In new University of Copenhagen research, scientists demonstrated the potential of natural fermentation to produce climate-friendly plant-based cheese with similar sensory properties as its dairy counterpart.
Making realistic plant-based cheese has been challenging since plant proteins behave differently than proteins found in milk. The study highlights that cheese producers add starch, coconut oil, and flavorings to achieve firm textures and dairy-like flavors.
“Fermentation is an incredibly powerful tool to develop flavor and texture in plant-based cheeses”
However, the research, led by scientist Carmen Masiá in collaboration between the Department of Food Science and microbial ingredients supplier Chr. Hansen shows that natural fermentation and bacteria produce dairy-free cheeses with a firm texture and improved taste, aroma, and mouthfeel.
“Fermentation is an incredibly powerful tool to develop flavor and texture in plant-based cheeses. In this study, we show that bacteria can serve to develop firmness in non-dairy cheese in a very short period of time while reducing the bean-like aroma of yellow pea protein, which is used as the main and only protein source,” explains Carmen Masiá.
Fresh cheese after eight hours
The study aimed to mix different commercially available bacteria and test their ability to make cheese-like products with good taste and texture. To do so, the researchers examined 24 bacterial combinations made from bacterial cultures supplied by Chr. Hansen.
To study the behavior of the bacterial combinations, the scientist inoculated a protein base made of yellow pea protein — proven in previous research to be a good “protein base” for fermented plant-based cheese. After only eight hours of incubation, the study found that all bacterial combinations created firm gels and improved the taste by reducing the bean-like flavor in the samples.
“From an aroma perspective, we had two goals: To reduce the compounds that characterize the beaniness of yellow peas and to produce compounds that are normally found in dairy cheese. Here we saw that some bacteria were better at producing certain volatile compounds than others but that they all worked great to reduce beaniness – which is a very positive outcome. Furthermore, all blends acquired dairy aroma notes to different degrees,” explains Masiá.
The researcher points out that the success of these fermented plant-based cheeses will ultimately depend on consumer satisfaction. While replicating the qualities of dairy cheese cannot be achieved overnight, there has been progress, and the next generation of plant-based cheeses will become more palatable in the coming years, she adds.
“The most challenging thing for now is that, while there are a lot of people who would like to eat plant-based cheese, they aren’t satisfied with how it tastes and feels in the mouth. In the end, this means that no matter how sustainable, nutritious, etc., a food product is, people aren’t interested in buying it if it doesn’t provide a good experience when consumed,” comments Masiá.
The study has been published in the scientific journal Future Foods.