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Fermentation could be the key to making plant-based cheeses that people actually want to eat

by News Staff
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Scientists at the University of Copenhagen are exploring fermentation as a key method for creating plant-based cheeses that closely mimic the taste and feel of traditional dairy cheese. With growing concerns about resource depletion and climate change, there’s a push to shift towards more plant-based foods. This research aims to transform protein-rich plants like peas and beans into a new generation of non-dairy cheeses that replicate the sensory experience of dairy cheese.

While some plant-based cheeses are already available, they often require the addition of starch, coconut oil, and various flavorings to achieve the desired texture and taste. However, this study reveals that nature’s smallest creatures, bacteria, can be harnessed to achieve similar results. Carmen Masiá, a researcher at the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Food Science, has successfully developed plant-based cheeses using yellow pea protein through a natural fermentation process, similar to the one used for thousands of years in dairy cheese production.

In this groundbreaking study, Masiá demonstrates that fermentation is a potent tool for enhancing flavor and texture in plant-based cheeses. It enables the rapid development of firmness in non-dairy cheese while mitigating the bean-like aroma often associated with yellow pea protein, which serves as the primary protein source. This research is detailed in the journal Future Foods.

After only eight hours of incubation, the result was a firm “cheese-like gel” reminiscent of a fresh soft white cheese. Credit: Department of Food Science

Fresh cheese after eight hours

This latest research builds upon a study conducted by the same researcher last year, where it was established that yellow pea protein served as an excellent “protein foundation” for creating fermented plant-based cheese. In this recent study, the researcher delved deeper into the subject, exploring 24 different combinations of bacteria derived from cultures provided by the biotech company Chr. Hansen, with whom Masiá is pursuing her Industrial Ph.D.

The primary objective of this investigation was to blend commercially available bacterial cultures suitable for fermenting plant-based raw materials and assess their potential in a matrix of pea protein. The aim was to develop both the taste and texture necessary for a cheese-like product. While some bacterial combinations demonstrated superior performance, it’s noteworthy that all combinations yielded firm gels and reduced the characteristic “beaniness” associated with pea protein in the samples, a significant achievement according to the researcher.

To observe how these bacterial combinations behaved, the scientist inoculated them into a protein base comprised of yellow pea protein. Remarkably, after just eight hours of incubation, the outcome was a firm, “cheese-like gel” reminiscent of fresh, soft white cheese.

In terms of aroma, the study had dual objectives: to diminish the compounds responsible for the bean-like odor often found in yellow peas and to generate compounds typically associated with the aroma of dairy cheese. The results revealed that certain bacteria excelled at producing specific volatile compounds, but all blends effectively reduced the beaniness. Additionally, they all acquired various degrees of dairy-like aroma notes, marking a positive advancement in the pursuit of plant-based cheese that closely emulates the dairy cheese experience.

Sensory is everything

While the path to creating a truly delectable plant-based cheese is still underway, the researcher is optimistic about the direction of the research. She emphasizes the need to develop customized bacterial compositions and cultures to attain the optimal cheese-like characteristics. Additionally, it may be necessary for plant-based cheese to undergo maturation over time, similar to the aging process of dairy-based cheeses, to develop the desired flavors and complexity.

Ultimately, the success of this new generation of fermented plant-based cheeses will depend on consumer judgment, ensuring that the flavor is perfected to meet their expectations. The ultimate goal is to make plant-based cheeses so irresistible that people actively seek them out and make them a preferred choice.

Masiá acknowledges the current challenge, noting that while there is a significant interest in plant-based cheese, consumers are often dissatisfied with its taste and mouthfeel. She highlights that no matter how sustainable or nutritious a food product is, it must offer a satisfying eating experience to gain popularity.

She further explains that replicating the taste and texture of dairy cheese, which has been perfected over many years, isn’t something that can be achieved overnight with entirely different raw materials. Nevertheless, she’s encouraged by the progress made by scientists and companies in this field and hopes that in the coming years, non-dairy cheeses that are both appealing and delicious will become more accessible. It’s a step in the right direction.

This study was a collaborative effort between the Department of Food Science and Chr. Hansen, a bioscience company specializing in ingredients for the food and pharmaceutical industries, among other areas.

Source: University of Copenhagen

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