Plant-based milk alternatives manufacturer MOMA Foods is sponsoring PhD research aimed at optimizing the properties of its oat-based drinks range. The research, which will continue for three years, will be carried out by scientists from Teesside University’s National Horizons Centre.
Led by professor John S. Young, the researchers will create new enzymes as well as a fat and protein content-monitoring tool. They will also work with ingredient suppliers to test how different types of oats influence the taste, texture and nutrient content of plant milk.
Speaking to DairyReporter, professor Young said: “We want a product that optimises nutritional benefits and is also delicious, and we can achieve this by tuning how we turn raw oats into the oat 'milk'. A higher protein milk has huge nutritional benefits - particularly to vegans/vegetarians - but it's important to get the right balance of proteins in order to create a product which does not split in hot drinks. In terms of the fat content, this affects the appearance, the mouthfeel and the taste.”
One aspect that would be explored by the researchers would be creating oat-based milk that doesn’t contain a high amount of fat yet retains a pleasant mouthfeel. “We're aware that dairy and non-dairy milks can be higher in fat than some consumers would like, and we'd like to give people the option of a product that meets their demands - so we'll be looking at providing a range of options,” Young said.
And just like coffee and wine makers sample different types of beans and grapes, the researchers will analyse how different oat varieties affect the final product’s functional, flavour and nutrition properties. “We'll first look at oat cultivars from the UK to see how different cultivars and different growing conditions compare,” Young explained. “Then, informed by that analysis, we'll see how this affects the final product. Cost and availability are, of course, important factors. But like grapes or coffee beans, differences in the source material make a huge difference on the final product.”
These findings would then allow the manufacturer to come with a product ‘of the highest possible standard’, i.e. one that makes the most of these oat properties.
Protein content is also linked to the so-called starting material. Asked how much protein levels could be boosted in oatmilk – and if that would be down to the type of enzyme used in the manufacturing process, Young explained: “Protein content will be mostly dependent on the starting material and what proportion of the whole oat is used to make the final product.
“By using certain enzymes, we affect the solubility of the available proteins, but we won't affect the total amounts - and irrespective of the different types of proteins that are eventually present, our bodies should be able to digest them all.”
He added: “Of course, we could boost the amounts of protein by making a 'milk' which has a reduced water content, but this would be thicker in consistency, more likely to split in hot drinks made with hard water, and maybe best for use in cooking and to drink cold.”
Much of the research will also be focused on creating new strains of enzymes. “Developing new strains of enzymes is important to get the very best out of the oats and maximising the efficiency of production, which will reduce costs - which we can pass on to the customer,” said Young. “There are no major issues with current production methods but, like all things, there are efficiencies to be gained by characterizing and optimising the process.”
While the MOMA-funded research will be ultimately used to inform new product varieties for the manufacturer, the industry at large could benefit, too. Young explained that his team will ‘disseminate those aspects [of the study] which are not commercially sensitive’.
This is typically done once commercial patents have been filed; or by not revealing too much detail (e.g. by comparing different cultivars but not revealing specific details). “If something doesn't take too much scientific analysis to work out, then there's no need to keep things under wraps,” said Young. “Saying that we use a particular recipe to boost this and lower that may be useful in marketing, especially when we compare our products to those of others.”
This isn't the first time that MOMA, which also manufactures porridge, granola and muesli products, collaborates with Teesside University. The company was also supported in the development of its oat milk range through a Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) carried out in conjunction with Teesside and Portsmouth Universities. That project, part-funded by Innovate UK, saw academics work with MOMA to develop its oat milk, helping to refine ingredients to ensure the right combination of enzymes were being used to break down the starch in the oats, and result in a product that was foamable and did not split when added to hot liquid.
Tom Mercer, founder of MOMA Foods, said: “Prior to embarking on the KTP, we’d never really used an external resource. However, by working with a university, we were able to gain that depth of academic knowledge, helping to understand on a molecular level what it was we are trying to achieve. We’re hoping to take this even further though the PhD."
He added: “Oat milk has the potential to be an incredibly sustainable alternative to dairy products...However, it’s still a nascent industry and we want to be at the forefront of knowledge and work with our farmers and suppliers to understand exactly what delivers the best product. To do this it’s vitally important that we bring academic knowledge into the industry and don’t operate in a silo and working with Teesside University will help us to achieve this.”