Unlocking the flavours of plant-based foods with…food waste? Max Tham shows you how

BY DBS, 4 DEC 2023

If meat-free proteins tasted, well, more like meat, would it win more people over to this more sustainable source of food?

Food scientist Max Tham is betting that the answer is “yes”. His food tech company, tHEMEat, makes a chemical additive that can make plant-based proteins look, cook, smell and taste like various meats, from sizzling bacon to perfectly-grilled salmon.

Moreover, the additive – called VEME – is made from vegetable food waste: unsold leafy veggies and various produce otherwise destined for Singapore’s landfills.

The potential of VEME to change the way we eat and dispose of food is what earned tHEMEat a spot among the winners of the inaugural DBS Foundation x NEA Hungry for Change Challenge.

Although going meat-free or reducing meat consumption can be good for the environment – animal-based food production creates twice as much pollution as plant-based food production – changing consumers’ perception of plant-based protein can be a challenge. Compared to animal meat, plant-based proteins are relatively expensive and don’t always quite taste like the real thing.

“Most of them will always say, ‘I would rather pay more for animal meat than alternative proteins, because I know I'm getting this premium’, whereas [with] alternative proteins, they know that it is trying to mask itself as animal meat. So, it is quite difficult to convince them that it is as good,” says Max.

VEME works by appealing to a consumer’s senses. When added to food, it enhances the chemical reactions that occur when cooking – such as the Maillard reaction between sugars and proteins when food is browned – to create a greater diversity of meat tasting and smelling molecular compounds.

Even the cooking process feels familiar. “It undergoes a colour transition from red to brown because it is conducting the same kind of chemical reactions that you find when meat is being cooked as well,” says Max.

The result is so realistic that even Max couldn’t quite believe it when he tasted VEME-enhanced “beef” for the first time, created by researcher Chia Jia Yang in 2021. “When she brought it into the lab, the smell hit me, and I was just very convinced, like ‘Did you just cook this beef?’ She said ‘No, it is not beef. It is made up of VEME and a lot of other vegan ingredients.'

From cancer cures to cooking up a storm

Max’s road to CEO of tHEMEat was not a straightforward one – he had been researching cancer vaccines at National University of Singapore when he was tapped by the university to helm the fledgling start-up.

“We were trying to develop a cancer vaccine using metal drugs. And it just so happens that the molecules that are responsible for generating these meaty flavours, are also made of metals,” recalls Max.

Putting two and two together, Max and his colleagues applied what they knew from cancer vaccine research into “this meat-flavour research”. “And it worked spectacularly well,” he said.

Besides persuading meat-lovers to go meat-free, Max is also excited by VEME’s potential to divert food waste from Singapore’s waste stream. “Your xiao bai cai, your cai sim, if they are not sold at the end of the day, they are thrown away,” he says. “It is very, very heart wrenching to see that. We are not talking about 1kg, we are talking about within a supermarket alone, about 80 to almost 100kg of vegetables every single day.”

“All this contributes to climate change, which hurts the world's ability to produce food, and hurts Singapore's ability to secure its food supply because we are wasting so much food.” VEME, he says, is one way a city like Singapore, with land scarcity and serious food security concerns, can offer a sustainable solution to a global problem.

Citing his children as motivation, Max adds: “I do not want them to live in a world where their quality of life is actually worse than mine. I want them to live in a world where their quality of life is the same, or maybe better than mine.”


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