Researcher in the Spotlight – Karolina Östbring

Karolina Östbring is an associate professor at the Department of Food Technology, Engineering and Nutrition at Lund University. Her research focuses on the transformation of plant proteins into meat analogues. Would you like to find out more? Read the interview below!

What is currently on top of your research agenda?

Our group has our focus on extrusion cooking right now – the technique that transforms plant protein into meat analogues by introducing chewing resistance. We are spending a lot of effort to understand which characteristics in a protein concentrate or isolate that determine the extrusion outcome.

Tell us about your latest publication

The latest publication is a structured literature review within the meat analogue field entitled “Plant-Based Meat Analogues from Alternative Protein: A Systematic Literature Review”, published in Foods during the autumn. The main author was our PhD student Izalin Zahari. We found that the information regarding meat analogues produced from crops other than soy is limited and that there is a large knowledge gap. 

What led you into your particular field of research?

During my PhD studies, I learned how to extract protein complexes from spinach and during my post-doc I turned the focus to the extraction of rapeseed protein instead. From the beginning, we wanted to extract only one type of protein (oleosins) to be used as natural emulsifiers by the food industry. However, one day my former supervisor ran into my office and screamed ”why don’t we catch them all?”. It was in 2017 and the climate discussions had just taken off in the food area. After that, we changed our lab protocols to collect as much protein as possible and started to think about food products instead of functional ingredients. I have been working with the extraction of rapeseed protein for seven years, but in the last years, my plant-based CV has expanded to also include hemp, oat, okara and to some extent yellow pea and faba bean.   

What are the implications of your research for the society?

A large majority of consumers need to decrease their meat intake and increase the intake of plant proteins in order to limit the climate effect from the agricultural sector. Me and my group’s research is about utilizing agricultural by-streams (such as rapeseed press cake, hemp press cake, okara etc) and finding process strategies to upcycle plant protein that is currently used for animal feed or biogas and formulate the protein into food products.

Finally, let´s say you got unlimited research funds; where would your research be five years from now?

A main focus for me will be anti-nutrients. Anti-nutrients are molecules that are present in plants as a part of their defence. The problem is that many of these molecules affect our health in a negative way. Some molecules limit the uptake of important minerals such as iron, zinc and magnesium whereas other can induce goitre or affect protein degradation and uptake in the gut. Academia and the food industry must find strategies to limit the presence of anti-nutrients in plant protein products. This topic requires different experts such as plant breeders, engineers, and researchers within the nutrition field and the food industry. I look forward to being a part of that teamwork and investigating what can be done on the processing level.  

Thank you for a very interesting interview, Karolina! We wish you the best of luck and success in your future paths!

(Photo: Hilde Skar Olsen)