As concerns regarding the planet’s resources and climate change continue to mount, so does the pressure on the food industry to devise sustainable solutions. The most recent innovation in this arena? Using fermentation to develop plant-based cheeses that might just rival their dairy counterparts.
This shift towards a more eco-friendly approach has led scientists to experiment with plant-based alternatives, mirroring the familiar tastes and textures we’ve relished for millennia.
For the average Dane, a whopping thirty kilos of cheese is consumed annually. This statistic underscores the deep-rooted love for dairy, and the challenge of making plant-based cheese that’s equally delightful. While the market has witnessed a surge in plant-based cheese alternatives, replicating the authentic taste and texture of dairy-based cheese remains elusive.
Plant proteins, like those from peas and beans, have a different molecular structure compared to milk proteins. This difference makes it challenging to recreate the signature cheese texture.
In a bid to overcome this hurdle, manufacturers have resorted to adding ingredients like starch or coconut oil. While these solutions do impart a certain hardness to the plant-based cheese, they also necessitate a cocktail of flavorings to mimic the authentic cheese taste.
Enter fermentation, nature’s own alchemical process, which has been used for thousands of years to transform milk into cheese. A study from the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Food Science, led by researcher Carmen Masiá, illuminates the vast potential of this ancient method.
Masiá has managed to develop plant-based cheese, harnessing the power of yellow pea protein and employing natural fermentation with bacteria. The result? A plant-based cheese boasting an improved aroma profile and a desirable firm texture.
Fermentation stands out as a formidable technique in the domain of plant-based cheese production. Masiá’s experiments unveil its ability to swiftly lend firmness to the non-dairy cheese while successfully diminishing the overpowering bean-like aroma inherent to yellow pea protein. As she notes, “Bacteria can serve to develop firmness in non-dairy cheese in a very short period of time.”
This venture into fermented plant-based cheese isn’t Masiá’s maiden voyage. Her previous research affirmed the suitability of yellow pea protein as a solid foundation for crafting such cheeses. This time, Masiá furthered her exploration by examining twenty-four bacterial combinations sourced from biotech firm Chr. Hansen.
Her objective? “To combine the commercially-available bacterial cultures that are suitable for the fermentation of a plant-based raw material, and test them in a pea protein matrix to develop both taste and texture that would be suitable for a cheese-like product.”
After inoculating these bacterial combinations in a protein base of yellow pea protein and letting it incubate for merely eight hours, the outcome was akin to a fresh soft white cheese.
Masiá emphasizes that the journey to perfecting this plant-based cheese still has hurdles to overcome. The creation process will require a meticulous crafting of bacterial compositions and cultures to mirror the quintessential cheese-like traits. Additionally, much like traditional cheese, the plant-based version might also benefit from a maturation period, allowing it to acquire depth in its flavor profile.
“The most challenging thing for now is that, while there are a lot of people who would like to eat plant-based cheese, they aren’t satisfied with how it tastes and feels in the mouth. In the end, this means that no matter how sustainable, nutritious, etc. a food product is, people aren’t interested in buying it if it doesn’t provide a good experience when consumed,” says Masiá.
She adds, “One needs to remember that dairy cheese production has been studied over many years, so it’s not something that we can just mimic overnight with totally different raw materials. Nevertheless, there are many scientists and companies out there doing great progress in the field; I hope that we will get closer to making non-dairy cheeses that taste good over the next few years. We are getting there.”
But the ultimate litmus test will, of course, be the consumer. The newly minted cheese variants will have to tantalize their taste buds, compelling them to not just accept but actively seek out and buy these sustainable options. Given the progress already made, it’s a future that seems not only plausible but also deliciously promising.
Fermentation, at its core, harnesses the power of microorganisms to transform food and drinks. This age-old process, employed by various cultures around the globe, taps into bacteria, yeast, and fungi to convert carbohydrates like sugars into alcohol and acids.
Why do we ferment? Besides to make plant-based cheese taste better, there are many reasons.
Firstly, fermentation extends the shelf life of many perishables. When you ferment cabbage, for example, you get sauerkraut, which lasts longer and offers a distinct tangy flavor. Similarly, fermenting milk results in yogurt, a creamy delight cherished worldwide.
But it’s not just about preservation. Fermentation elevates the nutritional value of foods. The process breaks down certain compounds, making nutrients more accessible for absorption. For instance, the fermentation of soybeans to produce tempeh enhances the bioavailability of its protein content.
Furthermore, fermentation introduces probiotics – beneficial bacteria that support gut health. Consuming fermented foods like kimchi or kefir regularly can positively influence our digestive system and overall well-being.
Taste is another reason fermentation has captured our culinary hearts. The process imparts rich, layered flavors to foods and drinks. Wine, beer, and cheese – all products of fermentation – stand testament to this flavor revolution.
In summary, fermentation not only conserves our food but also enriches its nutritional profile, taste, and digestibility. Through this remarkable natural process, we enjoy a symphony of flavors and health benefits, making fermentation truly a cornerstone of global culinary arts.
This full study has been published in the scientific journal Future Foods.
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