Natural plant-based meat analogues

A Newton Fund collaboration for the Thai food industry

Over the last few weeks, colleagues from the SLRI Synchrotron in Thailand have visited the Industrial Liaison Team at Diamond to conduct research under the STFC Newton Fund programme. While they were here, we took the chance to find out a little more about the work they are doing and how Diamond has helped them to advance this research. Here we speak to Sukayna Chaipayang, the lead scientist for the project. 

From the left: Sukanya Chaipayang, Worawikunya Kiatponglarp and Somchai Tancharakorn
From the left: Sukanya Chaipayang, Worawikunya Kiatponglarp and Somchai Tancharakorn

Please introduce yourself and your colleagues 

 My name is Sukanya Chaipayang. I’m a beamline scientist at Synchrotron Light Research Institute, based in Nakhonratchasima, Thailand.  My co-workers are Worawikunya Kiatponglarp and Somchai Tancharakorn. 

What does your normal work entail?

My work at SLRI involves researching the properties and function of biomolecules in food. This entails using strong practical skills for protein purification, characterisation and protein cloning.

My role requires me to characterise and analyse bio-molecules such as proteins, carbohydrate, fat, DNA and phytochemical compounds using FTIR, Raman, Circular Dichroism (CD), UV-Vis, SDS-PAGE, GPC, Polymerase chain reaction (PCR), HPLC and LC-MS/MS. 

Can you explain a bit about your current work with Diamond

Our work at Diamond involves developing a plant-based precursor, to replicate the taste and appearance of meat. For this study, we used chlorophyll, which has a similar structure to heme, an existing supplement in the meat analogue market.

This precursor (derived from chlorophyll) was produced by replacing the magnesium in chlorophyll with iron.

How did this research come about?

In countries such as Thailand, the national diet consists mostly of vegetables or plant-based alternatives to meat. Nevertheless, even when consuming healthier substitutes, maintaining the taste, texture and nutritional value of meat is very important for Thailand’s avid meat lovers.
The ability to provide a credible meat substitute, in term of taste and blood-red appearance, is very challenging for the food industry. However, heme taken from haemoglobin, has been proven to mimic the key qualities of meat when cooked, so can be used as a supplement in plant-based meat alternatives.
As chlorophyll molecules closely resemble hemin (an iron-containing porphyrin), it proved a good candidate for our initial research, enabling us to find a new source of plant-based heme without the need for any genetic modifications.

What is the potential impact of your research?

From insights achieved in this study we can start to develop a natural plant-based food supplement to replicate the desired attributes of meat. Once modified, this product can then be applied within the meat analogue industry to provide a healthier option to meat.


What techniques did you use at Diamond?

Our research focussed on the substitution of magnesium in chlorophyll with iron metal. Once formed, the Fe-chlorophyll complex was characterised using UV-Vis Spectrometer, FITR and X-ray absorption spectroscopy (XAS).
XAS provided valuable information on the internal structure of Fe-chlorophyll compound, by observing the variation in the pre-edge shape of the near edge structure (XANES) in different process samples; the details of the first coordination shell information was defined by combining it with the extended X-ray absorption fine structure (EXAFS) spectra.

How has Diamond enhanced your research?

By conducting our study at Diamond, we were able to access advanced research instruments, with more intense energy and flux than those available at our synchrotron in Thailand. This enabled us to quickly and effectively study the structure and bonding between atoms of our heme substitute, using Extended X-ray Absorption Fine Structure (EXAFS).  

How did this collaboration come about?

The project is supported by the Newton Fund. This is a research and innovation partnership fund which promotes the sharing of knowledge and resources across participating countries. The programme gives researchers an opportunity to address their research challenges and provide economic development or welfare to their country of origin. We were fortunate to have our proposal accepted and worked with Diamond to identify the right approach to meet our research challenges.

What have the challenges been? Any surprises?

One of the challenges we encountered was that between experiments various samples became oxidised; this required us to study a larger batch of samples to secure reliable data.

After data processing, we were able to determine the structure and bonding between atoms of iron and its surrounding atoms. However, contrary to our predictive models, the surrounding atoms in some sample structures showed different bonding behaviours. We therefore needed to be careful when analysing our data, in order to establish a new model and obtain the detailed structural information. 

What have been your key findings?

We were able to study the bonding between iron-porphyrin (chlorophyll) and nitrogen atoms and also discover a number of differences between the samples.

What learnings will you take back from this trip to Diamond?

We gained some great skills from our trip to Diamond. Not only did we learn about the work practices at the synchrotron, we also got hands-on experience of performing an EXAFS experiment. In addition to using the beamline equipment, we also got chance to build data analysis skills using programmes such as Athena and Artemis.  

Do you have any advice for other organisations wanting to collaborate with Diamond through the Newton Fund?

Organisations will receive many benefits from participating with Diamond through the Newton funding programme. As well as access to advanced research instruments and data processing software, you will have the opportunity to build hands-on research skills and knowledge from Diamond’s expert scientists. Moreover, the Newton fund will support you in the associated travel/accommodation costs whilst in the UK.

To participate, organisations need to provide a proposal outlining their work and the perceived impact of the project.

So, what are your next steps?

Now we have completed our experiments at Diamond, we will return to Thailand and continue our data analysis. From the results obtained, we will develop and modify our heme substitute for use within the meat analogue industry.