The protein transition is slowly getting underway, but its importance is still far from being generally accepted. How can we make the transition from animal to plant proteins more attractive? WUR looks for answers with the help of science and art.
Walking around the Wageningen Campus, you will not immediately notice where and how researchers are working on the protein transition. Their research takes place at lab tables, behind computers, in incubation chambers and in the field with test subjects. As of a few months ago, however, you can actually hear the stories of these researchers while you stroll around the campus. Artist in residence Remco de Kluizenaar has created an audio tour in which protein researchers tell their stories accompanied by a unique soundtrack with noises sourced from their work. The whole is like a podcast with stories, sounds and music. “I even sing the praises of the protein rubisco that is found in duckweed,” he laughs.
De Kluizenaar has developed a unique and humorous way to inform people about the protein transition that he hopes will appeal to a different audience than only lovers of the written word. This is important, because consumers are not exactly switching to sustainable, plant-based proteins in droves. Do they fear the unfamiliar? Do they think meat substitutes just don’t taste good enough? Or that they are less healthy? The artist set to work on the first question; the other two questions have been put on the plate of researchers Elke Scholten and Jurriaan Mes.
Not everyone is willing to replace their bit of meat with a portion of beans or a veggie burger. “Some consumers want the alternative to look as much as possible like meat,” Scholten explains. By ‘as much as possible’, she does not only mean how it looks or tastes, but also how it feels in the mouth. “The current meat substitutes are lacking in this area. The question is, which properties of current meat substitutes are least comparable with real meat. Then we need to understand what this means for the structure of meat substitutes.”
Most meat substitutes are not very juicy and are perceived as dry. Scholten had thirty meat substitutes assessed for characteristics such as firmness and the amount of water and fat that the product releases when it is chewed. “Juiciness turned out to be a very complex property, which is not only determined by the amount of water that is released during chewing; it probably also has to do with the distribution of fat. Large fat droplets can be released more easily than small droplets that are evenly distributed. That affects the mouthfeel.” So, in the coming years, WUR will be trying to make meat substitutes juicier.
If meat substitutes can be made just as juicy and tasty as meat, consumers may well buy them more often. But to try them a first time, consumers also need a reason to replace animal protein with plant protein. So De Kluizenaar created a game called BigFood that resembles the famous old arcade game Pac-Man.
The BigFood game encourages people to think and talk about why they choose beef, cheese, chicken, insects, nuts, algae or beans. “For example, in the game you can choose the cheapest beef on the shelf once in a while, but if you do it often, you will see your environmental impact increase,” he explains. “These players will get enough protein, but lose the game anyway because of their environmental impact.” The aim of the game is to encourage players to think more about the choices they make every day. De Kluizenaar found he himself was also influenced by it. “At the cheese counter in the supermarket, I thought to myself: better not.”
If we all switch to eating more plant-based proteins and less animal proteins, this will also benefit our health. This is true in general, but can you just switch completely to plant-based proteins? Jurriaan Mes is trying to answer that question. “We can digest some proteins better than others,” he says. “The whey protein contained in milk and cheese is very easy to digest. Babies can easily digest it, which is why breast milk is full of it.” This whey protein is the bar against which he compares all kinds of other proteins.
Some plant-based proteins, such as those from soya, are also quite easy to digest, but a gluten protein obtained from wheat is much less so. Low-scoring proteins often contain substances that inhibit digestion and absorption in the intestines. Moreover, when proteins are isolated for further processing, they can clump together, making digestion even more difficult.
Mes is now testing several new proteins by simulating digestion in the lab, from chewing in the mouth and the acidity in the stomach to the digestive juices in the intestines. “We hope to find a protein that is as easily digestible as whey, so that it is even suitable for young children and elderly people in poor health,” says Mes.
The right balance for elderly people
Elderly people with diseases are a special target group for research into the digestibility of proteins. “They are often deficient in protein, while they actually need to consume about 50% more than other people to maintain their muscles, build sufficient energy and allow the brain to function properly,” explains Mes. To compare: people with vegetarian or vegan diets need to consume 20 to 30% more protein to meet their protein requirements.
Ultimately, Mes wants to be able to calculate how much plant-based protein – be it from fungi, water lentils (duckweed) or alfalfa – different groups of people need to meet their protein requirements, also taking into account the differences in protein digestion between individuals. However, most people consume more protein than they need, so for these people, switching to more plant-based proteins will benefit their health. They will not require extra protein like elderly people who make the switch.
So, in addition to developing and producing new sources of protein, much research will be needed before existing sources like beans or lentils can be transformed into foods that are loved by all. Meanwhile, De Kluizenaar is trying to boost the popularity of these meat alternatives using artistic forms. “The world is always rendered visually, with graphs and figures, and the messages these bring are often purely informative. With sound, the approach is quite different. I am using sensory perception to make the transition to plant-based proteins more appealing. I want people to think: Now that I know how it sounds, I want to know all about it.”