Leeds scientists creating a new wave of plant-based products

On World Vegan Day, we outline the innovative research projects that are making it easier to switch to a plant-based diet.

Plant-based diets are a positive choice for the climate, animal welfare and human health. 

As veganism has risen, so has the demand for plant-based food that suits a variety of dietary needs and wants: some eat whole foods plant-based while others replace meat and dairy with vegan alternatives.

These plant-based replacements can support people to change their diets and rely less on animal products. Although they are often manufactured, they still contribute less to greenhouse gas emissions and water and land use than meat and dairy products. 

In a blog post, the Priestley Centre for Climate Futures explored the carbon impact of the full English breakfast and found that plant-based replacements to meat products contributed to a much lower carbon footprint meal. 

Making plant-based alternatives taste and feel good 

Making the alternatives taste good supports the population to make more plant-based choices or transition to a vegan lifestyle. 

In the School of Food and Nutrition, our experts on food technology and production are collaborating with industry partners to make these alternatives come to life. 

Plant-based meats 

Dr Anwesha Sarkar, Ben KewMelvin Holmes, Evangelos Liamas, Rammile EttelaieSimon D. Connell and Daniele Dini worked on a microgeletion technique to improve plant-based meats.

The technique involves adding water to the dry protein and heating it, which alters the structure of the protein molecules.

FSN building

The School of Food Science and Nutrition

The result is a ‘juicier’ and ‘fattier’ taste and feel to the product, despite it containing no extra added fat. 

Read more about making plant-based meat alternatives more palatable

Plant-based burgers

With Better Food For All and STARS®, the University of Leeds have launched a new project about burgers. 

Dr Alan Javier Hernandez Alvarez and Dr Evi Paximada will work with industry partners STARS to create a new plant-based burger that has the taste, texture and mouthfeel of a beef burger. They will use regionally available whole foods to achieve this. 

Two plant-based burgers.

Many who choose a plant-based diet or transition to veganism do enjoy meat but wish to lower their carbon footprint and contribution to animal cruelty.

This is why making products with a similar profile to animal products can support people to make a positive change. 

This project is funded by Innovate UK.

Vegan eggs

Professor Brent S Murray, Dr Alan Javier Hernandez Alvarez and Dr Nur Liyana Sulaiman recently completed a Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) with Plant Meat Ltd (THIS) – one of the UK’s leading plant-based alternative companies. 

They aimed to share scientific knowledge about food production to “accelerate the company’s knowledge of the science needed to put them at the forefront of plant-based protein product innovation.”

At the same time, the transfer of knowledge from the industry partner to the university will be used to enrich the School of Food and Nutrition’s teaching.

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University of Leeds KTP with THIS. Transcript available on YouTube.com.

Together, the research team created an innovative plant-based egg alternative which is nutritionally and functionally comparable to egg.

The plant-based egg project was rated 'Outstanding' by Innovate UK. 

Understanding vegan choices

Dr Jaiqi Ge at the School of Geography sought to understand meat-eating behaviour in a social study done in Britain. 

Dr Ge and co-authors Andrea Scalco and Tony Craig found that the decision to eat meat is highly influenced by individuals’ social circles and the actions and ideologies of those around them. 

They investigated different kinds of social influence mechanisms and found that for large-scale changes in dietary behaviour, people must have an openness to be influenced by those around them. They must also have a weaker tendency to be reinforced by others continuing to eat meat around them. 

In their published paper, the authors wrote: 

“Understanding how social influence affects one’s dietary choices will enhance our understanding of the social barriers preventing people from adopting a healthier and more sustainable diet.” 

The study of behaviour and decision-making around meat eating will inform policymakers and campaigners to understand how to effectively create change. 

Read the full paper, titled ‘Social Influence and Meat-Eating Behaviour’

Championing local ingredients

Finally, while plant-based food is better for the environment, it can be made more sustainable still. 

Dr Alvarez is working alongside industry partners SPG Innovation and Baker Perkins to investigate sustainable ingredients for the plant-based food market

They will find and test plant proteins with ingredients that are native to the UK and therefore more environmentally friendly than imported ingredients like soybeans. 

The project aims to “demonstrate that a UK and sustainably sourced protein can be a cheaper, sustainable and healthier alternative to imported protein isolates supporting the continued growth of this market with the UK leading the market innovations.”