Thriving on plant-based protein: solutions for a sustainable future

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We all want to do what’s best for our health and the planet. We’re exercising more, eating nutrition-balanced meals, and reducing our environmental footprint. With global warming and sustainability in the headlines, many people are looking to plant-forward eating to make a positive impact.

Plant-forward eating is older than one might think. In Japan, a type of vegetarian cuisine called shojin-ryori, based in Zen Buddhism, boasts a thousand-year history. In addition to avoiding meat, it emphasizes resource conservation and sustainability. The non-edible parts of plants and vegetables like stems and peels are simmered to make broth for soups and stews, with minimal food wastage. For protein, shojin-ryori relies on soy products like tofu, yuba (tofu skin), and natto (fermented soybeans). It uses broths made from kombu seaweed and shiitake mushrooms to impart a more savory, meatier taste to plant-based dishes, making them not only healthy and ethical but also delicious.

It was kombu broth—a staple of Japanese cuisine from seafood stews to miso soup—that enabled Dr. Kikunae Ikeda to identify the amino acid glutamate as the secret of umami, the fifth taste. Kombu contains glutamate, which triggers umami taste receptors on the tongue. Dr. Ikeda’s invention in 1908 of a process for creating a sodium salt of glutamate that enhances flavor resulted in the commercialization of AJI-NO-MOTO® seasoning.

Dr. Ikeda’s groundbreaking research into umami substances and amino acids paved the way for the Ajinomoto Group’s development of kokumi substances and food enzymes. Typical kokumi substances are peptides, or chains of amino acids, found naturally in foods that have been stewed, aged, or matured. They create a long-lasting, rich, and mouth-filling sensation. Food enzymes are proteins, such as protease, lipase, transglutaminase, and amylase, that act as biological catalysts to accelerate natural chemical reactions. They break down or bind proteins, fats, and starch in beer, meat, cheese, and other foods, improving flavor and texture.

The benefits of plant-forward eating in terms of conserving resources, reducing CO2, and improving nutrition and health are clear. But consumer surveys show that taste is the main obstacle to plant-based meat products gaining wider acceptance. About two-thirds of consumers say they would choose such products over animal protein if they tasted better.[i] On the other hand, another survey shows those who choose to buy plant-based meat products put as much importance on taste as they do on health and sustainability.[ii] Such data clearly suggest consumers are seeking delicious plant-based alternatives.

Plant-based proteins: examples

Today, the Ajinomoto Group is leveraging its knowhow and expertise in umami, kokumi, and food enzymes to close the gap between plant- and animal-based products in terms of flavor and texture––for example, by adding meatiness and juiciness and masking beany flavor––while reducing sodium. This holistic application of our technologies is enabling Group companies and our business partners worldwide to offer sustainable plant-based products that are delicious, nutritious, and healthy, and which consumers will embrace.

[i] Leiserowitz et. al., Climate Change and the American Diet (New Haven: Yale University and Earth Day Network, 2020).

[ii] Plant Based Foods Association

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