New food category to create a real alternative to meat

Environment and sustainability 6. jul 2021 3 min Professor Dennis Sandris Nielsen Written by Sabina Askholm Larsen

Several researchers are collaborating to develop a new food category that can feed more people using fewer resources. With the help of microorganisms, they will create plant-based food that satisfies our taste buds in a form that can become a real alternative to meat. You can hear more about this project in the Forskningsfortællinger podcast (in Danish), which also examines what it takes to get consumers to eat more plant-based food.

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Imagine sinking your teeth into fermented oats or yellow peas and having an eating experience that can be a real alternative to meat in terms of both taste and nutrition.

Dennis Sandris Nielsen, Professor of Microbiology and Fermentation at the Department of Food Science, University of Copenhagen, can imagine exactly this. Together with three research colleagues from Denmark and the Netherlands, he wants to develop a completely new food category based on fermentation with microorganisms.

“We have great ambitions to basically develop the foundations of a new plant-based food category that uses microorganisms to partly transform plant-based raw materials, so that we can adjust the composition of nutrients more optimally for humans,” explains Dennis Sandris Nielsen, adding:

“Our aim is to create something that will make you not miss eating meat. Something that fulfils the same role on the plate. This is not a meat substitute; it is an alternative. It is something that gives you the same eating experience and also meets the same nutritional needs you have.”

Using farmland to grow food for people instead of animals

The major challenge addressed by developing the new food category is that the Earth’s resources cannot keep up with the increased demand for food resulting from increased population in the coming decades – at least not if we use meat as an essential source of protein to the same extent as now. An increasing need to feed the world’s population therefore requires a fundamental change in our eating habits and thus also our food production.

Dennis Sandris Nielsen and his colleagues will therefore improve understanding of how to use and process the proteins in plants and microorganisms in food production so that they can be used as a tasty alternative to meat. They are starting with oats and yellow peas.

“Today, oats and yellow peas are mostly used for animal feed. If we can develop something that people would like to eat directly instead of first feeding it to a chicken, cow or pig, then we can feed more people using the same land we use currently to produce animal feed,” says Dennis Sandris Nielsen, who adds:

“Animal feed takes up one third of the area cultivated today, and if we use that feed directly for human consumption, we could theoretically feed about 4 billion more people using the same area.”

These two plants were selected because they have a fairly high natural protein content and because they represent two major plant categories, with oats representing cereals and yellow peas representing legumes. The two plants are therefore intended as model substrates about which the researchers can learn and then later apply to other raw materials.

Specifically, the researchers will ferment raw or minimally processed plants with microorganisms to form food that is worth eating, both nutritionally and in terms of taste and structure.

“We want to link all this together to create structures that provide an interesting eating experience. And we will create taste and taste precursors so that, when you fry something, for example, the precursors will react with each other and form what then becomes the final taste when you eat or smell what is on your plate,” explains Dennis Sandris Nielsen.

Putting new knowledge to work

When will consumers have the prospect of sinking their teeth into this new food category? The PROFERMENT project, in which Dennis Sandris Nielsen and his colleagues will carry out the initial research for the new food category, will start in January 2022 and will run for 6 years.

Dennis Sandris Nielsen thinks that the knowledge created in the project will be applied rapidly, including in an increasing undergrowth of small start-ups, both in Denmark and elsewhere. These companies, which are exploring similar avenues, will take the knowledge generated in the project and integrate it into products.

When the project ends after 6 years, Dennis Sandris Nielsen thinks that the researchers will have a very basic understanding of how the microorganisms interact with each other and with the plant raw material and how this process can be controlled.

“We will then have the tools that will enable us to take a more application-oriented approach to how we can turn this knowledge into products. We could do this, or it could involve companies, or other universities, or a mixed collaboration. We just want to put our knowledge to work, so people can just come to us and we will be happy to collaborate,” concludes Dennis Sandris Nielsen.

Podcast guests

  • Dennis Sandris Nielsen, Professor, Microbiology and Fermentation, Department of Food Science, University of Copenhagen
  • Thomas Roland, Head of CSR, Coop Denmark

Dennis Sandris Nielsen has received a grant from the Novo Nordisk Foundation Challenge Programme 2021 of DKK 56.3 million for the project PROFERMENT: Solid-state Fermentations for Protein Transformations and Palatability of Plant-based Foods. Apart from Dennis Sandris Nielsen, the three other project leaders in the PROFERMENT project will each contribute their scientific expertise to developing this new food category.

- Wender Bredie, Professor, Department of Food Science (UCPH FOOD), who is an expert on consumer behaviour including how we perceive taste and structure.

- Anne S. Meyer, Professor, Department of Biotechnology and Biomedicine, Technical University of Denmark, who is an expert on how enzymes can be used to break down and transform plant materials.

- Han Wösten, Professor, Utrecht University, the Netherlands, who is an expert on fungi and how they bind particles together.

Dennis Sandris Nielsen's primary fields of research include: - Microbial behavior in complex environments. - The association between the mammalian...

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