Reverse-engineering the aroma of plant-based meat substitutes


How can GC–MS help plant-based foods taste and smell like real meat?

There is now more pressure than ever on food producers to create products that mimic the appearance, texture, smell and taste of real meat using only plant-derived ingredients. Achieving a similar appearance and texture involves extruding plant proteins (i.e., applying moisture and pressure), but to mimic the smell and flavour, a detailed examination of which compounds contribute to both in meat in a process called reverse engineering is needed, which is challenging.

Why is it so difficult to reverse engineer aroma and flavour?

Unfortunately, mimicking the flavour of meat is a major challenge because it has complex aroma profiles that change throughout the cooking process. Also, the plant proteins themselves contribute characteristic aromas to the product depending on their source (e.g., pea, potato or soy). Finally, odour thresholds will span many orders of magnitude, meaning that even trace quantities of a potent compound will have a huge impact on the overall perceived aroma.

Extensive research is therefore required to help understand how to make vegetable proteins taste and smell more like the real thing. Fortunately, modern scientific equipment can help flavourists to simplify this process. Aroma profiling is identifying which compounds are present and which aromas they are responsible for. Gas chromatography–mass spectrometry is an ideal technique for aroma profiling, but some compounds are hidden in the resulting chromatograms because they co-elute with others on the chromatography column.

How can we improve aroma profiling?

GC×GC–TOF MS chromatograms reveal the hidden complexity of aroma profiles from beef and plant-based burgers.


At SepSolve, we used an improved technique to compare the aroma profiles of a range of beef burgers and plant-based burgers (above). First, we used high-capacity sorptive extraction (using the Centri platform) to capture aroma volatiles from the headspace of the food products. Then we separated the volatiles using multidimensional GC (GC×GC) and identified them with confidence using BenchTOF2 time-of-flight mass spectrometry. Finally, we used ChromCompare+ software to automatically spot the differences between the complex chromatograms.


Easy-to-use chemometrics software highlights differences between samples to accelerate development of new flavour formulations.


We found that while the burgers shared many compounds in common (green, above), the plant-based burgers had a more diverse composition, with increased levels of pyrazines (‘nutty’ aroma), terpenes (such as 3-carene and limonene) and sulfur-containing compounds. The ground beef, on the other hand, had a high level of acetoin, which correlates with its desirable ‘buttery, fat’ flavour.1

Ultimately, this level of information enables flavourists to optimise ingredient mixes for plant-based burgers so that they can more closely mimic the taste and smell of real meat.


1. T.G. O’Quinn et al., Identifying consumer preferences for specific beef flavor characteristics in relation to cattle production and postmortem processing parameters, Meat Science, 2016, 112: 90–102,


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Reverse engineering the aroma of plant-based meat substitutes