8 questions about plant-based foods with a NAIT research chef

Plant-based food workshop part of NAIT’s community engagement series

When an Edmonton food company tapped Maynard Kolskog (Cooking ’82) to create a vegan egg product that could replicate the delicate texture and flavours of a French omelette, he thought it “shouldn’t be a big deal.”

The certified research chef with NAIT’s Centre for Culinary Innovation has made cheeses from oats, lattes with pea milk and soft-serve ice cream with aquafaba, a type of bean liquid (more about that later).

A soft scramble made of plants? Why not?

“Boy, was I wrong,” says Kolskog. As product innovation challenges go, “This has been probably one of the most frustrating, rewarding … it’s constant problem-solving.”

There’s no shortage of plant-based egg alternatives that can be used in vegan baking. But when it comes to preparing one that looks, tastes and feels like a cooked egg, Kolskog is unaware of a product that’s available in Canada.

“I’m a certified research chef but really, right to the core, I’m a chef.”

He initially turned to mung bean protein to try to replicate the soft curds of eggs. It didn’t work. After that, he tried gellan gum, an artificial fibre created by bacteria found in lactose. It lacked stability. That’s when he turned to buffers, a food additive often used to alter the acidity of foods.

He found some success but every tweak and addition meant going “back to the drawing board,” he says, trying to solve new problems and create a product that’s not just a meat or egg substitute but actually tastes good.

“I’m a certified research chef but really, right to the core, I’m a chef. That’s what we’re always looking at.”

plant-based cheese

Kolskog shared insight into his experimental creations as part of a recent webinar “The future of plant-based foods.” It’s part of NAIT’s ongoing community education and engagement sessions, a series of free workshops featuring the polytechnic’s experts speaking about topics ranging from food to leadership to sustainable living.

It was also an opportunity for members of the community to ask Kolskog for insight into the future of plant-based foods, which the Good Food Institute estimates have grown 29% in the past two years into a $5-billion (US) market. Here’s a look at some big questions facing a booming industry.

What are the nutritional differences between plant-based alternatives and the traditional foods they’re meant to replace?

Maynard Kolskog: I believe a lot of plant-based foods that are on the market aren’t as nutritious as their animal-based counterparts. Beyond Meat would be a pretty good example, you know where you have something that’s – basically it’s pea proteins – and not a lot else as far as nutrition goes. When you look at different types of micronutrients, like even what would be found within eggs, you’re missing out. With the meat analogue [we’ve created], I try to create a full amino acid profile, like you would have in meat. I think that’s important. … Plant-based foods found on the market are kind of lacking.

Do you have any recommendations in terms of commercially available, whole-food vegan meat products?

We’ve tested a bunch of stuff available in stores here, different types of vegan meats. Some were quite good and then some were really, really horrible. If I was going to name one manufacturer [to try], it’s Yves. They’ve been around a long time, based in Vancouver, so they’re Canadian. It’s a former chef who started the place. Beyond Meat, I’m not going to lie, they’re pretty amazing [tasting]. They’ve put so much research and money into those products and it shows.

bean ice cream

I eat plant-based a little but I find the products are highly processed. What’s your best advice to avoid these but still eat healthy plant-based foods?

When becoming a vegan you have to have time and you have to know how to cook. Otherwise, you’re pretty much at the mercy of food manufacturers. Some of these products aren’t going to hurt you in small amounts but, really, learn how to cook. You have to have a high skill level to be able to get those flavours and textures that we take for granted when we are on an animal-based diet.

I’m a culinary student. How does one get into the food research career area?

We are trying to develop the curriculum here at NAIT to certainly help people move into that line of work, but I would definitely check out the Research Chefs Association and go from there. I know there are more and more companies that need food research chefs. We have manufacturers right here in the city. I do think that’s a burgeoning career.

Will more people embrace plant-based foods because of the pandemic and rising prices for meat?

I talked about that with my wife and she’s like, well, I guess we won’t be eating much beef anymore. So yes, people will probably start looking at plant-based foods more. Not everybody, but people will be looking at it and saying, “OK, let’s eat vegetarian instead one day a week. Let’s eat vegetarian two or three days a week,” just because it’s hitting us in the pocketbook much harder.

pea milk latte

One of the biggest challenges in trying to make plant-based cheeses is mimicking the flavour. What ingredients or methods have you found that get you closer to the original?

A probiotic – that’s going to give you your tangy flavour. You can get probiotic capsules from the drug store, right off the shelf. I’m also using miso – I’ve made my own oat miso but you can use regular soy miso from the store – and nutritional yeast. Those are going to give you really nice umami flavours that you want in cheese.

Just what the heck is aquafaba anyway?

It’s a bean water. If you open up a can of chickpeas or kidney beans and you have that mucusy-looking liquid, that’s aquafaba. It’s got a lot of really interesting characteristics to it. In fact, what I did today in the morning was I took aquafaba [that I made], about 200 millilitres, and whipped it into a meringue. I make all different types of things with it – meringue pavlovas, all sorts of things. It doesn’t have that beanie kind of flavour that you would think it would have.

What would need to happen for plant-based foods to make a significant dent in world hunger and poverty?

That’s a really good question. I think a lot of it is political will. This is something that can really change the planet when you talk about how resource-intensive animal-based farming is. You can feed so many more with the plant-based products. I think a lot of it comes down to the economic structure and political will.

Watch the Future of Plant Based Foods

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