But this is only one part of the process—what’s the point in developing new crops if they taste worse than what’s already on the market? “We have a trained tasting panel in-house that tastes our products weekly,” says Sigal Meirovitch, senior director and head of R&D at Equinom, an Israeli company also focused on improving crops for use in plant-based alternatives to animal products. Unlike Benson Hill, Equinom has so far mainly focused on the yellow pea.
“After we see the results, we send the more successful varieties to an outside tasting panel who verify and validate the results,” Meirovitch says. Testing involves comparing the crops the team has bred against other varieties that are on the market. Equinom started by comparing flour made from its peas with other commercially available pea flours. The company then used these different peas to create plant-based ice creams and taste-tested these too. From preliminary studies, Meirovitch says people consistently prefer the ice cream made from the company’s yellow pea protein. Alongside human trials of the products, Meirovitch adds that the team does more stringent chemical analyses through the use of an electric nose, which, like a sort of high-tech dog, can sniff out the aromas they are—or aren’t—looking for. The goal is a neutral aroma, eliminating the need to cover up any off-flavors.
There are a few main arguments in favor of high-protein variants of crops. One is that higher protein content changes the chemical composition of the crop in question, a process that, by default, will change the taste. Whittled down to its simplest form, taste is our tongues reacting to chemical stimuli.
Another is that processing crops can add salty, metallic, or artificial residual flavors, and with high-protein variants, there is less need to process. Youling Xiong, a professor of food science at the University of Kentucky, says that processing can definitely impact the taste when producing a protein isolate or concentrate, which are the products of these crops used in making meat alternatives.
But Gary Reineccius, a professor at the University of Minnesota who researches flavor, is skeptical about the processing argument, saying that undesirable off-flavors do not come from processing, but are inherent. As a plant grows, the chemical processes it goes through create byproducts—“small molecules that do not taste so good,” he says. “Thus, even if you can make a really high-protein plant source, there will still be some off-flavors.”
Xiong agrees that off-flavors can also be due to biological molecules found in plants. Yet when it comes to creating plant-based meat alternatives, he thinks flavor isn’t the most important thing—what’s vital is recreating the mouthfeel of animal products, like the juiciness of a burger. Exploring other crops could be a good way of finding better tastes and textures, he says. “We should not limit our imagination to just a few traditional proteins—we should explore anything possible.”
He points to the mung bean as an example and says it has a mild flavor and interesting properties, like its ability to form a gel. The food company Eat Just has successfully created a plant-based egg alternative using mung beans that has been on the market since 2018. Other companies, like Mikuna—which produces edible plant protein—are trying to introduce alternative crops, like the Andean lupin, into our diets.
Regardless of the crop involved, Meirovitch is adamant that raising the amount of protein in plant-based products is what will drive their success. “We have seen that the protein overwhelmingly dictates the taste and mouthfeel,” she says. “Of course, there are many factors that influence the taste and texture of plant-based food, but the protein makes the biggest impact by far because it’s the most prominent ingredient by volume in a plant-based burger, aside from water.” In her view, “protein is what separates a mediocre, dry, beany burger from a truly delicious and juicy meaty burger.”
For both Benson Hill and Equinom, the high-protein products they’re working on are just the beginning. Begemann says that Benson Hill plans on exploring other elements it could bolster in its ingredients, such as water-holding capacity, which could improve juiciness. Meirovitch says Equinom would even like to tackle nutrition by combining different crops, such as sesame and pea protein, to give its foods a fuller nutritional profile. If the results match the team’s aspirations, Begemann’s daughter has a lot to look forward to.