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How AI Could Improve the Taste of Plant-Based Protein

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As more fast food restaurants continue to experiment with plant-based protein alternatives – Little Caesars’ ‘Planteroni’ Pizza in a partnership with Field Roast being one of the most recent examples – plenty of consumer still haven’t bought into the fake meat craze.

Part of the problem behind consumers’ stubborn resistance to adopting more of a plant-based or “flexitarian” diet is the common, and fair, complaint that many of these meat alternatives taste “off.” Soy-based patties can leave an unpleasant aftertaste, and never mind the crumbly texture. Beyond Meat’s fake chicken of yesteryear offered notes of carrots, frozen peas and fava beans, and not necessarily in a good way. And while Beyond’s and Impossible Foods’ plant-based protein substitutions for burgers are about the closest thing one can get to the real thing, the coconut oil can result in traces of sweetness that can be off-putting. Of course, all of these are improvements over the veggie burgers from many years ago, which would have tasted far better if they were allowed to remain as vegetables.

But what if flavorings could help make these new and future plant-based protein products more palatable to more consumers? After all, the companies that are driving the multi-billion dollar global flavor and fragrance industry keep developing ingredients that are increasingly more sophisticated and are in just about in every product we put in or on us. Many of us are already taking such action in our kitchens – vanilla extract, for example, is a common ingredient in our cupboards because it easily binds to proteins without giving off its flavoring – and it masks other flavors that could otherwise taste unpleasant.

Now, let’s add another challenge, and one that if overcome, could help plant-based protein scale up: which of course would help wean more consumers away from the carbon- and water-intensive meat and dairy industry.

One hurdle that food companies face is that the development of new products that will be eventually be accepted by the masses can take years. But what if that process could be shortened by harnessing the potential of artificial intelligence (AI)?

To that end, Firmenich, the Switzerland-based fragrance and flavoring giant, says it’s on a path toward improving the taste of plant-based protein products.

The company recently announced the launch of what it says is the first flavor developed by AI, a “lightly grilled” beef taste that could be used in plant-based foods. Emphasis should be put on “lightly grilled,” as yet another complaint of fake meat is that no matter how it’s cooked, it can often leave diners with a cringeworthy charred taste.

Firmenich is understandably mum on what flavor notes are exactly in this new AI-induced flavor profile. Nevertheless, the company could provide that final piece of the puzzle to companies that seek to recreate the flavor and texture of meat: and not 95 percent, not 99 percent, but a 100 percent success in copying meat’s flavor profile. So far, companies like Beyond and Impossible Foods have pretty much nailed the texture part. What has proven to be difficult is finding that complexity behind the flavor of meat, which includes countless factors such as umami, fat and of course, how it was cooked, such as on a flame or in an oven. And, as we all know if we don’t follow directions, the way in which we cook our foods can affect the flavor: so, these plant-based foods need to hold their flavor profile as much as possible whether they are grilled, baked, toasted or out of desperation (ew!) even microwaved.

A company like Firmenich has the advantage of access to a wide range of flavorings within its labs. What it does not have is the time to test out the infinite number of flavor combinations. Therein lies the power of AI – the company recently described its database of flavorings to Phys.org as a “piano with 5,000 keys” that through algorithms allows its staff to test out different combinations. The results could include even more plant-based options coming soon to a supermarket near you.

Image credit: Rolande PG/Unsplash



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