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Canberra scientists creating fat from microorganisms to add flavour and texture to plant-based foods

Fats are an essential part of a healthy, balanced diet — they also add taste, texture and aroma to our foods.

Animal products naturally contain fats, but with more people looking to plant-based foods, the race is on to create a sustainable fat alternative.

“We’ve seen a boom in products trying to replace the meat experience,” synthetic biology scientist Ruth Purcell said.

“We have burgers and sausages and pulled pork that is trying to be meat — but they’re not quite there yet, especially with the taste and quality and function of their cooking abilities.

If you’ve ever bitten into a plant-based sausage or burger, it does not taste like meat, and it doesn’t have that juiciness that we all crave and that really good feeling in your mouth.

It’s quite dry often and doesn’t cook very well — what’s missing is the fat.”

The 22-year-old is part of a team of 20 scientists and engineers at Nourish Ingredients — a CSIRO spin-out company in Canberra — that is pioneering an alternate way to create fats for the plant-based food industry without animals or plants.

Inside laboratories at the Australian National University, the team is genetically manipulating yeast strains and then using the microorganisms to generate fat through fermentation.

The fats are tailored to taste like beef, chicken, pork, seafood and dairy products.

“So much of what you might intrinsically think of as animal — cow fat or the animal in general — is actually coming originally from microorganisms,” Ms Purcell said.

“A lot of these lipids are from the organisms that are naturally inside the cow or the cow’s food, which then go and get taken up by the cow and get stored in its fat.

You might think of it as part of the cow, but actually it originally came from a microorganism.

We’re skipping the middleman here and going straight to the microorganism.”

Coconut and palm oils are typically incorporated into plant-based products to create the textual sensation of animal fats.

“[But] coconut and palm fats just do not behave in the same way that animal fats do,” Ms Purcell said.

“They’re melting temperature is not the same which means that they don’t cook as well in a pan, and you get that bad aftertaste.”

Biochemist and Nourish Ingredients chief technical officer Anna El-Tahchy said not only did the fats they were creating in the lab more closely resemble animal fats, but they also offered a sustainable replacement.

“There’s no way we can meet the growing demand, feed enough people in 20 years, by just relying on palm and coconut oil, because we don’t have enough land to grow any more of these plants on,” she said.

Dr El-Tahchy said they could develop the same amount of oil from a “single cell” in a laboratory as was harvested from a hectare of plants.

“The fermentation technology itself offers a huge potential of sustainability,” she said.

That potential to “revolutionise the flavour and sustainability of plant-based foods” has not only attracted strong interest from food businesses but has also seen Dr El-Tahchy awarded the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering’s annual ACM Agrifood Award last month.

And while the team is still in the research and development stage, food scientists are working out how to best incorporate the laboratory-made fats into plant-based food “so that it looks like the fatty juicy meats that we’re used to.”

“Soon we’ll be able to put this into foods which you will be able to purchase and eat at the shops,” Ms Purcell said.

Something Ms Purcell is confident will encourage meat-lovers to consume more plant-based foods.

“We can make food that tastes the same, if not better, than meat from alternative protein sources,” she said.

“That’s really going to help people that really care about the environment and animals but can’t quite let go of meat, take on board alternative proteins as part of their diet.”

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