FOSS goes plant-based: Understanding the structural complexity of carbohydrate and protein ingredients for plant-based foods

Every year, the Nils Foss Prize honors excellent innovative research leading to remarkable improvements in sustainability, quality, and safety in the food supply change. We have been speaking to the 2021 winner of the Nils Foss Talent Prize, Mario Martinez-Martinez, about the challenges of creating plant-based food alternatives and the research trying to understand the structure-function relationships of the main components of land-grown food crops, namely complex carbohydrates such as polysaccharides, and proteins.


More consumers than ever are turning to plant-based food in pursuit of products that are good for both the planet and their health. However, while the global plant-based industry is in rapid growth, the quality of e.g., plant-based meat analogues, is still far from reaching palatability standards in terms of taste, texture and mouthfeel, and many questions related to the functionality of the raw material, especially the more environmentally friendly, less-refined ingredients, are still unsolved.

Associate Professor Mario Martinez-Martinez received the Nils Foss Talent Prize in 2021 for his work in building analytical methods in the fields of structural biochemistry of biopolymers from food crops, with the goal to understand how their chemistries and structures at different length scales serve as multifunctional building blocks for plant-based foods. With a special interest in carbohydrates, such as polysaccharides, and proteins, he is looking into their complex molecular architectures and the potential synergistic interactions between them, or with other endogenous plant metabolites, such as ions and polyphenols.

When speaking with Mario, on the one hand, it becomes clear that a core problem lies in the understanding of complex plant polysaccharides, like starch and dietary fibers. “Plant raw materials from cereals, legumes, fruit, and vegetables, contain high amounts of polysaccharides and proteins, yet their structure and functionality are still unknown. We are moving towards a more plant-based diet and understanding the behavior of non-refined, hence more complex, plant-based ingredients are important when designing healthy products that imitate animal products, such as chicken and beef, in a truly sustainable way.”

Mario says and continues “The structural heterogeneity of plant carbohydrates such as polysaccharides and of the colloidal state of plant proteins are fundamental for their specific functionality in plant tissues. However, this complexity imposes major analytical and processing difficulties, and we are only partly understanding how they are working together in plant-based semisolid foods.”

To comprehend such complex plant-based ingredients, a broader spectrum of complementary analytical techniques and in-depth multidisciplinary studies are required to understand the structuring synergies of plant proteins and polysaccharides. “We use IR, NMR, chromatography, and MS technologies, among others, to understand the underlying mechanisms for plant-based food structuring”, Mario elaborates. 

The creation of plant-based foods is one of the most rapidly advancing areas in the modern food industry. A lot has happened in the last 15 years and by understanding plant protein and polysaccharide ingredients, the research of Mario Martinez-Martinez helps improving the quality of healthy and sustainable products that are attractive to consumers. “A dietary transition from animal towards plant protein products is required to avoid biodiversity loss and climate change. However, meat eating consumers prefer products that resemble real meat, which triggers the search for alternative protein sources that can be used to produce meat-resembling structures.


We have learned a lot since plant-based meat alternatives were first introduced in supermarkets.” Mario says and concludes. “Huge investments are put into plant-based research, and I think we will see a big development in the next years moving not only towards the enhancement of palatability, but also understanding how other factors could affect human safety and metabolic health. Next to solving the problem of taste, texture, and mouthfeel, plant-based foods should be kept on a healthy track securing that you also get the optimal nutrients when favorizing these products. This is another part of my research that I am currently looking into –for example, how to produce plant-based foods for low/slow glycemic response, low caloric content, or rich in certain bioactive compounds that could prevent chronic diseases in the long run."

Mario Martinez-Martinez is Associate Professor in the department of Food Science at Aarhus University. In 2021 he was awarded the Nils Foss Talent Prize.     

The Food Analytics Conference is the first of its kind and will honor research leading to significant breakthroughs in the application of analytical technologies, which furthers improvements in sustainability, quality, and safety in food production.                        


Read more about the conference and Nils Foss Prize here

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