Fermented Onions Unlock Natural ‘Meaty’ Flavors in Plant-Based Alternatives

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Plant-based meat alternatives have gained popularity among consumers seeking to reduce their meat consumption. However, replicating the savory flavors and aromas of traditional meat has posed a significant challenge, often requiring the use of synthetic additives. 

A recent study published in the ACS’ Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, a nonprofit organization chartered by the US Congress, presents a promising solution: the fermentation of onions, chives, and leeks with common fungi to naturally recreate meat-like scents and flavors.

Synthetic vs. natural

To make plant-based meat alternatives taste more like real meat, manufacturers frequently incorporate precursor ingredients found in meat that transform into flavor agents during cooking. These flavorings are typically prepared synthetically or through chemical processes, preventing them from being labeled as “natural” in many countries. 

Fungi experiment
© arcyto –

Achieving a genuinely natural meat flavoring would necessitate extracting flavoring chemicals from plants or generating them biochemically using enzymes, bacteria, or fungi. Researchers, led by YanYan Zhang, explored the possibility of using fungi known for producing meaty flavors and odors from synthetic sources to create these flavoring compounds from vegetables and spices.

Through a series of experiments, the team fermented various fungal species with a variety of foods and discovered that meaty aromas were primarily produced from members of the Allium family, such as onions and leeks. The most robust meat-like scent was obtained from an 18-hour fermentation of onions using the fungus Polyporus umbellatus, resulting in a fragrance resembling that of liver sausage. 

High sulfur content

The team utilized gas chromatography-mass spectrometry to analyze the onion ferments, identifying numerous chemicals responsible for various meat flavors. One such chemical was bis(2-methyl-3-furyl) disulfide, a potent odorant found in meaty and savory foods. The researchers attribute the ability of Alliums to yield meat-flavored compounds to their high sulfur content, a characteristic often present in meat flavor compounds.

The findings of this study suggest that these onion ferments could potentially serve as a natural flavoring in various plant-based meat alternatives, addressing one of the primary reasons consumers reject these products: the lack of meaty flavor after cooking.

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