WEST LAFAYETTE, IN (August 25, 2021) – Plant-based protein alternatives are a rapidly expanding market—the use of soy protein is estimated to grow almost 10 percent per year between 2019 and 2025. Soy and pea proteins can closely replicate the texture of meats, but they lack the chewy quality of meat, known as viscoelasticity, which creates a tender bite. The Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research (FFAR), with additional funding from Open Philanthropy, is awarding a $387,556 grant through its Plant Protein Enhancement Project to Purdue University to study the viscoelasticity of a corn protein, zein, to develop a new commercial meat substitute.
Corn zein is a low-cost and plentiful byproduct of the ethanol industry and has unique textural properties that soy and pea protein lack. This research is teasing out zein’s potential to revolutionize the experience of eating plant protein.
“Additional research can help plant-based meat alternatives, whose production is more environmentally sustainable than meat, replicate the sensations of consuming meat,” said Dr. Jeff Rosichan, director of FFAR’s Crops of the Future Collaborative. “Using a cheap, abundant ingredient to make these products more attractive to consumers will increase incentives to grow high-protein plants as well as invest in further research to improve their nutritional value.”
Zein has a viscoelasticity similar to wheat gluten, which is often used in meat substitutes. However, on its own zein is too dense and tough to be an acceptable meat substitute. Previous research from Purdue University researchers, led by Dr. Bruce Hamaker and including Drs. Osvaldo Campanella and Owen Jones, developed zein to mimic gluten. This project builds on that work to develop blends of zein and soy or pea to provide the viscoelasticity needed for plant protein to imitate meat more closely.
To start, the researchers are finding ways to improve zein for consumption by removing its yellow color and corn aroma. The team is also blending a variety of concentrations and ratios of zein and filler material and soy or pea protein to discover the combinations that optimize viscoelasticity in the blends. This work includes examining how changes to zein structure affects its properties as a meat substitute. Finally, the researchers are developing food product prototypes.
“We are excited about this project, with some of our new findings showing natural plant-based ingredient formulations with textural profiles similar to commercial meat (e.g. burger patties, chicken tenders) and cheese products,” said Dr. Hamaker.
FFAR launched the Plant Protein Enhancement Project through its Crops of the Future Collaborative in 2019 to enhance the protein yield of plant-based staple crops and decrease costs. This competitive research program funds grants to enhance the supply chain for plant-based protein in a profitable and sustainable manner. Applicants were not required to secure matching funds.
Crops of the Future Collaborative
The Crops of the Future Collaborative is a public-private, multi-participant consortium convened by the Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research. The Collaborative brings together companies and research organizations to accelerate development of new crop varieties that address food and agriculture challenges. The Collaborative leverages participants’ resources to expand the scientific understanding of characteristics giving rise to complex traits that crops need to adapt to changing environments.