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Jennifer Grebow is editor-in-chief of Nutritional Outlook.
Even as pea protein's popularity grows, challenges remain in terms of reducing its off notes in food and beverage products.
Pea protein was a leading topic at July’s Institute of Food Technologists’ Annual Meeting and Food Expo in Chicago. At the show, numerous exhibitors distributed food and drink prototypes demonstrating formulating advances and new applications for pea protein. Yet, even as pea protein's popularity grows, challenges remain in terms of reducing its off notes. Suppliers told Nutritional Outlook about some of pea protein's challenges-and solutions.
Pea protein’s off notes are described as “earthy,” “beany,” “bitter,” and “chalky.” Even as demand and hype around pea protein grow, these off notes remain a challenge for some formulators, who in general today are experimenting with a range of flavor-masking solutions.
“Pea protein itself is very good,” said Parveen Werner, director of marketing for flavors firm Synergy Flavors (Wauconda, IL). “It’s a great alternative to whey protein as a plant-based protein. But it does have off notes, so how can you mask those flavors through taste modulation? There’s definitely a need for added sweeteners or modulators that can mask some of those bitter, off, vegetative notes that a pea protein would offer.” Werner said one of her company’s primary objectives these days is developing solutions around plant proteins, including pea, in liquid, powder, and bar applications.
Another challenge for formulators is that, often, masking solutions need to be natural or organic in origin, meaning formulators can't turn to the big, and often easier, toolbox of artificial flavors.
Even vanillin suppliers are working to see how their ingredients can help improve pea protein’s taste. At IFT, vanillin expert Solvay (Brussels, Belgium) distributed samples of a control beverage: a 200-ml shake formulated with 18 g of pea protein. “It’s a typical shake formulation,” said Ray Routhier, North American business development, distribution, regional/global key account and lab manager, Solvay. “You’ll find the typical pea notes and vegetable notes. It tastes pretty bad. It’s a little bit chalky, so not really flavorful and tasteful.”
Solvay then added its Vanifolia 55 natural vanillin ingredient to mask some of the pea protein off notes. Routhier said that in this application, Vanifolia is used “as a masking technology to reduce the astringency, which is what’s giving you the dryness in your mouth. It’s there also to improve the bitterness aspect and then reduce the vegetable notes that come from the pea protein.”
The company made sure not to entirely mask the pea protein flavor, however, he added. “You’ll still notice some pea flavor because Millennials still want to be able to [taste the ingredient] to tell that it’s not adulterated,” Routhier said. But with Vanifolia 55, he said, “you’ll definitely seen an improvement in the flavor profile, up to a point where people will say, ‘I could actually drink this product.’”
Other pea protein experts pointed out that starting with good source material, a high-quality pea ingredient, is essential.
Jacques Crahay, CEO of pea ingredient supplier Cosucra (Warcoing, Belgium), said that his company’s 25 years of experience producing pea protein ingredients has enabled the firm to develop proprietary ways of handling the ingredient so as to preserve the best taste possible. He also pointed out that some of the flavors of a plant protein are inherent in the plant itself and cannot be escaped. But the way a processer works with the ingredient thereafter, including during heat treatment, will make the difference in reducing any additional off notes the ingredient may incur. “The way you handle the product, from one end to the other, is very important,” Crahay said.
For instance, he said, Cosucra’s processing, which involves only water, heat, and pH adjustments for solubility, is designed to minimize oxidation and fermentation that can otherwise lead to off notes. He pointed out that processing must be done quickly so as “not to have fermentation during the process, because if you have fermentation during the process, it will give some aftertaste.”
Spray drying is also a crucial step in processing the pea protein, Crahay said: “The final step, spray drying, is important and has to occur in a very short window of time.” Cosucra recently announced the installment of a new spray dryer at its processing facility that it says will double the speed at which it can dry peas and therefore double its pea protein isolate output.
Earlier this year, Cargill (Minneapolis) and Puris (Minneapolis) announced a joint venture in which Cargill is helping support the expansion of Puris’s pea protein production. Like Cosucra’s Crahay, Cargill’s Matthew Jacobs, global product line leader, plant proteins, talked about how a pea supplier’s know-how can make the difference in producing a pea protein low in off notes.
“From a flavor perspective, there has been some baggage with peas in general,” he told Nutritional Outlook. “That’s one thing that we’re trying to do: disabuse people of the notion that all peas are gritty, or that all peas have a grassy flavor to them.”
He said that Puris’s pea proteins are “much more of a neutral flavor, [for] two reasons that make us distinctive in the market.” First, he said, “the genetics program [Puris has been] working on for decades has really worked on breeding these peas to mute some of the off notes.” Secondly, he pointed to the downstream process: “They use a very clean process.”
Still, he added, “there’s always room for improvement, and we’re continuing to look at other ways to just refine, not so much the texture-the texture is actually very nice and smooth-but I think from a flavor perspective, just rounding off some of the notes. That’s ongoing work.”
Cosucra’s Crahay also pointed out that the quality of pea protein ingredients can vary by market. According to Crahay, a lot of pea protein suppliers based in China, for instance, got their pea processing start by producing pea starch for vermicelli noodles. However, Crahay said, the optimal technology for producing pea protein versus pea starch is different; pea starch production may involve more of a humid process that should otherwise be avoided when processing pea protein. In addition, because the spray drying process crucial to producing pea protein is expensive, not all suppliers can afford it. “They are not very well equipped in China for the moment because it costs a lot,” Crahay said, claiming that these factors can determine the quality of the protein coming from some suppliers.
“There’s been a lot of press around companies saying, ‘We have pea,’” said Frank Truong, general manager, Cosucra. “But I’ve been talking to customers and telling them, ‘You need to peel the layers back two or three times and ask, ‘Are you actually manufacturing your pea protein isolate?’ Because what happens is that there are marketers that buy products manufactured in China, so there’s a lack of farm-to-fork traceability, sustainability, and quality assurances.”
Crahay added that some companies used to supplying pea protein concentrates to the pet food market are now offering these same ingredients-the concentrates, instead of isolates-to the human nutrition market. “The pet food market isn’t very focused on pea protein isolate today,” he said. “So, there are a lot of concentrates [out in the market] where there’s less quality needed.”
In general, Crahay said, “Even if we’ve worked with pea protein for 25 years, it is still in its infancy, and I think there’s a lot of work to do. For instance, can they be texturized for meat analogues? You can have different processes to use them, for texture, in cooperation in a system…We are really in front of it, but not yet at the end.”