 2018. Other companies, like Mikuna, which produces edible plant-based protein, are trying to introduce alternative crops like Andean lupins into our diets.
Regardless of the crop involved, Meirovitch is adamant that increasing the protein content in plant-based products will propel them to success. “We’ve seen that protein largely determines taste and texture,” she said. “Of course, there are many factors that affect the taste and texture of plant-based foods, but by far, protein has had the greatest impact because it’s the most important ingredient in plant-based burgers after water.” In her view, “Protein is the The key to differentiating a mediocre, dry, bean burger from a really tasty and juicy meat burger.”
For Benson Hill and Equinom, the high-protein product they are working on is just the beginning. Benson Hill plans to explore other elements that could enhance its composition, such as water retention, which can improve juiciness, Begemann said. Equinom even hopes to address nutritional issues by combining different crops, such as sesame and pea protein, to make its food products more comprehensive, Meirovitch said. Bergman’s daughter has a lot to look forward to if the results are in line with the team’s wishes.