The variety of meat substitutes available has increased sharply in recent years. Plant-based alternatives are the most attractive proposition in terms of sustainability, but we have not yet succeeded in making products of this kind with the optimum combination of texture and juiciness. TNO and Wageningen University & Research are convinced that this can be achieved by 3D printing plant-based meat substitutes, designed to persuade more consumers to replace meat with hamburgers made from vegetable proteins.

World leader in 3D food printing and meat substitutes

Years ago, TNO achieved a world first with a 3D food printer in collaboration with the Italian pasta manufacturer Barilla. One of the world’s biggest snack companies, the American firm Mondelēz International – known for their Milka, Cadbury and Côte d'Or brands – put a 3D chocolate printer developed in collaboration with TNO on the market in 2019. That technology is ideally suited to producing high-quality textures in plant-based food.

WUR is a world leader in meat substitute-producing technology: for example, it is leading the Plant Meat Matters project, which aims to scale up shear cell technology to enable large volumes of plant-based meat similar to beef steak to be produced.

No loss of quality

Example of a meat substitute

To move from meat to plants without making any concessions to sensory quality is the aspiration of the spin-off that TNO and WUR intend to launch in the near future. The prospects are good, as research shows that consumers find 3D printed foods appealing. So far, however, a breakthrough has failed to materialise, as significant investments are needed to achieve this, and many companies in the meat industry are therefore adopting a wait-and-see approach.

Unprecedented possibilities

TNO and WUR foresee the next world first in 3D food printing, as the two knowledge institutions combine very different areas of expertise in the area of food (especially proteins), ingredient functionality, formulations, industrial design, equipment development and production processes. This combination of in-depth knowledge with years of experience in the field is unique, offering unprecedented possibilities. In all probability the question of how to make meat-like structures from plant-based protein sources that consumers will embrace as meat substitutes can then be answered.

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions

Just how important it is to switch from consuming meat to plant-based foods is clear from statistics from the FAO (the UN Food and Agriculture Organization). Beef production alone creates 5.0 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent a year. Replacing beef burgers with plant-based burgers would require 99% less water and 93% less land and would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 90%. A clearly measurable reduction in harmful gas emissions could be achieved by replacing 30% of worldwide beef consumption with plant-based alternatives.

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Eddy Zwier MSc

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