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Best Meatless Burger? Zyzak Sniffs it Out

Zyzak and microscopeAs consumers notice more plant-based meat alternatives on grocery shelves, many may wonder how the appearance, texture, smell, and taste compare to familiar products. This curiosity led EKU chemistry professor Dr. LiLi Zyzak to evaluate plant-based hamburger products at home. During her home-based research, she immediately observed a few differences between plant-based products and meat -- one being aroma.

“Just about everyone recognizes the smell of hamburgers on the grill,” Zyzak said. “It is a very characteristic aroma.” She knew it would be an interesting real-world project for her students to tackle. “We wanted to understand the aroma of cooked hamburger and determine if any of the plant-based hamburgers were close to that traditional hamburger smell.” 

After cooking real hamburger meat and eight brands of plant-based burgers, student researchers described the aromas using five descriptors: meaty, fatty, buttery, sweet, and roasted. The team continued the analysis to correlate specific chemical compounds in the burger with the described aroma, noting those that differed from the traditional. Of the eight brands analyzed, the Beyond Burger from Beyond Meat most closely resembled the aroma of a traditional hamburger.

While some brands more closely resemble the look of traditional meat burgers, they do not come close in aroma, she said, because they simply try to mask the natural plant aromas with seasonings that resemble barbecue sauce or garlic. 

Future research should help Zyzak determine the correct blend of vegetable oils that mimic traditional hamburger smell for use in future iterations of plant-based alternative meats. This provides benefits to consumers looking for improvements to these products.

“In the end, I would like for some of my research to provide new insights into developing better tasting plant-based meat products,” Zyzak said.