Animal-free ingredients company Motif FoodWorks is partnering with the University of Queensland in Australia to study the physics of how to improve the texture of plant-based foods.
As more companies look to launch plant-based protein alternatives into the crowded marketplace, taste has become an increasingly important factor in standing out. This study marks the first time a testing known as in vitro oral processing, which uses tools in a lab to determine how food is processed as it is consumed, will be applied to the meat analog category, according to the company.
Michael Leonard, Motif's chief technology officer, told Food Dive the company is partnering with the university for a three-year period to understand the physics behind the products and the eating process to help it develop methods for creating better foods.
"We know that the texture of meat products, the mouth feel, how people experience this when they eat — that's a key driver of preference," Leonard said. "And it's not really well understood in terms of plant-based meats, how to optimize that, how to make it even closer to a real meat experience."
At the beginning of the year, startup Gingko Bioworks announced the launch of Motif with a $90 million funding round. Motif's partnership with Ginkgo allows the ingredients company to use its biological engineering platform. With $117.5 million in funding raised this year, the company is preparing to launch products by 2021.
"When you're trying to design for certain consumer experience in food, you have to know the food science behind it, you have to know the physics behind it."
Chief Technology Officer, Motif
Although other companies are working on improving texture, Leonard said most businesses in this area rely on sensory testing and consumer panels, also known as in vivo testing, to describe the experience consumers have when they eat a plant-based product.
"Everyone's interested in designing better products for plant-based meats. But test and methodologies that truly get at the physics of what's happening are hard to come by. And that's where we think that the partnership with (University of Queensland) will really help," Leonard said. "When you're trying to design for certain consumer experience in food, you have to know the food science behind it, you have to know the physics behind it."
Stefan Baier, Motif's head of food science, will lead the initiative for the company. He will partner with academics at the University of Queensland, including Jason Stokes who is the director of research at the school of chemical engineering.
"By focusing on the physics, rather than the opinion of the chewer, we can get a more accurate and universal read of what makes food enjoyable to eat," Stokes said in a release. "Our work with the Motif team will enable them to translate that knowledge for the production of better, more texturally similar meat analogs moving forward."
Leonard said Motif will be interested in quickly incorporating any insights they gain from the work into their agenda to help the company and develop knowledge the broader food science community can benefit from.
"At the end of the day, we're doing this to understand how to design plant-based meat products in a better way, and to really change the game of terms of texture," he said.
Why would Motif want to partner with a school in Australia? Leonard said Motif likes to take a "global view" and Australia is often on the cutting edge of research in food and innovation, something he noticed when he worked at PepsiCo. Leonard joined Motif in October after working for companies like Kraft Heinz, International Flavors & Fragrances and the soda and snacks giant.
But it's not just Australia, Leonard said Motif also is looking in other parts of the world for collaborators.
Even though Motif is not planning to launch products until 2021, the company isn't worried about missing an opportunity to get into the category. Leonard said there has been a secular shift in how people think about food and there's going to be a long-term effort to improve the consumer experience when it comes to matching plant based-foods with the animal alternative.
"Matching a meat-based burger is kind of the holy grail, but there are also going to be different types of products that consumers are interested in getting. Not everyone is looking for the exact same experience as a meat burger," he said. "So this will help us to understand what levers we can pull to help engineer whatever texture we want. I think there will be space for continued optimization of this despite the early growth that we've seen."
Plant-based food sales rose 11% from last year to early 2019, reaching a total market value of $4.5 billion, according to figures released by The Good Food Institute and the Plant Based Foods Association. But Leonard said the eating experience of plant-based foods has to be compelling enough to continue driving growth.
"Taste is king always, no matter what your story is," Leonard said.