Key to growing the pea protein market? Teach customers how to formulate and give them great ingredients to work with.

July 23, 2020

Pea ingredient supplier Cosucra discussed its strategy for growing its pea protein market share during last week’s Institute of Food Technologists SHIFT20 virtual event.

Pea protein continues to grow its presence in the food and drinks market. To see that growth continue, some suppliers are taking innovation in hand by helping their customers learn how to better work with not only pea protein but also pea’s other derivative ingredients such as pea fiber and pea starch. During last week’s Institute of Food Technologists SHIFT20 virtual event, pea ingredient supplier Cosucra (Warcoing, Belgium) discussed how helping customers develop new products is part of the company’s long-term strategic plan.

Two years ago, Cosucra implemented a five-year strategic plan to develop its food and beverage busines. Previously, the company had directed its pea protein, fiber, and starch ingredients to the health and nutrition market—primarily health, sports nutrition, and dietary supplement products. But the company recognized the growth potential in food and drinks. In June 2018, the company created Cosucra Inc., its subsidiary focused on serving the U.S., Canada, and Mexico food and beverage space.

“We recognized that at some point through our growth curve that we needed to diversify into food and beverage because that was where we saw consumer demand increasing for our pea protein, fiber, and starch,” says Frank Truong, general manager of Cosucra Inc. “We’ve seen the growth somewhat decline in health and nutrition in the past year, and therefore we had to pivot two years ago to also grow in food and beverage.”

The company now has global market capabilities in all three countries. The subsidiary has focused on “developing prototype concepts that are relevant to our consumers’ brands and taste profiles in all three countries,” Truong adds.

Focus on Formulating

Cosucra is now working directly with food scientists to assist customers in formulating products with its pea ingredients. “That’s been huge,” says Truong. “We never really utilized food scientists before I joined. We’re a small, agile company. [We] now have food scientists to help us create prototype concepts that are ‘wow factor’ and that demonstrate how our ingredients really can help create that technical point of difference in their formulations. That’s been an important development that has been huge for us to earn customers’ trust.”

He continues: “I’m very excited that we’ve been able to help customers launch our Cosucra ingredients in food and beverage applications that we never had before. That’s been the most enriching experience: when you can demonstrate your technical characteristic in plant-based meat applications, plant-based dairy applications, in addition to health and nutrition as our foundation.”

The Right Ingredients

Plant-based alternative ingredients still present food and drink formulators with challenges—or “unmet needs,” in Truong’s words—including challenges around emulsification, solubility, digestibility, and nutritional quality. For plant-based meats, the challenge is mimicking not only the taste of real beef but also the fat-related mouthfeel properties and the “sizzle” of real meat, he says.

With this in mind, Cosucra has focused heavily on finding solutions for the meat alternatives market. “Fats and oils is an area we are investing more time in. How can we create that experience of a real meat product?” he says.

Part of the solution comes from fat and oil suppliers. “We’ve seen the fats and oils manufacturers develop new technologies to help create that sensory experience,” Truong explains. “For example, if you’re trying to reduce the amount of saturated fat levels, then you would use canola oil or sunflower oil.”

When choosing a fat source for a plant-based product, “you have to balance a couple of variables,” he points out. “If consumers of your brand are more focused on having less saturated fat, then you have to decide whether or not it’s more important to give them the best sensory experience similar to real meat.”

If your customers can accept more saturated fat, coconut oil is a good option, he says. “Coconut oil delivers because of its fat content and oil solids content. It gives you a very desirable sensory experience. It’s also a little higher in saturated fat content…If your customers can give you the leeway, then using coconut oil can give you more of a fat sensory experience. But if your brand’s parameters are less, you have to look at different oil substrates to get a similar experience but lower in saturated fat content.”

The quality of the starting pea ingredients is also critical, Truong says. For instance, he says Cosucra’s Pisane C9 pea protein offers double the emulsification property of soy protein isolate and high solubility. This makes the ingredient not only easier to work with but reduces the need for additional texturizing ingredients like hydrocolloids. “So you can lower your cost-in-use that way,” he says. “Whereas you may have had to use xanthan gum, locust bean gum, or carrageenan, you don’t have to do that when you have a Pisane pea protein that has these emulsification properties and very high solubility.” He does point out that the company hasn’t yet been able to completely do away with the use of microcrystalline cellulose in plant-based meat applications; however, formulators may be able to use less of it by using Cosucra ingredients. Cosucra’s Swelite pea cell-wall fiber ingredient likewise offers great emulsification and high water-holding capacity, not to mention oil- and fat-binding properties, that benefit plant-based meat and meat applications.

The company’s Pisane M9 ingredient, which it began more actively promoting in 2019, is also highly suited to meat and plant-based meat applications due to its excellent emulsification properties. “If you try and replace soy protein, or if you just want something that has excellent, firm, fibrous structure in plant-based meat, we have customers that use a combination of Pisane M9 pea protein plus the Swelite C9 pea fiber plus our Nastar pea starch,” he says.

There are some food and drink products that Cosucra’s pea protein already excels in thanks to its emulsification capability such as non-dairy coffee creamers. Cosucra is strategically focused on plant-based sectors “where there is going to be a good appetite for plant-based protein, fiber, and starch,” including dairy and meat, bakery, snacks, prepared food, and even fish and seafood, Truong says.

Cosucra also recognizes that a plant-based future will depend on other plant protein sources as well, he says. “When you think about the alternative-protein landscape, I take a holistic view. No single raw material is going to fulfill the need to satisfy the fact that in 30 years, you will have 10 billion people on the planet to feed. So pea isn’t going to be the sole source. Soy protein isn’t going to be the sole source. So it’s important to develop new technologies and raw materials to help the global demand in the next 30 years…I think that’s a good thing for society.”

Cosucra is already seeing its capacity increase each quarter over the last two years, Truong says. In 2018, the company completed a €53 million expansion of its pea plant in Belgium. The company is also in the process of constructing a second pea processing plant in Denmark.

As for which plant proteins will get to the top first, or stay at the top, “it’s just a matter of where you are in your growth curve and the size, capacity of expansion, cost curve, and being able to serve consumers in niche markets,” he continues. “Fava bean is still in the niche market. Microprotein is still in the niche market. And that’s great. Each raw material technology will go through its own consumer adoption cycle, and we all have a role to play.”