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Food Science

Periodic Graphics

Periodic Graphics: The chemistry of meat alternatives

Chemical educator and Compound Interest blogger Andy Brunning fleshes out the chemistry behind plant-based meat.

by Andy Brunning, special to C&EN
January 5, 2024 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 102, Issue 1


Infographic on the chemistry of plant-based meat. The graphic highlights the different sources of plant protein that manufacturers use to make plant-based meat alternatives: legumes, cereals and grains, nuts and seeds, and fungi. Manufacturers then commonly use a process called high-moisture extrusion to cause plant proteins to unfold, aggregate, and cross-link, producing a layered and fibrous structure similar to that of real meat.
Manufacturers add plant extracts such as those from beets or purple carrots to improve the color of plant-based meat alternatives. Some manufacturers even add heme produced from genetically engineered yeast to make plant-based meat appear to bleed like real meat.
In meat, the Maillard reaction produces key flavor compounds. Manufacturers add yeast extract or hydrolyzed plant proteins to plant-based meat to give it the amino acids and sugars needed to produce similar flavor compounds. To replicate the mouthfeel that animal fats lend to meat, manufacturers use a blend of liquid plant oils and solid fats from tropical fruits. Carbohydrate polymers from plants improve the thickness and consistency of the product.
Manufacturers mask plant protein off-flavors with spices and herbs. They also add minerals and vitamins to compensate for deficiencies relative to real meat.
Credit: Andy Brunning

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References used to create this graphic:

Ahmad, Mudasir, Shahida Qureshi, Mansoor Hussain Akbar, Shahida Anusha Siddiqui, Adil Gani, Mehvesh Mushtaq, Ifrah Hassan, and Sanju Bala Dhull. “Plant-Based Meat Alternatives: Compositional Analysis, Current Development and Challenges.”Appl. Food Res. (2022). DOI: 10.1016/j.afres.2022.100154.

Arora, Shubhangi, Priyanka Kataria, Mansi Nautiyal, Ishika Tuteja, Vaishnavi Sharma, Faraz Ahmad, Shafiul Haque, et al. “Comprehensive Review on the Role of Plant Protein as a Possible Meat Analogue: Framing the Future of Meat.”ACS Omega (2023). DOI: 10.1021/acsomega.3c01373.

Sha, Lei, and Youling L. Xiong. “Plant Protein-Based Alternatives of Reconstructed Meat: Science, Technology, and Challenges.”Trends Food Sci. Technol. (2020). DOI: 10.1016/j.tifs.2020.05.022.

Tyndall, Simone M., Gregory R. Maloney, Martin B. Cole, Nicholas G. Hazell, and Mary Ann Augustin. “Critical Food and Nutrition Science Challenges for Plant-Based Meat Alternative Products.”Crit. Rev. Food Sci. Nutr. (2022). DOI: 10.1080/10408398.2022.2107994.

Zhang, Jinchuang, Qiongling Chen, David L. Kaplan, and Qiang Wang. “High-Moisture Extruded Protein Fiber Formation toward Plant-Based Meat Substitutes Applications: Science, Technology, and Prospect.”Trends Food Sci. Technol. (2022). DOI: 10.1016/j.tifs.2022.08.008.

A collaboration between C&EN and Andy Brunning, author of the popular graphics blog Compound Interest

To see more of Brunning’s work, go to To see all of C&EN’s Periodic Graphics, visit



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