What is Aquafaba?

Originally published here: https://mcgill.ca/oss/article/nutrition-you-asked/what-aquafaba

Aquafaba (literally the amalgamation of the Latin words for water and bean) is the liquid that remains after boiling legumes. In 2014 a French musician discovered this liquid’s ability to create a foam similar to egg whites, and started a vegan revolution of sorts.

See, for those who do not consume eggs (whether by choice or necessity) certain foods become really difficult to make. Meringues, angel food cake, marshmallows, macarons and some cocktails all rely on eggs for their creation. Egg replacers are common at this point, but they aren’t all the same, and not all of them work for all things. Aquafaba may be just another egg replacer, but it’s got some unique properties that other replacers don’t possess.

The problem is that eggs don’t serve only one purpose in a food. They are what’s called a polyfunctional ingredient, since they serve three distinct and culinarily important functions outside of their taste and nutritional roles: emulsifying, coagulating and foaming. Each of these functions is affected by different conditions like temperature and pH, and each relies on different chemical processes.

Eggs as emulsifiers are the simplest to emulate. In this role the egg serves to stabilize a mixture between two immiscible liquids. Silken tofuflax or chia seeds, bananasmustard (for savoury recipes) or applesauce can all be used as egg substitutes in recipes in which the egg functions only as an emulsifier. The main factor affecting emulsifiers is concentration, with dilute ingredients emulsifying poorly. I really enjoy baking but have largely stopped baking with eggs since eggs mostly function as emulsifiers in my recipes, and substituting them for bananas or “flax eggs” is much cheaper and works just as well!

Eggs as coagulators are more difficult to replace. Eggs coagulate when either heat, strong acids or strong bases cause the proteins in them to denature (lose their structure). The rate and efficiency at which this happens depends on the salt, sugar, and acid content of the food. In eggs the main proteins that coagulate are conalbumin and ovalbumin in the white, and lipoproteins in the yolk. Lots of other proteins coagulate but under different conditions than typically occur during cooking. Egg replacers for coagulation have been attempted. They were made from lupini beanswhey protein, various gums and wheat products, but they haven’t really worked. Replacers made with chia seeds or soy have been a bit better, while replacers made with proteins isolated from whole bovine blood plasma have debatably worked the best but using cow’s blood isolates as an egg replacer probably wouldn’t sit well with most people who use egg replacers.

The foaming ability of eggs is the hardest to replicate. An ingredient’s ability to foam is affected by the method of beating, temperature, pH and water content. Some foods such as soy milk or whey protein can create foams, but these foams are not stable at high temperatures, which is what you need to make angel food cake or meringues.

That’s where aquafaba comes in! It’s vegan, temperature resistant, and made from what would otherwise be waste.

Legumes, like chickpeas, are usually bought either canned and precooked, or dry and uncooked. To cook dry chickpeas you simply boil them for about an hour and a half (pre-soaking dried beans doesn’t actually made them cook faster, so stop wasting your time doing it). During the cooking process the water-soluble proteins and sugars inside the chickpeas are able to travel into the cooking water. The longer you cook the legumes, the more of this migration will occur, as up to about 5% of the dry weight of each chickpea moves into the water. Once you remove your cooked chickpeas, what you’re left with is aquafaba, a sort of protein- and sugar-enriched water.

study has found that the main components of aquafaba are polysaccharides, sucrose, and various proteins. Chemically, this mixture has many of the same components as egg whites, so it makes sense that it can function in many of the same ways. The study also found that some of the compounds most important for aquafaba’s foaming ability are saponins. Saponins, as the name suggests, are characterized by the soap-like foam they produce when shaken.

So how do you actually use aquafaba in a recipe? You basically just whip it up! Using a hand or stand mixer, whip the liquid from your can of legumes or your cooking water for about 3-6 minutes to get semi-firm peaks. You can add some cream of tartar to make the peaks firmer for use in macarons or meringues, or skip the whipping and use it as a binder to make vegan mayonnaise or vegan muffins. The application I’m most excited to try? Aquafaba as a replacement for egg whites in cocktails!

The Impossible Burger: A Vegetarian Breakthrough Brought to You by Science

5 minute read
Originally posted here: https://mcgill.ca/oss/article/nutrition-environment-general-science/impossible-burger-vegetarian-breakthrough-brought-you-science

I’ve been eating veggie burgers for a long time. If it’s sold in Canadian grocery stores or fast food restaurants, there’s a good chance I’ve tried it. There are some I like more, and some I like less, but they all fall into one of two categories: fake meat and veggie.

I like a veggie burger that knows it’s made of veggies, not one that’s pretending it’s beef. Mostly because all fake meat patties seem to come out as bad imitations. But, that seems to be changing in a big way.

The Impossible Burger, made by Impossible Foods, is a plant-based burger designed to fry, bleed, taste and smell just like beef. Incredulous? So was I.

What makes this burger different? The same thing that makes Fireball taste so good and Buckleys taste so bad. Chemistry!

The molecule responsible for the “meaty” taste of meat is heme and it’s found in animal muscle cells in the protein myoglobin. Sadly, there are no non-animal sources of myoglobin, but there is something pretty close: leghemoglobin.

Leghemoglobin is found in the roots of legumes and can provide a “meaty” taste very similar to its animal-based brother. It’s not especially environmentally friendly or affordable to dig up bean plants for their roots, so Impossible Foods had to get creative. They genetically engineered yeast to make leghemoglobin, so that by growing the yeast in fermentation vats they were able to create all the heme needed to make a meaty tasting veggie burger.

Other than heme, the ingredients of an Impossible burger are pretty similar to any other fake meat product. Wheat and potato protein, coconut and soy oil, some binders. All perfectly safe (despitesome cries of outrageover soy and GMOs).

How does it taste? On a recent trip to New York I went out of my way to find one and was not disappointed. The texture isn’t perfectly meat-like (or at least how I remember the texture of meat) but the taste was very similar, as was the look. But don’t just take my vegetarian opinion on the matter, here’s what Michael Marshall, The Project Director of the Good Thinking Society, had to say on it:

“If I hadn’t known what the Impossible Burger was – and, more to the point, what it wasn’t – I’m not sure I’d have been able to tell. It definitely wasn’t the best burger I’ve ever had, but it also wasn’t the worst, and that’s pretty impressive given that the rest of them (at least, I hope the rest of them) had the head start of actually being a burger. Possibly the most remarkable thing about the Impossible Burger is that they’ve managed to make a meat-substitute that differs from meat so little as to be unremarkable. If you’re looking to reduce or cut out meat but fear you’ll miss the experience of eating meat, it’s a pretty solid substitute.”

Sadly, the Impossible burger still isn’t available in Canada. A rival product however is being pushed by A&W: The Beyond Meat Burger.

This meat alternative also makes claimsabout tasting, smelling and having a meat-like texture. However, as far as I can tell it contains similar ingredients to any other veggie burger, with some beet added to dye the uncooked patty red. A&W’s website proudly states (several times) that their product is GMO free, a big change from Impossible Food’s pride in their GM technology.

Never one to pass up a veggie burger, I obviously went and tried the Beyond Meat Burger too. I was, to put it nicely, underwhelmed. It didn’t taste like meat. It didn’t really taste like anything other than a typical cheap veggie patty, and I honestly think I preferred A&W’s old veggie burger. It was boring enough that I’ll probably just opt for some French fries next time we make a road trip stop at an A&W.

But it’s not all about taste, right? Maybe the Impossible burger is delicious but very unhealthy? Well, nutrition-wise the two new veggie burgers actually beat out their meat competitors in terms of protein and iron (two of the nutrients vegetarians often struggle to consume). The Beyond Meat Burger has a lot more fat than the Impossible burger, but is still on par with the meat burgers. Perhaps the biggest lesson to learn from comparing the burgers is that while veggie burgers tend to cost the same (or less) as meat ones, at least at A&W they’re much larger!

(85 g)
(113 g)
No Name beef
(113 g)
(58 g)
Fat (g)13202712
Saturated fat (g)105135
Sodium (mg)43038043045
Sugar (g)1010
Protein (g)20201411
Iron (%)1525156

Even if you’re not passionate about finding the perfect veggie patty like I am, there are good reasons to care about the evolution of vegetarian meat alternatives.

The meat industry is one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. Animals raised for meat expel 37% of all human-released methane. They also require enormous amounts of water. 1 ton (907 kg) of beef takes 16.7 million litres of water to produce, which is more than six times the 2.52 million litres required for a ton of soy.

Infographic made by Ada Mcvean

There is also the animal welfare aspect of the meat industry to consider, as well as the documented health benefits to minimizing your meat intake. Technologies like lab grown meat or ethically raised animals can help your conscience, but not your wallet or heart. Part of what makes meat-like alternatives so compelling is their affordability.

While there are issues with replacing all meat with vegetable proteins, such as plant sources lacking some nutrients and ethical issues of putting herders out of work, there is a lot to be gained by embracing a vegetarian diet (or just going veggie sometimes). The Impossible Burger, and other products I hope are available shortly, might be a simple way to do that.

Until then, I guess I’ll stick to grilling Portobello mushrooms. Not such an impossible task.

The Science and Pseudoscience of Vegetarian Culture

Originally published here: https://mcgill.ca/oss/article/health-and-nutrition-quackery/science-and-pseudoscience-vegetarian-culture

Hi! I’m Ada and I’m a vegetarian.

Forgive me if I sound like I’m confessing to being an alcoholic or naturopath, but with all the misinformation, pseudoscience and nonsense that plague the vegetarian and vegan worlds, being a vegetarian scientist can sometimes feel like being a walking oxymoron.

In my experience there are 3 main reasons one becomes a vegetarian (not including a distaste or allergy for meat, in which case their vegetarianism is less of a choice and more of a mandate):

  1. Environmentalism
  2. Animal welfare
  3. Health effects

Meat has a tremendous environmental impact. Dr. Joe has previously written about this but, to give you a hint, it takes roughly 54 calories of fossil fuel to produce 1 calorie of beef protein, while it takes only 2 calories of fossil fuel to produce 1 calorie worth of soy protein. Combine animals’ vast land, water and food needs, their methane expulsion (37% of all human-released methane), and the issue of what to do with their corpses once used up, and it becomes pretty clear that cutting down on, or eliminating meat is good for Mother Earth.

While meat’s impact on this successively-less-green Earth is important to me, animal welfare is certainly my driving force for going vegetarian. This makes me what is referred to as an ethical vegetarian: some of us are opposed to killing animals under any circumstances, others are opposed only to the brutal conditions that modern animals face in factory farms. Either way, most of us agree that animals deserve some protections. Scientists widely agree that animals not only possess consciousnessbut feel pain, form complex bonds, and feel ‘human’ emotions like guilt, desire, remorse and fear. Animals exhibiting extreme distress when viewing their fellow animals being killed at a slaughterhouse is a poignant example of the suffering that factory farming can cause. Under current Canadian regulations, cows can be transported in trucks for 52 hours without food, water or space to lie down, and there are no regulations (outside of normal provincial animal cruelty laws) on how farm animals may be kept.

Once you start imaging cows, chickens and sheep as thinking, feeling beings, letting them live out their lives in battery cages becomes a lot less palatable. There are more ethical ways to get meat if you’re not willing to give it up altogether. Meat from free-range animals slaughtered in humane ways, fed good food and allowed to live into adulthood exists, but its heightened price tag makes it unpopular with the average consumer. Lab-grown meat is in development and may eventually be the answer we need but, for now, I’ll continue my five-year veggie streak.

It is really the last of the reasons, though, that opens the door to pseudoscience. Meat does carry some definite health cons: it’s often high in fat, its overconsumption can lead to gout, and its improper handling can lead to food poisoning. Some compounds found in meat have been implicated in heart disease, and processed meats are often high in salt which can raise blood pressure. I could go on, but the point people seem to miss when talking about meat and health is “everything in moderation”. Almost every meat-related health concern goes away if you simply limit your intake. Yet the nonsense about how meat is killing us is abundant.

According to the internet, meat causes everything from cancer to diabetes, is the sole reason you’re depressed or overweight, and is probably responsible for the malfunctioning testes in your life too.

I guess once you start questioning the sustainability and ethics of your meat-based foods, it’s natural to examine the effects on yourself and the world that your other foods might have. In that sense, vegans and vegetarians commonly advocate for fair trade foods, to ensure that their cup of coffee isn’t at the expense of an Ethiopian farmer’s welfare, a worthy endeavour. But they also often preach the benefits of organic and non-GMO foods, because non-organic and GMO foods are, if you believe many veggie bloggers, killing us and the world at large.

Despite the rigorous testing that GM foods must undergo and the building evidence that they are safe for both humans and the environment, vegan and vegetarian resources seem set on regurgitating the same myths about GMOs. This spreading of false information has created movements like the Non GMO Project, which has gotten so large that I can barely avoid it when buying my tofu or soy milk. I often find myself browsing blogs for a vegetarian dinner recipe, only to find unsubstantiated claims about how GMO foods are toxic for humans. Look, I wanted a spaghetti recipe with lemon, not nonsense.

It’s not that I’m not vegetarian for my health. Contrary to the preachings of what I like to call ‘bacon culture’, vegetarian and vegan diets are perfectly healthy for the average individual. Fruits and veggies have many health benefits, and the meat removed from a diet has to be replaced with something. It doesn’t escape my notice that a vegetarian diet is usually lower in calories and fat than one containing meat. But meat isn’t killing me anymore than is GM corn or non-organic soy.

Not all vegetarians are pseudoscience-believing, kale-munching, naturopath-visiting schmucks. I get my vaccines, eat GMOs, drink Diet Coke and eat too many French fries… I just don’t eat meat.

Hi! I’m Ada, and I’m a science-based vegetarian, but also an academic.

P.S. For some no-nonsense veggie- (and budget-) friendly blogs, check out these: