The groundbreaking companies on our Asia ALT 100 list demonstrate the wide array of methods used to produce alternatives to conventional animal meat. Forward-thinking food scientists are working to brew up cell-based meat on a massive scale; proven industry disruptors like Quorn are breaking the mold in the fermentation space; and multibillion-dollar food-ingredient behemoths like AAK are putting their ample resources to work finding the perfect ratio of healthy fats, oils, and other delectable elements that give plant-based meat the texture and taste that consumers crave. 

Today, we’re taking a deep dive into an aspect of the plant-based food space that, despite being right under our nose, often gets overlookedtheir scent!

To give us a sense of why a product’s aroma can be a make-or-break factor for entrepreneurs and investors, we spoke with Alex Ward, Head of Regional Innovation for APAC at Givaudan—the world’s largest flavor and fragrance company.

Company Information

HQ LocationGeneva, Switzerland*
Business Type Food flavors and fragrances  
Revenue (2019)CHF 6.2bn (US $6.74bn)***
Staff Size14,969**
Ownership StatusPublicly traded (stock symbol: GIVN)**
Scope of ReachSources more than 10,000 different ingredients from 100 countries**
Data retrieved from LinkedIn*, Pitchbook**, and Givaudan’s annual financial report*** on 29 September 2020

Scent-er of the Plate

Aroma and scent are crucial to developing any successful food or beverage product—not just plant-based meat—according to Mr. Ward. “I don’t know whether you’ve ever tried to taste something with a cold, and your nose is blocked; you can’t taste anything, right? People smell their food, and that’s an important part of taste.”

Sometimes nailing the right aroma and flavor combination is not just a matter of piling on new layers; instead, it’s a process of addition by subtraction. Certain plant-based food bases, like soy or pea protein, have built-in flavor notes that can clash with the meaty smells that consumers are used to. Removing those off-notes is an important first step, after which food producers can add layers of taste, aroma, and mouthfeel, or what Alex calls “succulence”—the elements that give plant-based meat that tender, juicy, “melt in your mouth” experience. Want to give your pea-based burger the familiar aroma of a chargrilled beef patty? It’s necessary to make sure you’re starting with a blank canvas.

© Creative Commons/UBC News

In Asia-Pacific, other native ingredients increasingly used for plant-based products, like mung beans, chickpeas, and lentils, may require a similar “masking” process depending on the desired final dish. Once you have that clean, plant-based foundation though, the potential applications are limitless.

If taking plant-based proteins and re-shaping them by adding or removing tastes and aromas—or extruding the ingredients to transform them into something completely different—sounds unnatural, Alex encourages you to ponder the humble process of making bread. When creating bread from scratch, home cooks take flour, which contains protein, and then add water and yeast before kneading and folding the dough in on itself. As a result, the proteins in the flour have changed by slowly becoming elongated, and when baked, the outside browns and that signature bread smell emanates from the oven. The process of making bread involves transforming plant proteins in a fundamental way, but would any of us describe baking bread as unnatural? Not likely.

Just Like Grandma Used to Make

Understanding why people behave and eat the way they do is a never-ending exercise, but Givaudan is one of the very few players in the taste and wellbeing space that has the resources to discover even the tiniest emerging trends across the fragmented Asia-Pacific region. In fact, they even have a whole “Consumer and Sensory Insight Team” composed of more than 25 experts, and part of their job is to travel throughout Asia on “trend treks,” discovering new aroma and flavor profiles that could be recreated for the mass market. If the team hits the mark, Alex says a regional specialty will smell and taste to a local diner “like [their] grandmother used to make.”

Just how committed is Givaudan to finding the right flavors and aromas? Well, as one example, they recently completed a nationwide study in China focused exclusively on “spiciness,” which researched the flavor preferences of every corner of the country. What should the steam from the perfect hotpot smell like? How long should spiciness linger after eating? By understanding how generations of people in a community have been preparing their favorite dishes, Givaudan has accumulated an unparalleled understanding of what precise aroma and flavor notes a plant-based meat dish needs to hit in order for people to recognize it. 

As a real-world example of how local expertise and cultural knowledge can lead to commercial success, Alex believes we need to look no further than our friends at Green Monday. As an Asia-based company, they knew long before formulating Omnipork or their new plant-based luncheon meat exactly what consumers were seeking, because their staff members grew up with the original animal-based versions during their own childhoods. It’s authentic. Start-ups, entrepreneurs, and investors across Asia-Pacific often underestimate the built-in advantage they have over a Silicon Valley competitor, because they forget that even tiny nuances in smell, taste, and aroma can be the difference between a commercial flop and a runaway success. 

Coming Soon to Asia: One-Stop Crop Shop 

In a world where peas and mung beans can be finessed to seamlessly replace ground beef and chicken eggs, how far can plant-based ingredients push the boundaries of creativity? Givaudan put that very question to the test by bringing together world-class talent for a friendly “Chef’s Council” competition last year, where they challenged chefs to reinvent plant protein by putting it at the center of the plate in new and innovative ways. One chef took an eggplant, dehydrated it, marinated it, and then tossed it in a deep fryer to whip up a plant-based twist on Peking duck that wowed the judges. Another Michelin-starred chef used classic slow-cooking techniques to reimagine textured vegetable protein (TVP) in a lamb-inspired dish that would satisfy even the staunchest carnivore. 

So how can homegrown innovators and businesses tap into Givaudan’s deep knowledge of all things flavor and aroma? Well, lucky for all of us, the company loves nothing more than a good collaboration, and they’re building an entire facility to prove it. 

In partnership with Swiss food-processing giant Bühler, Givaudan is opening The Innovation Centre for Plant Based Food in Singapore in early 2021. The full-service innovation hub aims to build out the ecosystem for Asia-specific plant-based foods by using Asian experts and insights, and they’re actively seeking local start-ups and researchers to collaborate with. 

“Let’s imagine together.”

Once open, the Innovation Centre will welcome companies at all stages of growth, and they’re even planning to offer several virtual experiences for individuals who cannot physically travel to Southeast Asia during the pandemic.  

For those companies with a product already on the market, the Centre can bring in their chefs, flavorists, sensory experts, and consumer feedback panels, to determine how it could be enhanced. If someone doesn’t yet have a physical product but has a rough concept in mind, or perhaps produces a local crop that they want to find a way to monetize in the plant-based meat market, Givaudan will create an entire end-to-end game plan to help clients conceptualize, manufacture, and export a finished product to consumers. 

I don’t know about you, but I smell an opportunity. 

Want to find out more about Givaudan’s plant-based solutions? Fill out their online application here today.