The rapidly growing demand for plant-based products is fueling new scientific research and the development of plant proteins. A group of food scientists at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst has assembled to aggressively research plant-based protein thanks to a grant from the USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture and the Good Food Institute (GFI).

The team of scientists at UMass is using the grant to explore the science behind designing better plant-based proteins in order to make them cheaper, healthier, and taste better.

UMass Amherst Distinguished Professor and Food Scientist David Julian McClements is leading the research and explained in an exclusive interview with The Beet that his team is laser-focused on creating sustainable plant-based protein products that mimic meat, fish, milk, cheese, and eggs.

Why now? "There is an immense amount of innovation and investment in this area,"  McClements says, and his email box is full of outreach from startup companies trying to make the next big hit: Plant-based fish, eggs or cheese. They have dreams of unicorns and launching the next Beyond Meat, JUST egg or Oatly, but need a food science background. Ultimately, he says, "the research will help usher in an era of “affordable, tasty, and convenient products that are also good for health and the environment.”

Demand for plant-based proteins has skyrocketed over the last several years. A report from Credit Suisse recently looked at the plant-based industry overall, noting that they are seeing “strong growth potential for alternative animal-protein products and estimate that the market for alternative meat and dairy could grow from $14 billion currently, to $1.4 trillion by 2050.” Also, data from the Plant-Based Foods Association and The Good Food Institute revealed that the growth rate of US plant-based meat, dairy, and eggs sales outpaced animal products for the third year in a row; over 40 percent of consumers now choose non-dairy milk and one in six households opt for plant-based meat. Their research also reveals that plant-based eggs grew 168 percent—almost 10 times the rate of poultry eggs—while plant-based cheese nearly doubled the rate of dairy cheese growth, at 42 percent. A report from Instacart released this year also demonstrated that consumer behavior is shifting as people are adding a record number of plant-based meat, dairy, and eggs to their carts.

A sign of the plant-based protein times is further validated by the US government’s premier agricultural research agency, the USDA, and its National Institute of Food and Agriculture, funding of plant-based protein research. While this is not the first time they’ve funded plant-protein research according to a company spokesperson, their awarding of the grant to the UMass Amherst team to specifically study plant-proteins further demonstrates the need for plant-based meat and its contribution to a sustainable food system.

“The consumer market for plant-based protein products is growing,” said Kevin D. Kephart, Ph.D., director, Division of Agricultural Systems, USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture told The Beet in an email interview. “The National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s interests are in supporting scientific research in this field of study.” Kephart added that “[The] NIFA funds the most meritorious work that is relevant to US food and agriculture and important for the American public.”

McClements noted that his research team is prioritizing and looking at plant-based beef first. “We are focussing on beef, since it is the main cause of environmental problems, such as greenhouse gas emissions, pollution, land use, and water use,” McClements said. His team will also be exploring what is called “whole cuts” of meat (which would look like a steak, a breast of chicken, or a salmon filet for example). “Food companies, especially Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat have already created high-quality analogs of processed foods [like] burgers, meatballs, ground beef, nuggets, sausages. It is much harder to mimic the more refined structures and properties of whole cuts.”

McClements’ multidisciplinary plant-based protein research team at UMass Amherst includes professors with specialties in their respective areas. Team members include Alissa Nolden (Sensory); Jiakai Lu (Engineering); Amanda Kinchla (Product Development); Eric Decker (Lipids); David Sela (Microbiome) and Hang Xiao (Nutrition).

“We have a major focus in this important area now,” said McClements. “This is a really important area that needs fundamental science and technology to solve.”

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