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Some plant-based burgers smell more like real beef than others, study shows

Some plant-based burgers smell a lot like their real-beef counterparts, but still have key differences, according to a new study. Photo by <a href="https://pixabay.com/photos/burger-food-delicious-cheeseburger-3783179/">Engin_Akyurt</a>/Pixabay<br>
Some plant-based burgers smell a lot like their real-beef counterparts, but still have key differences, according to a new study. Photo by Engin_Akyurt/Pixabay

Aug. 23 (UPI) -- "Beyond Burgers" from Beyond Meat smell the most like traditional beef hamburgers compared with other plant-based, meatless alternatives, according to an analysis presented Monday during the American Chemical Society meeting in Atlanta.

However, like all meatless options, their odor differed significantly from their beef counterparts, the data showed.

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"The problem with plant-based burgers is that the plant protein itself contributes a strong odor," co-author LiLi Zyzak said in a press release.

She said it can be a challenge to find the correct blend of vegetable oils to mimic the smell of fatty, cooking meat.

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"For example, pea protein smells like green, cut grass, so companies have to find a way to mask that aroma. Some use heavy seasonings," said Zyzak, an assistant professor of chemistry at Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond, Ky.

Raw hamburger has very little odor, but cooking it releases hundreds of volatile compounds that contribute to taste and scent.

Although this sensation is important for many meat eaters, some are open to trying plant-based alternatives, provided they closely resemble the taste, odor, appearance and texture of real beef, she said.

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For this study, Zyzak and her colleagues analyzed the aroma compounds produced during the cooking of real hamburger and eight popular brands of plant-based burgers.

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First, the researchers cooked the burgers and evaluated the aromas using five descriptors: meaty, fatty, buttery, sweet and roasted.

Then, they used a technology called gas chromatography mass spectrometry combined with olfactometry to determine how the aromas linked with specific odor compounds.

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In some cases, samples from all the cooked products were inserted into a "sniffing port," where researchers described the smell produced using one of the five descriptors.

The Beyond Burger most closely resembled the odor profile of an actual hamburger, with meaty, fatty and grilled meat characteristics from the compounds 1-octen-3-ol, octanal and nonanal, the researchers said.

Another, unnamed brand had the closest appearance to a real raw hamburger, they said.

However, during cooking, it had a yeast- or bread-like odor, with higher levels of methyl butanals and propionic acid, according to the researchers.

Several other brands had heavy seasonings that released strong garlicky or barbecue-sauce-like aromas, the researchers said.

The goal of the study was to "give consumers an idea of what's out there so that they can make informed decisions at the grocery store," according to Zyzak.

Ultimately, the researchers want to help produce a mixture of odor compounds that closely mimic hamburger aroma, she said.

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"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," Zyzak said.

"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," she said.

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