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Which plant-based burgers smell the most like real beef?

A plant-based diet can lead to enormous benefits, including weight loss, improved heart health, and even a longer life. Now, scientists with the American Chemical Society have identified the plant-based burgers that smell the most like real beef.

“During the last several years, increasing awareness of the impact of meat production on climate change, as well as meat shortages during the pandemic, have made people more accepting of plant-based alternatives,” said Dr. LiLi Zyzak, the project’s principal investigator.

“There are a lot of products out there, and food companies are doing interesting research, but nobody ever publishes anything because it’s a trade secret.”

Even though plant-based meat products have been available for over two decades, many of the early alternatives were noticeably different from traditional meat. Today, companies have found ways to make plant proteins taste more like beef. 

One of the biggest challenges has been to pinpoint the best mix of vegetable oils to mimic the fatty meat smell.

“The problem with plant-based burgers is that the plant protein itself contributes a strong odor,” said Dr. Zyzak. “For example, pea protein smells like green, cut grass, so companies have to find a way to mask that aroma. Some use heavy seasonings.” 

“We wanted to give consumers an idea of what’s out there so that they can make informed decisions at the grocery store.”

The researchers set out to compare the aroma compounds produced by cooking real hamburgers and eight popular brands of plant-based burgers. Among these alternatives, the Beyond Burger from Beyond Meat most closely resembled the odor profile of beef.

The plant-based brand that had the closest appearance to real raw hamburger was found to have a yeast- or bread-like odor, according to the experts. They noted that a number of the other brands had heavy seasonings that released strong garlic or barbecue aromas.

Dr. Zyzak would ultimately like to use what she has learned to produce a mixture of odor compounds that closely mimic hamburger aroma. 

The research will be presented at a meeting of the American Chemical Society, ACS Fall 2021.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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