onions on a table

Photo by mayu ken from Unsplash

STUTTGART, Germany — Whether you’re trying to eat healthier or you’re just against harming animals, plant-based foods have become a popular food option. Even fast food chains like Burger King and White Castle have introduced vegetarian-friendly options. However, a common complaint with these plant-based meat alternatives is that they don’t taste — like meat! For people missing that juicy “meaty” flavor, food chemists have found an interesting solution — fermented onions.

“One of the main reasons for consumer rejection of plant-based meat alternatives is the lack of meaty flavor after cooking,” the study authors write in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.

When fermented with common fungi, veggie patties mixed with onions, chives, and leeks help replicate the natural chemicals that give meat its savory flavor and aroma. Companies that previously tried to mimic the flavor profile of meat have had to rely on synthetic additives during cooking. This involves heating flavor precursors before adding the products. Lots of these plant-based meats are no longer considered natural.

Beyond Burger
(© steheap – stock.adobe.com)

To create a meat-flavored veggie patty, food scientists will need to physically extract flavoring chemicals from plants or generate them with enzymes, bacteria, or fungi. In this current study, the researchers looked to see if fungi, known to create meaty odors and flavors, could create the same chemicals from vegetables or spices.

The team fermented several fungal species with different types of food. Onions and leeks fermented from the Allium family produced meaty tastes. The high levels of sulfur in onions fermented in the Allium family helped with creating meat-flavored compounds. Most meats contain sulfur. The strongest meaty scents came after an 18-hour-long fermentation of onion using the fungus Polyporus umbellatus, which created scents similar to liver sausage.

Using gas chromatography-mass spectrometry — a technique for separating chemical compounds in mixtures and studying them at a molecular level — the study authors identified five flavor and odor chemicals in the fermented onion. Many of these chemicals are associated with producing a wide aroma of flavors for meat. For example, one odor chemical found was bis(2-methyl-3-furyl) disulfide. This is a strong odorant in creating savory and meaty foods. Based on the findings, the authors suggest fermented onions are one way to make a natural flavoring of plant-based meats.

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About Jocelyn Solis-Moreira

Jocelyn is a New York-based science journalist whose work has appeared in Discover Magazine, Health, and Live Science, among other publications. She holds a Master's of Science in Psychology with a concentration in behavioral neuroscience and a Bachelor's of Science in integrative neuroscience from Binghamton University. Jocelyn has reported on several medical and science topics ranging from coronavirus news to the latest findings in women's health.

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