Making Faux Meat Taste Like the Real Thing
(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- In a sun-filled room of Givaudan SA’s Innovation Center, a four-story brick building in the gentle hills east of Zurich, dozens of white containers are stacked in neat rows. While they have labels such as “bacon,” “fried fat,” and “pork lard,” what’s inside is made of extracts of foods such as herbs, garlic, and onion, or enzymes and amino acids from cooking—and not a molecule of animal protein.
The flavorings are aimed at the growing business of meat alternatives from newcomers such as Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods and at industry stalwarts like Nestlé, Perdue, Smithfield, and Tyson. Increasing sales of those products is a huge opportunity for the likes of Givaudan, which can help turn insipid, mealy concoctions into something consumers crave. The Swiss company and rival producers of flavors and fragrances for innumerable consumer products—from liquor to lotion to laundry detergent—are carving out a niche in making vegan foods more appealing and nutritious. “Everyone wants in, whether it’s some defense or a desire to disrupt,” says Louie D’Amico, president of Givaudan’s flavor division. “We help companies make their products taste better.”
Analysts predict meat alternatives could make up some 10% of the global meat market in the next decade, and Givaudan, founded in 1895 as a fragrance maker, aims to profit from that growth. The company has a pool of more than 3,000 ingredients it uses to create hundreds of thousands of flavorings such as elderflower, leek, or grape-jasmine. While it’s the biggest player, Givaudan faces increasing competition from the likes of Switzerland’s Firmenich, Germany’s Symrise, and New York-based International Flavors & Fragrances, which have been beefing up their research capabilities and buying smaller players to better understand various proteins and how to make them tastier and healthier. Crop processing giant Archer-Daniels-Midland Co. joined the fight in 2014 when it acquired Germany’s Wild Flavors, and it now helps produce the soy-based Rebel Whopper for Burger King in Brazil.
Startups are jumping in as well, with venture capital funding for companies making newfangled food ingredients up sixfold in the past three years, to more than $700 million in 2019, according to researcher PitchBook. Thai Union Group has invested in Flying Spark, an Israeli company that makes protein from fruit fly larvae. In April, San Francisco’s Prefix Capital invested in Manus Bio, which uses fermentation to create sweeteners and other natural ingredients. And Boston-based Motif FoodWorks Inc. has raised more than $115 million to create alternative proteins and ingredients. Such companies can help make “plant-based or blended products with better taste, texture, and nutrition,” says Rosie Wardle, investment associate at CPT Capital, a London venture capital fund that’s backed Motif and more than 30 other alternative protein companies.
With some 15,000 employees worldwide, a $500 million-plus annual research budget, and manufacturing facilities in more than 30 countries, Givaudan remains the giant in the field. The company last year opened its Innovation Center, where chemists work on seasonings, scents, and additives. The building is surprisingly odor-free for a place where flavors and aromas are developed. In one room, washing machines churn laundry to test fragrances for detergents. In another, perfume ideas are concocted in domed glass containers and test tubes, with their chemical formulas scribbled across sliding glass windows. In a third, flavors for candies and drinks are sorted in see-through packets or glass bottles, with labels such as pear-vanilla and cola-mandarin. In a test kitchen on the ground floor, chefs cook up samples for visitors and customers—effectively every big foodmaker you’ve ever heard of, though neither Givaudan nor most clients are willing to disclose the relationships. For lunch on a sunny Friday, they’re serving mushroom and quinoa balls with a distinct smoky taste, a soy-based tuna replacement, and a vegan lamb shawarma.
A key initiative is helping make plant-based meats more palatable, especially in terms of texture. While Givaudan scientists have a suite of flavors that generally work—getting rid of bitter aftertastes common to plant protein, adding grill notes, or boosting umami—the biggest goals are nutrition and approximating the mouthfeel of meat: “How are things released, what do color and texture have to do with it, and how do you mirror that?” D’Amico says.
To boost its understanding of the field, Givaudan has teamed up with Plant Meat Matters, a group of food industry giants led by scholars at Wageningen University & Research in the Netherlands that studies the appearance, taste, and texture of plant proteins. With students at the University of California at Berkeley, Givaudan is seeking better ways to produce plant-based products. The company has tie-ups with dozens of startups to help them develop tastier foods while bolstering its own expertise in the field. In November it joined with Israeli startup Innovopro to study chickpeas as a base for products such as vegan mayonnaise, puddings, and ice creams. Since May it’s been working with a California company called Terviva to create meat alternatives extracted from pongamia, a tree native to Southeast Asia. And in June it said it’s helping Israel’s Redefine Meat—which uses 3D printers to lay down ersatz meat mixture—to create a product it says will be indistinguishable from a cut of beef carved from a steer.
Givaudan in October introduced a technology it says can replicate the juiciness of meat. Vegan patties tend to dry out in the pan because vegetable oils burn off faster than those in animal protein, but the Givaudan offering encapsulates plant fat in a matrix of starch so it acts like cells in meat. The company says the product provides the mouthfeel of meat while cutting fat content by 75% and reducing calories by 30%. That’s important because there’s growing concern about the nutritional value of meat alternatives. While consumers initially assumed meatless foods were inherently healthier, they’re now balking at the fat and sodium content, which is often higher than the levels in meat. “People look at that now and say, ‘Wow, that’s a problem,’ ” D’Amico says. “There’s still a way to go with flavor and taste, and the next challenge is helping with the nutritional profile.”
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