Improving the mouthfeel of meat-free alternatives
22 May 2024
- Rosie de Laune



By combining the results of neutron and X-ray experiments, researchers from the Technical University of Delft have investigated how the protein structures in meat alternatives develop during production.


Ekaterina Garina, Wim Bouwman, Stan Zaalberg and Greg Smith in the Larmor beamline


Using Larmor as part of the ongoing collaboration between ISIS and the Technical University of Delft, researchers Dr Wim Bouwman, Ekaterina Garina and Stan Zaalberg have been working with beamline scientist Dr Gregory Smith to study the effect of the production method on the texture of plant-based meat alternatives.

As part of a large collaboration that includes industry partners such as Unilever, the team are studying the structure of the proteins inside soya-based meat alternatives. These products are already on the market, but the mouthfeel could be improved.

They are looking to understand the extrusion process that turns the protein powder into a consumer product and find out how this can be optimised to improve the texture. They have used the extruder in their laboratory to produce a selection of different samples from a range of protein powders, extruded under different conditions.

Through using Small Angle Neutron Scattering (SANS), the team can investigate shorter length scales than by using other techniques. The structure of the proteins at this small scale impacts the way they bundle to form larger structures, which are the ones your mouth will feel when you're eating.

By understanding what's happening at this scale, and how the different protein structures impact the physics of the system and therefore the mouthfeel, they hope to be able to create a model that can be used to predict which protein powders and processing parameters will make better products. This will not only reduce waste, as it will reduce the number of samples a company needs to produce and test, but it could also lead to improving products made of more locally sourced ingredients. For example, although soya is common in many parts of the world, in the UK other pea products such as fava beans are more sustainable to produce.

Their SANS work is just one half of their experimental love story – by using the complementary technique of Small Angle X-ray Scattering (SAXS), they built a complete picture of the system. In their recent paper, published in Food Hydrocolloids, the team report how protein and polysaccharide fibres behave during extrusion to determine the overall structure, which in turn influences the mouthfeel. They found that the two types of fibres align at different points in the extrusion process.  

In the future, they hope to be able to study the samples while they are undergoing extrusion, although this will require working out how to build an extruder on Larmor!  

The goal is to feed back to the academic community as well as the food science industry to share how their results can impact future product manufacture.  

The full paper can be found online at DOI: 10.1016/j.foodhyd.2024.110121​

Contact: de Laune, Rosie (STFC,RAL,ISIS)