Familiarity Breeds…Vegan Burgers

“I don’t get vegans…why they need to copy the real thing? If they don’t want to eat meat why they need a vegan burger?”

I bet you heard this phrase, or something along these lines, many times by some critical carnivore friend, complaining about the (many) faux-meat veg product ranges that, for some time now, are occupying more and more space in mainstream retailers’ shelves.

The examples are plentiful and they quite convincing in reproducing the appearance, the smell and (to a point) the taste of “real” (real is in intentionally in quotation marks, keep reading to find out why) meat. This particular product category ranges from faux-mincemeat, ready to cook plant based burgers and sausages, up to the newest vegan boiled eggs, just recently developed by an all-female team of researchers at the University of Udine.

Could you tell the difference? Not just by looking for sure! and, by the way, those are cholesterol free! (© Università degli studi di Udine)

When I hear the aforementioned complaint I always find myself thinking “why not?” and became fixated on the notion of “real thing”: what is the real thing? what does it make it more real than the other? Especially in the case of a manufactured, ready to cook, product such as  a hamburger or a frankfurter, which doesn’t resemble nothing of the cow(s), the pork(s) or the chicken(s) it’s made from anymore and it is as equally processed as its vegan counterpart.

The short answer? Nothing.

The only difference is that the pork one came first and we (or at least the majority of us) are used to it.

This bias is fundamental to connected to the concept of food familiarity, which pervades and dictate our behaviour toward food consumption. Familiarity in food research is defined, as:

 “the number of product-related experiences that have been accumulated by the consumer.”[1]Trying to clarify a bit more, this concept refers to the level of knowledge that a consumer about an envisioned product and its characteristics but also to the degree of confidence such consumer has in his/her ability to evaluate its quality [2]. So, familiarity, as a consumer behaviour concept, is not as simple as it may appear at a first glance.

It is the result of the many inputs that the consumer absorbs while experiencing a product (or a brand). It’s the sum of the multitude of sensory stimuli (taste, smell, texture, etc…), the assorted chunks of knowledge that the food product elicits in the consumer mind (that goes form nutritional values, cooking methods, to happy memory linked to the product), and even just mere exposure to it[4].

The concept of familiarity is applied to many aspects of the food decision process: its influence starts even before the purchase in the form of the reassuring logo and colour code of a known brand. That is one of the reasons, for example, of why many off-brands resemble closely the most diffuse ones.

It is also the main mitigatory factor of food neophobia, which means the aversion toward trying new food, especially present in kids[4]. That’s why many food products marketed toward children try to embed some familiar element or try to hide some traits diverting the child attention: see dinosaur chicken nuggets or the goldfish crackers.

why the h*ll they must be shaped like fish? I don’t understand it at all, they taste like cheese anyway! (see? nobody is safe from this kind of complaining, not even me! )

Also, Familiarity has a moderating role toward trust, which in turn is attenuating factor of perceived risk (it another easy yet complex concept regarding consumer behaviour).

“Familiarity with a product has a critical role in aiding comparisons between products and the consequent choice of purchase”[3]These are the reason why some degree of familiarity in novel products, as in the case of vegan meat substitutes (but also, for example, for edible insects), is fundamental to their success when they hit the market![5]Which perfectly explains why  Beyond Meat and Impossible Food,  producers of what is arguably the most successful novel food of the last few years, directed all of their research effort toward re-creating the same sensory experience of real meat burgers, in their plant-based products, to pass the so-called “carnivore test”. Mission accomplished so well that now they are even aiming to conquer the “burger temples” such as McDonald’s or Wendy’s.

Same as the “real thing” up to the bloody juices (© Impossible Food)

If reaching a satisfactory degree of similarity puts an end to the carnivore complaining (around 70% of the beyond burger customers are meat eaters), it means that the arguing about meat alternatives it is purely ideological, between two opposite consumption tribes. Therefore, the argument we started with, can actually be turned upside down:

A hamburger is not a cow anymore, by far. Is much more akin to the dinosaur nugget, which “hides” the chicken from the kids. It helps to conceal its animal origin, it shields us to be exposed to its animal origin, or animal reminder (one of elicitor of disgust), from which the modern consumer is becoming more and more distant. So the strongly flavoured and shaped processed meat and it’s vegan alternative are both equidistant, and quite far, from the “real thing”, their original form.

Thanks to the excellent Wend’s twitter account for perfectly explaining what I am trying to convey here.

And that’s’ probably why the faux-meat products are actually not appreciated by more hardcore vegan.

I am just waiting for what my complaining friend will have to say about Lab-grown meator thenew lab grow tuna when they will hit the European market: is that going to be close enough to the real thing?


For further reading check this interesting in-depth article, from Pacific Standard: THE BIOGRAPHY OF A PLANT-BASED BURGER


[1] Jacoby, J., Troutman, T., Kuss, A., & Mazursky, D. (1986). Experience and expertise in complex decision making. ACR North American Advances.

[2] Howard, J. A. S., & Jagdish, N. (1969). The theory of buyer behavior (No. 658.834 H6).

[3] Fandos Herrera, C., & Flavián Blanco, C. (2011). Consequences of consumer trust in PDO food products: the role of familiarity. Journal of Product & Brand Management, 20(4), 282-296.

[4] Pliner, P., Pelchat, M., & Grabski, M. (1993). Reduction of neophobia in humans by exposure to novel foods. Appetite, 20(2), 111-123.

[5] Schösler, H., De Boer, J., & Boersema, J. J. (2012). Can we cut out the meat of the dish? Constructing consumer-oriented pathways towards meat substitution. Appetite, 58(1), 39-47.



Christmas Market Food Collection

I had the opportunity to get in touch with FoodSharing, an affirmed (and expanding) food-waste reduction community-based project in Edinburgh, and I got to participate In their food collection from the local Christmas markets at the beginning of January.

This is a little video I put together with some data about the food we saved from landfills:

The amount of food we collected was unbelievable, but this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Much more needs to be done to fight the global issue of food waste!

Seeds & Chips 2017

I have done it.

I travelled for around 20h and ~3700 km in three days to attend to the Seeds & Chips 2017, the place to be for those who have an interest in Food Technology, Food Innovation and Sustainability.

Reimagine Food CEO
Reimagine Food CEO, Marius Robles, Talking about Eatconomics.

When I booked my ticket, it was quite a shot in the dark as I did not really know what to expect from this global food innovation summit. And I must admit I was quite surprised, in different ways.

First of all by the sheer size of the fair. The Seeds & Chips 2017 summit is placed inside Tuttofood, one of the biggest food industry B2B show and take a look at the pic below to have an idea of the magnitude I am talking about: those are “just” the booths in pavilion 10, dedicated to the oil sector; the show comprises of 12 different sections in total, from meat to drinks, not counting the Seeds & Chips itself.

Tuttofood Pavilion 10
Tuttofood’s pavilion 10, dedicated to the business in the olive oil sector (mostly).

I got lost. A lot. Before I could actually get to my first conference I lost an hour just wandering around and asking for direction. You can check my reaction here.

The other thing that struck me was the people there. I am so impressed with the persons I met and talked with: young, passionate, and talented startuppers or entrepreneurs that are making an actual change with their amazing and innovative ideas. I honestly felt quite bad comparing myself to them.

Ares Ferrigni Wallfarm
Honorable mention to Ares Ferrigni, CEO of Wallfarm, a very successful vertical farming solution, and my former classmate from my bachelor!

I have identified three different topics that arose from the Seed & Chips floor:

  • Vertical Farming: this was the “Next big thing”, to which it was dedicated a substantial portion of the floor. From big implants to home and portable solutions, but all very pretty!
  • Spirulina and crickets: products made from algae and insects are on the rise as the new food trends of the immediate future.
  • AI Cyberfood: New technologies, like machine learning and 3D printing, are more and more applied to the food sector, in unusual and unprecedented ways.

And all of this subjects  are grounded in the paradigms of the Circular Economy.

I will cover each one of this topics in my three-part, in-depth reportage of the Seeds & Chips 2017 summits. 

So stay tuned to this pages and our socials to catch all our updates (and yes I spotted Obama by afar).

Cheers from Milano (going back to Cork).


Beyond the espresso – The hidden value of spent coffee ground

If you are like me what drives you to get up in the morning is the thought of the cold breakfast pizza, wisely saved from the previous dinner. Only to discover that your sister’s boyfriend finished it when they come home the night before.

Then if you are again like me or like one of the billions of coffee consumer around the world (an estimate of 151.3 million 60 kg bags of coffee was consumed from Oct. 2015 to Sep. 2016, and the figures are increasing [14]) you turn, disappointed, but not yet defeated, to the espresso machine to get an energizing cup of creamy coffee, with a drop of cold milk (that’s how I like it and I don’t care if it’s not the best way to taste it) to start the day.

Most people would say that they wake up to the smell of freshly brewed coffee (which has apparently some truth to it[29]), but the first smell I personally notice is the earthy smell of exhausted coffee grind of the previous brews from the handle. It is still appealing with its warm smell and appereance.

Spent Coffee Grounds
You can smell the earthy perfume of coffee grounds, just by looking at this, can’t you?

So every morning it felt a little bit bad throwing it away. therefore I searched for alternative ways of using this that are technically called “Spent Coffee Grounds” or SCG, so I found some useful tips around the web, like, for example, this recipe for a coffee body scrubs.

But even if I want a sexy smooth skin for the summer, with an average of 4 cups of espresso a day (here is my math if you are interested), a reserve of ~1.5kg of scrubs per month seems a little too much. I will arrive at the beach as just a sexy shiny skeleton!

Many home-friendly solutions can be found online such numerous applications in the garden as compost and fertilizer and other cosmetic uses, but since the sheer quantity of coffee used every day (coffee is notoriously the second commodity exchanged [20] and one of the most drank beverage in the world) these solutions fell a lot short in tackling the issue of coffee waste.

So I turned to the scientific community to discover what are the latest news on the matter.

Coffee production and waste.

I focused this article on product-specific waste, generated in the process of creating this black stuff that allows us to wake in the morning and more specifically on SGC. There are different kinds of waste created in the production of roasted coffee, all of them with some valuable properties for a profitable reuse:

  1. Coffee Pulp & Coffee Husk:

    The by-product generated to obtaining the green (unroasted) coffee bean represents around 45-50% of the whole coffee fruit dry matter[27], most of which is produced during post-harvesting operations. The results of these operations are called Pulp or Husk, depending on the method used to retrieve the green beans, respectively wet (which involve various phase including fermentation. It is used mainly for the arabica cultivar and is deemed a more refined process and influence taste and price[2]) and dry (a simpler and cheaper method).

    This Coffee pulp is essentially rich in carbohydrates, proteins and minerals (especially potassium) and it also contains appreciable amounts of tannins, polyphenols and caffeine[8], which can be extracted and then purified using superficial CO2  fluid extraction or superheated water extraction[20].

  2. Silverskin:

    It is the layer that covers the actual coffee bean and it is collected during the roasting process [27,3] and, even if it is a smaller portion of the waste produced (the ratio between the mass of silverskin produced and the mass of the saleable substance goes from 0.02 to 0.04[27]) this could still present a hazard to environment and a missed  opportunity if not recovered, because silverskin could find a similar useful industrial application as SGC[2], which are analysed below.

  3. Spent ground Coffee:

    It is quite complex to quantify the actual volume of the SCG actually wasted between homemade coffee, coffee shops and bars daily consumption, thus is difficult collecting and retrieving data about the actual amount that goes wasted every day. It is estimated, however, that around 50% of the entire coffee production is used by the dried coffee industry, which in turn generates 6 million tonnes of SGC annually![2], thus making this specific sector the focus of most research. This is relevant also because the SGC made available could remain inside the industrial process without being dispersed

    Spent Coffee Ground Composition
    Different coffee cultivars (arabica vs robusta), as well as different methods of production and preparation, yields different composition of the SCG.

Spent Ground Coffee

The reuse of a such widely accessible resources has sparked an increasing interest in researchers to find viable ways to reinsert the SCG in the production cycle with added value.

Without going into too much detail SCG chemical composition yields great potential for various application. SCG are composed mainly of carbohydrates (mostly sugars)[2, 22,30]. Other significant components present are protein and minerals [2, 22]. SCG are also an important source of insoluble dietary fibre, antioxidants and essential amino acids [19]

Dired Spent Ground Coffee
The dried coffee industry uses 50% if the entire coffee production and it generates 6 million tonnes of SGC annually!!

In the relevant literature, several applications have been described for SCG, specifically:

1. As Biofuels

This is the main field of research when we talk about SCG reprocess.

The chemical composition of SCG reveals that they are a viable candidate for the production of bioethanol and biodiesel.

Extraction of oil from SCG, used in the production of biodiesel (100% conversion of oil to biodiesel), yields 10-15% oil depending on the coffee species (Arabica or Robusta).[16,8]

The presence of high concentrations of palmitic and stearic acids in the lipophilic extracts would justify further investigation on biodiesel production based on coffee wastes. [25]

2. As Composts

The feasibility of using SGC to provide some nutrients to the soil is well documented and also recommended as an effective ingredient in composting. SCG directly composted in the soil, increasing the plant chlorophylls and carotenoids levels, and increasing the presence of nutritional minerals, specifically potassium, phosphorous and sodium. [2,3]

Another agricultural application of SCG is being a prolific cultivation media for various mushrooms species [11, 14,32].

3. As Animal Feed

SGC can be a rich source of nutrient and bioactive compound[1] and can be used to enhance the performance of animal feed. However, the presence of caffeine and tannins (2-4.5%)  limits their use to small quantities as larger concentration could affect the health of the livestock and also making it less palatable to the animals. So it should be incorporated in a certain proportion (different from animal to animal) or otherwise through some process (chemical extraction, microbial treatment, or fermentation) apt to decrease the amount of these compounds, but thus increasing the cost of such resource.[3,20,32,16]

4. As Biosorbents

this is where things get more interesting. SCG have a good absorption potential. experiments have been carried out revealing that spent coffee grounds are suitable candidates for use as adsorbents in the removal of dyes from water, such as Methylene Blue [11], and others xenobiotics, when magnetically charged by magnetic fluid treatment[28]

Other researchers have highlighted the suitability of SGC of removing potentially harmful metal, such as lead[31] and mercury ions, especially when combined with silicon and sugars to create an absorbent foam.[7]

5. As Food Ingredient

Using the SCG in the formulation of innovative food product, focusing on healthy products formulation, is personally the most interesting development.

Aromatic compounds and flavours extracted from SCG can be reused as natural ingredients in the formulation of health and functional products. An attempt to evaluate the possibility of directly reuse this by-products as food ingredient in innovative bakery products, showed the potential added functional value, for a low cost, of incorporating SCG, in small quantity, as natural source of antioxidant insoluble dietary fibre, proteins, essential amino acids, carotenoids[24], and low glycaemic sugars, satisfying the consumers’ wish for low-cal snacks. [19,6]

A Spent Coffee Ground, to go, please!

The feeling of guilt that I have been experiencing in the morning for a while now, deciding between throwing away the SCG or keeping it to make a bucketload of skin scrubs, it is, in fact, well-grounded.  Some plans are already been devised to reduce and reuse the dried coffee industry waste, which is collected by specialised agencies. For example, Nestlè has launched an internal program to significantly reduce and reuse coffee waste in its factory in Europe by 2020[6].

Spent Coffee Waste Value
This is not just a cup of coffee, but it could become a pot of feedstock gold.

What is still unclear is the economic fitness of some of these solutions and which actions can be put in motion to intercept all the waste that is produced in household and venues (cafes and bars) that still are not organised in this field.

Think about it nex time you are enjoying your Barista Coffee!


Gianlorenzo De Santis

SUGGESTED READ: John L. Massey, Coffee: Production, Consumption and Health Benefits,   2016, Nova Publisher Ltd.


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