UC Berkeley researcher receives grant for development of plant-based meat products

Ricardo San Martin/Courtesy

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A team of UC Berkeley researchers, headed by Ricardo San Martin, received part of a $3 million grant Wednesday from the Good Foods Institute, or GFI, to develop plant-based meat.

San Martin is the director of the Alternative Meats Lab at the Sutardja Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology, or SCET, and has spent his career researching the inner workings of alternative meat. He is one of 14 researchers who will receive grants from GFI’s Inaugural Competitive Research Grant Program and will use the funding to continue his research in the incorporation of oil in plant-based meats.

“When companies prepare alternative meat products from soy and pea proteins, the process (gives it a) meat-like texture but leaves it without oil,” San Martin said. “Therefore, these foods are normally dry and companies add coconut fat — which is not good for health — as a solution.”

To address the lack of oil in alternative meat, San Martin and his team are considering creating a nano-scale particle that attaches to the plant-protein product in order to retain and incorporate oil into the finished product. According to the team’s hypothesis, this will make plant-based meat taste more like the animal-based original.

GFI Scientific Foundations liaison Erin Rees Clayton said that GFI was excited with the quality of proposals they received after they sent out a world-wide request in September 2018 for proposals in plant-based and cell-based research. According to Clayton, grant winners were chosen because their projects addressed critical areas of plant-based and cell-based meat — research that GFI supports in order to add a greater variety of “clean meat” and plant-based alternatives to the marketplace.

“We’re seeing a lot of interest from companies that want to produce (alternative meat) products, but we’re not seeing any research,” Clayton said. “Companies that do research may want to keep their research private — by us being a nonprofit and providing this grant, we are ensuring this research benefits the entire industry.”

In 2017, San Martin launched the alternative meats lab to help entrepreneurs and researchers better understand plant-based meats, dairy substitutes and alternative sources of fat and protein. The lab creates an open space where students can develop solutions for how food impacts the environment, health and animal welfare.

Joyce Yu, campus senior and researcher in San Martin’s lab, volunteered to be a part of the research group being funded by the GFI grant. Yu enrolled in the alternative meats lab after studying abroad, where she learned about environmental issues, but “not enough” about how to create sustainable solutions.

“I really do believe that (the clean meats and alternative foods) industry is going to be very successful,” Yu said in an email. “This might sound unrealistic to some, but I believe that getting past the issues we face today is totally possible and reasonable within the next 15 to 20 years, given that this is an emerging field growing in popularity and is needed to sustain the world.”

Contact Clara Rodas at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @ClaraRodas10.