Artificial flavours released by cooking aim to improve lab-grown meat


Cultured meat, with added flavour

Yonsei University

Lab-grown meat could get a flavour boost thanks to aromatic chemicals that activate when cooked, releasing a meaty smell – or if you prefer, that of coffee or potatoes.

Meat grown from cultured cells can already be created in various forms that resemble slaughtered meat, including steak and meatballs, but matching the taste has proven more challenging. Traditional meat flavours are extremely complex and volatile and don’t survive the lengthy laboratory process.

One key component of the taste of cooked meat is the Maillard reaction, named after a French chemist who discovered that unique flavours are created in cooked food at between 140 and 165°C (280 to 330 °F). Jinkee Hong at Yonsei University in Seoul, South Korea, and his colleagues say they have worked out a way to simulate the Maillard reaction by adding “switchable flavour compounds” (SFCs) into a 3D gelatine-based hydrogel, called a scaffold, that remain stable while the meat is cultured.

Once heated to 150°C, the chemicals “switch on” and release their flavours, improving the cultured protein’s palatability. “We actually smelled the meaty flavour upon heating the SFCs,” says Hong, though he wouldn’t confirm whether the team had actually eaten the meat.

These SFCs can also be used to create different flavour profiles. For example, the researchers tested three compounds and say they produced flavours simulating roasted meat, coffee, roasted nuts, onions and potatoes. “We can diversify and customise the flavour compounds released from the SFC,” says Hong.

One big issue is that the chemicals involved aren’t currently seen as safe for human consumption. “Because the materials and culture medium are not approved as edible materials, we cannot ensure the safety of it,” Hong says. “However, we think that our strategy can also be applied to conventional edible materials, which would be safer than the materials used in this study.”

Johannes le Coutre at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, says he is sceptical of the work for numerous reasons, including that the flavour tests predominantly used an electronic nose to assess the chemicals being released, rather than human judgement of whether they smelled appetising.

“You cannot nourish human beings with this type of material,” says le Coutre. “While cell-based meat is a promising technology concept, this particular way of adding flavour will never provide safe and sustainable protein for low and middle-income communities that need food.”

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