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Plant-Based Food, Fats & the Taste Experience

When something’s not quite right about the taste of plant-based food — unconvincing animal fat substitutes drag us down into the uncanny valley…

In The Santa Clause 2, Tim Allen’s titular Saint Nick is in the midst of an extra-busy season that requires him to be in two places at once. At the suggestion of a chief elf, he enters the new toy duplicator, producing a doppelganger that can run the North Pole while he hunts for Mrs. Clause back home. The second Santa sounds and looks like the original but… not quite. Trusting at first, the elves become suspicious of and unsettled by this Santa, his plastic face and jilting staccato. The uncanny valley has come to the North Pole.

Typically applied to robotics and AI, “The uncanny valley metaphor suggests that a human appearance or behavior can make an artificial figure seem more familiar for viewers — but only up to a point,” explains a 2012 Scientific American article. “The sense of viewer familiarity drops sharply into the uncanny valley once the artificial figure tries but fails to mimic a realistic human.”

The uncanny valley phenomenon can be easily extrapolated to the world of plant-based meats. Eating is an all-senses-on-deck experience, and fats make that experience whole. Since most alternative proteins replace animal fats with unconvincing substitutions, they drag us right down into the valley, where, just like the elves, we know — instinctively, evolutionarily — that something here is not quite right. Here’s how that happens.

Appearance and Smell: The Plant-based Burger

Pina coladas. Southern Thai curries. Lamington cakes. These are all places you want coconut. Burgers, not so much, yet many makers of plant-based patties distribute flecks of solid white coconut fat throughout their burgers to mimic the appearance of beef fat. Looks OK at a glance, but closer inspection reveals the cheap disguise. “Evolutionary history has tuned us to detect minor distortions that indicate disease, mental or physical problems,” Dartmouth College psychologist Thaia Wheatley explains in the aforementioned S.A. article. “To go after a human-looking robot or avatar” — or true beef burger — “is to go up against millions of years of evolutionary history.”

The coconut pieces further contribute to this cognitive clash by releasing their tropical aroma when the plant-based patties hit the heat. The architecture of the brain, with the pathways for scent and strong emotion crossing over each other, means that smells evoke memories, and if alternative proteins are truly to take their place as a food of the future, nailing those connections is vital. Within the specific context of burgers, the smell of coconut undermines instead of supports the experience.

Image Credit:Katrin Shine, Motion Array

Taste: The Vegan Cheese Slice

Not to give coconuts too hard a time, but they’re also problematic replacements in some dairy-free cheeses. The triglycerides found in traditional cheeses contain unique short-chain fatty acids that create that tangy bite we’ve come to associate with (and enjoy in) dairy products. When coconut is introduced as a plant-based fat substitution and bound with potato or tapioca starch to make rubbery vegan cheese slices, that distinct dairy flavor is lost, and the “cheese” instead gives off the lingering taste of, well, sunscreen.

Texture: The Almond-Milk Latte

Getting almond and other alt-milks to foam is about as effective as trying to juice a potato. You know it. Baristas know it. Not only does the butyric acid in cow’s milk lend flavor to your favorite coffee drinks, but the associated lipid molecules also provide critical texture. That richness and silkiness, coupled with the ability to capture and hold the flotillas of steam-generated bubbles we love in lattes and cappuccinos, is possible because natural dairy fats contain protein coatings that allow them to easily emulsify in milk. Almond and many other non-dairy milks lack this special property, which is why drinks made with them often feel thin and watery. (Speaking of water, almonds require a ton, making them one of the most resource-intensive crops to grow in a warming world.) Sugar might be optional, but sensory inadequacy is included automatically.

Bridging the Valley through Fantastic Fats

On one side of the cliff: plant-based foods. On the opposite cliff: the satisfaction, delectability and taste memories inextricably tied into animal protein-based foods. Too often they’re linked by a rickety rope bridge of poor replacement fats dipping down into the treacherous valley. It’ll get you across, sure, but you won’t be in a hurry to use it again. Many omnivores may need helping crossing the uncanny valley. The more delicious and familiar we can make the experience, the better. Imagine the taste experiences that are ahead of us when plant-based products have the right fats as a key ingredient.