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Of all the benefits plant proteins offer, sustainability might just be the most crucial.
According to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, the current global population of 7.3 billion is on track to reach 9.7 billion by 2050. With that many more mouths to feed, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) calculates that food production will have to grow by 70% just to keep up.
But what foods to produce? Assuming we want all those new humans to grow up strong, smart, and productive members of society, we’ll need to supply them with sufficient high-quality protein to stave off the physical, cognitive, and metabolic damage that protein malnutrition wreaks.
So does that make flank steak a human right? Not if we know what’s good for us or our planet, says Alan Rillorta, director of branded ingredient sales, AIDP Inc. (City of Industry, CA). “Production of every kilogram of meat protein takes an input of 7 kilograms of plant protein,” he explains. “Not a very efficient conversion, right?” If the UN’s population projections bear out, “Imagine what the resulting food production would do to our world if we continued with the same habits as we have now?” he asks. “It’s simply not sustainable for our future.”
That future may be a way off, but its portent puts the present vogue for plant-based proteins in a new perspective. The celebrity diets, lifestyle features, and breathless marketing that surround the phenomenon may carry the whiff of a fleeting fad, but for those taking the longer view-like Rillorta-plant protein is serious stuff. Don’t call it a “passing trend,” he insists, because “a passing trend is something that implies freedom of choice.” With more people exerting more pressure on the earth’s limited resources, “I don’t think we’re left with much choice but to continue seeking more sustainable and environmentally friendly solutions,” he says. In other words, we’re left with plant protein.
That’s not a bad thing to be left with in today’s nutrition environment. Fully 78% of consumers consider protein in general to be an important part of a healthy diet, and more than half of adults claim to want more of it, according to “Protein Perceptions and Needs,” a 2014 report from The NPD Group (Chicago). And whether those consumers are on the “Paleo” plan or just looking for an excuse to call burgers health food, Rillorta traces their preoccupation back to the usual suspect: the Internet.
“We’re in an information age where information spreads quickly,” he says. “Within a short amount of time, the idea of needing more dietary protein has really taken off.” The upshot: the entry into the market of entirely new segments of consumers “who never really consumed supplemental proteins before,” he says.
Rikka Cornelia, product manager, BI Nutraceuticals (Long Beach, CA), agrees. Just look at demand for protein powder. “Once only popular amongst bodybuilders,” she says, “it’s now gone mainstream with a broad range of consumers, from those aiming to maintain a healthy lifestyle to vegetarians seeking protein supplementation.”
Not long ago those vegetarians were limited mainly to soy-based options. But the variety of plant-sourced proteins available to them and others has shot through the roof. The boom reflects a more general shift in American diets to plant-based eating, notes Yoko Difrancia, public relations and marketing manager, House Foods (Garden Grove, CA), who cites a recent survey that her company conducted with Wakefield Research finding that 55%-“more than half”-of Americans plan to eat more plant-based foods in 2016 than in the prior year.
Fifty-five percent of Americans cannot all be vegetarians, so even meat eaters must be finding something to love about the plant kingdom. And indeed, “In the last few years, flexitarians have become a new market” for plant proteins, making up an estimated quarter-and growing-of the total, notes Udi Alroy, vice president, marketing and business development, Hinoman Ltd. (Tel Aviv, Israel).
What drives them all to plant proteins is a collection of qualities encompassing plant proteins’ perceived labeling cleanliness and “natural” bona fides, compatibility with allergen-free diets, and “pleasing organoleptic properties” compared to earlier protein generations, says Danielle Black, product manager, Glanbia Nutritionals (Fitchburg, WI). And don’t discount the novelty factor, either. Adds Alroy, “Vegetarian-source proteins are viewed as innovative and have a lot of appeal among ‘early adopters,’ who are becoming key opinion leaders.”
Beyond that, Cornelia believes that plant proteins are unique in providing two paired properties that mindful consumers increasingly seek: nutrition from a cruelty-free source. “Nutrition speaks to the population’s concerns about health, and cruelty-free speaks to their concerns about ethics,” she says. “And these concerns aren’t passing fancies. As consumers learn more about foods and their supply chains, the stronger their stances on these issues become.”
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Which is where plant proteins’ sustainability story really shines. Notes Tyler Lorenzen, president, proteins and ingredients, World Food Processing (Minneapolis), plants produce more protein per acre-“in some cases, nearly 1,000 pounds of protein per acre”-than other sources. “One acre of peas can feed over 9,000 humans,” he points out, “where one acre of beef can feed approximately 500.”
Plant protein can feed more people with a smaller energy input, as well. Research by David Pimentel of Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences calculates that animal-protein production requires more than eight times the fossil-fuel energy of plant-protein production-and all for a yield only 1.4 times more nutritious than a comparable quantity of plant protein. Animal agriculture is also a leading consumer of water, Pimentel adds, with production of 1 kg of grain-fed beef requiring 100,000 liters, while soybeans need only 2,000 liters per kg produced.
And from a marketer’s standpoint, plant proteins have a compelling financial sustainability story to tell relative to animal-based options. For whether those options come from egg, dairy, or meat, their costs “are always fluctuating,” Rillorta says. The price of whey, for example, “has dramatically increased over the past few years” while the amount consumers pay for a tub of whey powder “hasn’t been increasing at the same rate.” That cuts into margins and increases the appeal of comparatively affordable proteins sourced from plants, beans, or grains. “If marketers prefer to remain healthy, profitable businesses,” Rillorta says, “they need to adapt.”
And they are. “Most companies that we reach raise sustainability as one of their key factors in making decisions about new and future ingredients, and this is pushing them toward plant-protein solutions,” says Alroy.
Consumers, however, don’t always feel the same pressure. To be sure, plant protein’s sustainability advantages are, “to a certain degree, on consumers’ radars,” Difrancia says, but mainly “among those who are conscious about current practices, where so many resources are wasted.”
For now, sustainability doesn’t hold as much sway as hypoallergenicity, clean labeling, and simply being plant based. And, Rillorta adds, “I think that the majority of consumers are still primarily driven by the numerical protein content on the label.” His advice: “Let’s give this a bit more time to develop, as with each passing generation and increasingly easier access to information, society is becoming more environmentally conscious of its actions.”
The Tried and the Trending
Until then, look to industry to advance the field-and for good reason. Notes BI Nutraceuticals’ Cornelia, “Sustainability pulls food and beverage processors more toward plant proteins than it does consumers because they’re more aware of how sustainability directly affects their businesses. If an ingredient isn’t sustainable, it negatively affects their profits; they’d have to reformulate, change labeling, and more. So sustainability also mitigates supply-chain risk.”
In the plant-protein category, “soy has traditionally been the bell ringer,” Glanbia’s Black says. And as its functionality, sensory properties, and application versatility have grown, its nutrition and sustainability still drive its popularity. Difrancia notes that 67% of tofu consumers participating in her company’s poll choose it for its health benefits. And as for the soybean itself, it’s “proven to be a more favorable and environmentally sustainable source of protein because of its high-quality protein and nutritional value, coupled with the efficient use of land, water, and energy involved in its production,” she says. With all nine amino acids, soy qualifies as complete; moreover, soybeans’ protein-digestibility corrected amino acid score (PDCAAS) of 0.9 “is equivalent to beef,” she says, and the PDCAAS for soy protein isolate, like those for milk and egg, is 1.0-the maximum a protein can attain.
But while soy still dominates the plant-protein segment, “We see more interest in non-soy options,” Hinoman’s Alroy says. Options like…duckweed? Yes, Hinoman’s proprietary, high-protein strain of this aquatic plant (subfamily Lemanceae), called “mankai,” is “getting buzz” as a vegetarian protein, Alroy says. Less specialized strains have thrived in Southeast Asia for generations, but his company harnessed a sustainable hydroponic technology-developed, along with the strain itself, over years of research and development-to grow the protein source rapidly year-round, at higher volumes, without pesticides, and using 10 times less water than might go into cultivation of an equal amount of, say, spinach. The process guarantees the mature plant a minimum protein content of 45% on a dry-weight basis and an amino acid profile that nearly matches animal protein’s, with all the essential amino acids, a high proportion of branched-chain amino acids, and a PDCAAS of 0.89. That makes it “more potent than super vegetables such as spinach, spirulina, and kale,” said Ron Salpeter, Hinoman CEO, in a press release. And it also makes mankai a protein to keep an eye on.
Rillorta is bullish on hemp, “if we can ever get beyond our negative stigma.” Once a top industrial crop until the anti-marijuana movement snuffed it out in the middle of the last century, hemp “is a very sustainable plant,” he says. It grows rapidly and in a variety of climates, soil types, and tightly spaced plots, and it’s naturally resilient to pests, producing high yields with less acreage. “Also,” Rillorta adds, “many different parts of the plant can be used in an array of applications, so very little of the plant is wasted.”
And he still hasn’t “given up on rice.” Processors already use the starch in everything from noodles to desserts, and because starch and rice protein are processed together, “The more rice starch produced, the more rice protein produced, and all this protein will need to find a home somewhere,” Rillorta says. Rice protein offers processing advantages, too, including a lighter color and cereal-like flavor that “help dilute the beany notes of pea and soy proteins.” And its “strong presence” of sulfur-containing amino acids balances the amino acid profiles of pulse proteins where such amino acids are lacking.
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But even with their shortage of sulfur-containing amino acids, pulse-, bean- and legume-sourced proteins are enjoying a rapturous reception-a warm welcome that World Food Processing’s Lorenzen believes is merited, as such proteins often address many of consumers’ concerns about clean labeling, GMOs, organic certification, chemical processing, allergenicity, and, yes, sustainability.
For example, his company insists on using non-GMO seeds to produce its pea proteins and highlights the fact that peas “give nitrogen back to the soil and convert that nitrogen to useable fertilizer,” he says. Leguminous plants like seeds and beans house symbiotic bacteria in their roots that produce nitrogen. When the plants die, this “fixed” nitrogen gets released into the soil and fertilizes it. “Whether it’s pea, soy, or other pulse, high-yielding, proficient seeds that fix nitrogen are good for farmers’ crop systems,” Lorenzen says. And as with rice and hemp, peas yield several coproducts beyond protein, Glanbia’s Black notes, with the starch finding use in, say, noodles, the fiber in agriculture and nutrition, and the protein in, for example, sports beverages. Because of this “high demand across the industry for all fractions of the pea,” Black says, “no part of the ingredient goes to waste.”
Another plus of today’s pulse proteins is that they’re hedonically and functionally superior to their predecessors. Lorenzen claims that his company’s pea proteins provide “that dairy-like experience” that’s so valued in a market where non-dairy milk alternatives aim to replicate the taste and texture of dairy milk without…well, dairy.
Besides peas, the water lentil is another pulse whose profile is rising thanks to high-quality, high-functioning plant-protein ingredients. Cecilia Wittbjer, marketing manager, Parabel (Melbourne, FL), says that Lentein, a protein her company extracts from water lentils, offers advantages over other plant proteins. She notes that the ingredient’s source plant grows in a hydroponic system that recycles 98% of its water and doesn’t exacerbate acidification, “as all the nutrients stay in the system and don’t leak into nearby areas,” she says. Lentein offers levels of essential and branched-chain amino acids that surpass even those of soy, she adds, and is free of any known allergens. “Even pea protein has a known allergen,” Wittbjer notes.
“We have a de-greened isolate coming out soon,” she adds, that’s bland tasting and light-beige in color. “So the ingredient doesn’t always have to be a green concentrate with a grassy taste.”
And then there’s flaxseed. Flaxseed typically supplies a “good balance” of protein, fat, and fiber, Glanbia’s Black notes, adding that “both the protein and oil components are used” as ingredients. And as an agricultural crop, she says, flaxseed “delivers on sustainability.” Her company’s HarvestPro line of ingredients taps pea, flax, chia, and ancient grains like quinoa, amaranth, and sorghum as sources for individual and blended vegan proteins for use in everything from bars and beverages to baked foods and cereals. Black says that the company’s EasyFlav technology “ensures a neutral-tasting pea protein ingredient with significantly less green/pea, green/pyrazine bitterness and fewer ‘cardboard’ and nutty notes than straight pea protein.”
As consumers demand more and better plant proteins, Black believes, “there’s room for growth and improvement in the sector-enhancing the nutritional and organoleptic attributes even further, as well as improving processing efficiencies.”
Lorenzen shares Black's optimism. “Through industry’s commitment to high-yield, high-protein seed technologies, manufacturing close to the source, and innovative ingredient processing, plant proteins are the future in both sustainability and economics,” he says.