Project Summary

Sensory and Chemical Characterization of Ground Beef and Plant-Based Protein Alternatives

Principle Investigator(s):
M.S. Hernandez, D.R. Woerner, J.C. Brooks, and J.F. Legako
Department of Animal and Food Science, Texas Tech University
Completion Date:
June 2022
Key Findings

  • The sensory and chemical characteristics of ground beef are different from plant-based alternatives. 
  • Beef is unique in its chemical composition and incredibly challenging to utilize plant based ingredients to create. As a result, variation exists in the sensory attributes of plant-based alternatives in comparison to beef. 


Plant-based meat alternatives (PBMA) have existed in the protein market since the 1980s. However, these products were often marketed directly to vegetarians. More recently, a new generation of PBMA have entered the market claiming to directly mirror the beef hamburger eating experience. Consumers are becoming more aware and conscious on how their food choices influence their health and the environment. Therefore, these modernized PBMA have piqued the interest of consumers who are opting to replace meat in their diet or decrease their meat consumption. The companies producing these new PBMA market their products as having the same flavor, aroma, texture, and appearance of beef hamburgers. Advancements in food science have opened the door for newer PBMA to more closely mimic beef compared to their predecessors. For example, the Impossible Foods Inc. employs the use of soy leghemoglobin to imitate “bleeding” in burgers or myoglobin.   

The meat industry has dubbed PBMA as “meat analogs” which are defined as “Plant (often soy and gluten) or fungal-based non-meat products produced to mimic animal-derived meat.” (Seman et al., 2018). Efforts have been made by the scientific community to understand how the nutritional value of GB and PBMA compare (Fanelli et al., 2021; Swing et al., 2021; van Vliet et al., 2021). Moreover, other studies have begun to benchmark the eating quality of PBMA as they compare to GB (Davis et al., 2021; Kaczmarska et al., 2021). While these studies have done an admirable job working to understand PBMA, these studies are limited to the scope of sampling, comparison of PBMA with other protein sources such as pork and measuring plant-based proteins that are not direct imitations of animal protein.   

The objectives of this study were: 1) determine the descriptive flavor profile and chemical flavor composition of available ground beef and plant-based alternatives at retail; 2) determine the chemical composition of available ground beef and plant-based alternatives at retail, including measurement of essential fatty acids, amino acids, vitamins, minerals, and metabolites.


The Beyond Burger (BEY), Impossible Burger (IMP), a third available brand of plant-based protein (GEN), 85/15 ground beef (85/15 GB) and 93/7 ground beef (93/7 GB) were collected from local and national chain grocery stores in six different cities representing the east (University Park, PA and Athens, GA), central (West Lafayette, IN and Lubbock, TX), and west (Fresno, CA and Reno, NV) regions of the United States. One-hundred and fifty grams of product were weighed out and formed into a patty using a patty press (Gander Mountain, St. Paul, MN). From 1 package, 3 patties were produced and assigned to either volatile compound analysis, sensory analysis, or raw analysis. Patties were vacuum packaged and frozen at -20℃ until subsequent analyses. Patties were cooked on an enamel-lined cast-iron skillet (80131, Tramontina USA Inc., Sugar Land, TX) heated to 200 ± 10℃. Patties were cooked to an internal temperature of 71℃ being flipped at 35℃. Cooked patties were used to evaluate 21 descriptive flavor and texture attributes and volatile flavor compounds. The raw patty was used for proximate analyses (moisture, fat, protein, ash), B-vitamin analyses, amino acid, and fatty acid profiles, mineral analyses, and metabolomic profiling.

results and discussion

These data indicate PBMA and GB are very distinct products. 85/15 GB had the greatest fat percentage compared to all other products whereas 93/7 GB fat content was more comparable to PBMA. IMP had the greatest iron, potassium, and zinc content compared to all other products (P < 0.05). IMP had the highest percentage of saturated fatty acids, followed by 85/15 GB and 93/7 GB. Palmitic acid, oleic acid, and stearic acid concentration was greatest in 85/15 GB compared to all other products. Alanine, glycine, and histidine concentrations were the greatest in both lean levels of ground beef compared to PBMA (P < 0.05). All PBMA had a greater concentration of aspartic acid, phenylalanine, and serine compared to both GB products. The metabolome of GB was clearly different compared to PBMA. Within PBMA, metabolomic profiles were different. PBMA were more intense for overall sweet, smokey-charcoal, umami, nutty, musty/earthy, and salty descriptive attributes compared to GB. All PBMA produced greater concentrations of pyrazines compared to GB. IMP patties had similar concentrations of 2-methylbutanal and phenylacetaldehyde compared to GB. These data indicate that ground beef and plant-based meat alternatives have distinct nutritional, chemical, and sensory characteristics.

industry Implications

This study serves as a benchmark to fully understand nutritional, sensory, and chemical differences between ground beef and plant-based meat alternatives. These data contribute to the scientific community and industry. The beef industry can utilize these data to educate consumers on the benefits of beef compared to plant-based proteins.