This article is part of a series highlighting members of the Office of Sustainability’s Experts Database. In a collaboration with instructor Madeline Fisher’s course, LSC 561: Writing Science for the Public, students interviewed campus sustainability experts and produced short feature stories.
Plant-based meat products have recently seen a surge in popularity, as consumers have begun to cut meat out of their diet in hopes of helping the environment. It’s a thought echoed even by the United Nations, which has made recommendations that meat eaters around the world decrease the animal-based protein in their diet to fight climate change. Companies producing plant-based products have ramped up production in response to the good press, but their sales have continued to fall as customers fail to come back for a second helping. That leaves one question for Beyond Burger manufacturers and curious purchasers alike: do these products actually taste good?
Those in the food processing industry speculate palatability may be to blame for the lack of repeat customers. Audrey Girard, food science professor and researcher at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, studies the effect of phenolic compounds, a type of chemical compound, on lipid oxidation in pea- and soy-based meat products. Phenolic compounds and the lipid oxidation they cause may be to blame for the “off” flavors present in alternative meat products. Improving the products would give consumers more and better tasting options at the store, a win-win for food manufacturers who would find sustainable solutions to both environmental and economic concerns.
“For me sustainability comes in two parts: the environment and economics,” Girard said. “A technology isn’t sustainable if it can’t make money—and currently many plant-based proteins aren’t because we don’t see repeat purchases.”
Food science is a discipline Girard has learned to love, but not one she would have seen herself doing. Despite growing up in agriculture, she attended college in her native Kansas for chemical engineering. When she found out that her love for chemistry, born out of a great chemistry teacher from high school, could be applied to something more practical like food science, she was all-in.
“Everyone eats three times a day, so for me it made practical sense to study food science,” Girard said.
She continued on this path all the way to Texas A&M University, where she completed a doctoral dissertation on the effects of phenolic compounds on gluten structure in wheat. These phenolic compounds are the same chemical compound she continues to study today.
Increasing palatability in plant-based meat products through phenolic compound research is meant to increase product sales. But there’s also another benefit, although it may not come to mind at first. Girard mentions that about 30 to 40 percent of all food produced in the United States is wasted each year. Palatability of food is a large contributor to this problem. If a person purchases a food product, determines it doesn’t taste good, and tosses it, the food is wasted. This is especially a problem in emerging sectors of the food industry, like plant-based meats, where consumer curiosity couples with continuing improvement of new products on the market.
Girard noted that improving palatability may come with a catch that some may see as detrimental to their health. To get at the compounds that cause off flavors and prevent them, food may have to be processed more. She stresses that this doesn’t mean that more processed plant-based meat is inherently more unhealthy: it just means that food technology exists to help improve food overall.
Creating the technology to help a burgeoning industry flourish may seem like an insurmountable task, but it’s not one that daunts Girard. She said her key to staying motivated is to not get overwhelmed by everything she could solve. Instead, she tries to find a place that she could make a difference and runs with it. The people she works with make it worthwhile, too. For her, it’s not about the next big discovery, but about the people that make it happen.
“I love the opportunity to train the next great scientist,” she said.
It’s no doubt that the UW–Madison Department of Food Science also makes contributions to sustainability. On a campus that is setting its sights on improved sustainability, it takes many hands to create a more sustainable future. And while we can expect to hear more about plant-based meat opportunities, we can also expect to hear more about the inspired minds behind them, too.
By: Alyssa Seitz