The Business Times

AI beefs up veggie burgers as market booms

Published Thu, Jul 15, 2021 · 05:50 AM

Satigny, Switzerland

A BURGEONING veggie burger industry is using artificial intelligence to propose alternatives.

Swiss group Firmenich, one of the world's leading flavour manufacturers, says recreating the sensation of beef relies not only on flavour, texture and colour, but also on how it responds to cooking and the way it feels in the mouth.

"Finding a protein that resembles meat from a vegetable protein is highly complex," Emmanuel Butstraen, head of Firmenich's flavours unit, told AFP at the company's headquarters in Satigny outside Geneva.

One of the toughest challenges is avoiding an unpleasant aftertaste. Pea proteins tend to release bitterness, which the taste buds are quick to pick up, Mr Butstraen noted.

Vegetable proteins can give off hints of green apples or pears, an aftertaste of beans, astringency or even a feeling of dryness, said Jerome Barra, the company's innovation director.

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To mask these flavours or compensate for them with other tastes, the aromatics experts can call on a vast library of ingredients.

Mr Barra likened the computer-logged database to "a piano with 5,000 keys", from which the flavours can be composed.

"Artificial intelligence can generate millions of possibilities," he said.

He said the algorithms can generate not only a wide range of flavour combinations but also factor in shifting consumer preferences, along with technical or regulatory constraints.

The algorithms can propose multiple combinations that the human expert aromaticians might not have conceived.

According to a study by the Credit Suisse bank, the market for meat and dairy alternatives is already worth around US$14 billion globally, will reach US$143 billion by 2030 - and US$1.4 trillion by 2050.

After rising 11.4 per cent in 2019, the global growth in sales of meat alternatives slowed to 1.3 per cent in 2020 but should climb again by 5.1 per cent this year and 6.3 per cent in 2022, according to market researchers Euromonitor International.

By comparison, meat products - more affected by the coronavirus crisis - saw only 0.3 per cent growth in 2020, with a more modest recovery of 2.9 per cent expected in 2021 and 4.6 per cent in 2022. AFP

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