Plant protein’s new players

Nutritional Outlook, Nutritional Outlook Vol. 24 No. 9, Volume 24, Issue 9

New entrants are raising the bar for creativity and even nutrition. But can they go commercial?

Plant proteins have come a long way. Newer ingredients are giving formulators more flexibility while improving texture, flavor, and nutrition. Some ingredient suppliers are even combining various plant proteins into blends offering tailored benefits.

Consumers may still only be mostly familiar with legacy ingredients like soy and almonds. But as the plant protein market matures, newer sources will have an opportunity to take the spotlight. Here are some of the plant protein sources gaining traction—and the measures it’ll take to get them to commercial scale.

First, Pea Protein

Some of the most popular emerging plant proteins are sourced from legumes. In fact, consumers often perceive legumes like nuts, seeds, and beans to be the best-tasting and healthiest plant proteins, says Jacquelyn Schuh, global marketing director of protein nutrition solutions for ADM (Chicago).

And it shows. “The use of pea protein specifically has grown by 297% for meat alternatives and 127% for dairy alternatives over the past five years,” Schuh says. “This growth is likely because brands are looking for plant proteins that can help position products for consumer-friendly labeling.”

R&D Advances Next-Generation Proteins

What comes after pea protein? Formulators are investigating various plant ingredients that currently rank low in consumer awareness but have great potential. Algae, hemp, lupin, amaranth, and sorghum are among the ingredients undergoing technological development, Schuh says.

Suppliers are working hard to create functional isolates or concentrates from these ingredients that brands can then incorporate into formulations with ease. Consumers, however, might take longer to get comfortable with these unfamiliar options.

“Growth in fermented, cell-based, and 3D-printed proteins continues to spur innovation,” Schuh says. “However, we anticipate there will be a gap in consumer acceptance, especially by those who are focused on clean labels. Closer on the horizon are processing and formulation advancements to refine plant proteins so that they need fewer complementary ingredients like emulsifiers, maskers, and stabilizers.”

Nevertheless, advanced research is bringing a variety of non-traditional proteins closer to reality. ADM recently opened a plant-based innovation lab in Singapore to foster product development. The company also partnered with Marfrig (São Paulo, Brazil) to launch PlantPlus Foods, a new joint venture that will offer a variety of finished-product plant-based foods. Earlier this year, ADM announced that it became an investor in Air Protein (Pleasanton, CA), an alternative-protein manufacturer that creates protein flour from the elements present in air. You heard that right.

From Concept to Commercial

While these newer plant protein sources are gaining some degree of consumer awareness, they still haven’t toppled legacy sources like soy protein. Scaling emerging proteins will require effective marketing to educate consumers and foster brand familiarity.

Ryan Bracken, co-CEO of Merit Functional Foods (Winnipeg, MB, Canada), says consumers are becoming more knowledgeable about the fact that there are different kinds of plant-based proteins. They are now interested in knowing which type of plant protein is in the products they buy.

This phenomenon, he says, is now driving interest in newer sources like canola protein, which his company offers. “We expect this shift will continue as consumers have better taste experiences with different types of protein,” Bracken adds. “For instance, if a consumer tries and loves a product that is made with canola protein, we expect they’ll start seeking out more canola protein products.”

Dairy Matters

The dairy-alternatives market, in particular, is one where emerging plant proteins could shine. Here, suppliers have an opportunity to get a leg up via nutrition, because most of the plant-based dairy alternatives on the market today, like oat milk and almond milk, have less protein per serving than cow’s milk, Bracken says.

“Consumers want dairy-alternative products that are true replacements for dairy products, which includes comparable protein levels,” he says. “Most dairy beverages offer protein levels of 8 grams per serving, which is why we sought to produce plant protein ingredients that can deliver a similar result.”

Raising the Bar

Bracken notes that the consumer base for plant proteins has expanded in recent years. Early adopters in the plant-based movement have traditionally been forgiving of poor quality in plant-based products. But now that the plant protein consumer base has expanded beyond vegans and vegetarians to include flexitarians, the flexitarian demographic expects good taste, good texture, and improved nutrition from plant-based foods—which is forcing ingredient suppliers and brands to step it up.

Merit Functional Foods’ branded canola protein ingredient, Puratein, works well in a variety of formulations, Bracken says. Canola protein, he adds, is ideal for plant-based ice cream due to the whipping and foaming effect it exhibits during processing, while its gelling characteristics make it a fit for plant-based burgers.

Ingredient suppliers are answering the call for plant proteins with innovation. As flexitarian demand for plant-based food grows, more opportunities will emerge for brands that can reproduce a meat-like or dairy-like experience through plant proteins. Smart marketing campaigns that emphasize taste, experience—and, when possible, nutrition—will be essential in reaching this new demographic.