WASHINGTON — Better tasting meat-free sausages and burgers could soon be in a store near you. Scientists say they’ve struggled to recreate the “crunch” or “crack” of meat sausages in vegan substitutes because the molecular properties of the proteins are “markedly” different. Now, a new study is revealing what it will take to produce tastier meat alternatives.
Muscle proteins blend fats and oils differently to their plant counterparts, a study finds. They produce a bite which is very hard to mimic. The new findings could lead to improved vegetarian alternatives of sausages, burgers, and other meaty treats.
“The ‘crunch’ or ‘crack’ of meat sausages is inevitably different than that of vegan sausages, simply because the molecular properties of the proteins are markedly different,” says study lead author Professor Thomas Vilgis from the Max Planck Institute for Polymer Research in Germany, in a media release.
A major craving to satisfy
The researcher’s home of Germany is home to over 1,000 varieties of sausage! According to The National Hot Dog and Sausage Council in the United States, the average American eats about 70 hot dogs a year.
Many people still complain that “beyond meat” or “impossible” products can’t beat the real thing. The pioneering analysis now explains why. Researchers investigated the molecular function and effects of vegetable proteins of different origins to identify sensory weak points.
“We use direct comparisons of meat-based, vegetarian with egg white, and pure vegan versions to show the differences in bite, chewing, mouthfeel, bolus formation, and associated enjoyment characteristics of the sausages,” Vilgis explains.
The bolus is the small round soft mass food becomes as people chew and saliva lubricates it before swallowing begins. A series of chemical experiments identified the mouthfeel of meat-based, vegetarian, and vegan sausages.
Tension, friction, flow, and wear tests showed oils and fats were emulsified in a variety of ways depending on the proteins. Modern engineering techniques can make them so similar in appearance they are impossible to distinguish by the naked eye. Food scientists can largely replicate taste and smell, but texture at the molecular scale is another matter.
Getting closer to perfecting mouthfeel
The study provides greater insight into meat sausages and their vegetarian surrogates than ever before.
“We’re looking much deeper than what is usually done in food technology, by taking into account the molecular properties of ingredients as much as possible,” Vilgis continues.
“We are taking a closer look at the proteins as well as the sequence of amino acids, which we understand as a ‘code’ from which we can read certain properties to better understand the behavior of the sausages in the mouth when they are consumed. Thus, fundamental differences in the molecular structure and mouthfeel become immediately apparent.”
The findings, published in the journal Physics of Fluids, build on their previous work on soft matter theory and polymer physics. It brings a fresh approach to experimental food science.
“We’re working directly at the interface between basic science and technological application,” Vilgis concludes. “With these methods, it is possible to make predictions in how the physical properties of an alternative sausage can be improved – and make targeted developments.”
South West News Service Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.