Power to the plants!

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With an impressive yield and health benefits, plants provide a route to optimising protein production, says Michelle Knott

The market for vegetable proteins is currently dominated by soy (60%) and wheat (30%), but major market forces are opening the way for other vegetable proteins to exploit an upsurge in interest in non-animal sources.The first set of drivers is to do with health and wellness. Health-conscious consumers increasingly want to get their daily protein without it being associated with things like cholesterol or animal fats. Proteins are already being added to products to increase satiety and help with weight management, while preliminary research suggests that some vegetable proteins may even offer specific medical benefits in the management of conditions such as metabolic syndrome. Like egg and milk-based proteins, soy and wheat both pose problems in terms of allergen labelling, while some of the alternatives promise clean labels.

Meanwhile, 'green' and socially-concerned consumers view the impressive yield per hectare of vegetable protein as a route to more efficient (and therefore more environmentally benign) protein production, especially in the face of global food poverty. For example, potato protein newcomer Solanic says that while red meat is produced at 12kg per hectare and milk protein at 33kg/ha, wheat gluten offers between 98 and 300kg/ha, depending on the site, and soy manages between 164 and 500kg/ha. Pea protein boasts an impressive 690 and 750kg/ha and potato 500 to 100kg/ha. Food miles and concern among European consumers about genetically modified crops are also adding to the pressure from consumers.

The feeling in the industry is that these issues will drive the market away from animal-derived proteins, rather than making manufacturers switch between different vegetable sources. "If you compare plant with animal protein [yield] will be an issue. The differences will be less of a problem between the vegetable proteins," says Gerard Klein Essink, founder of Dutch industry consultancy Bridge2food. "GMO has been an issue for some in foodstuffs, but most manufacturers in Europe are using soy that is non-GM or identity-preserved already. The overriding factor is functionality. I don't see manufacturers exchanging for reasons of GMO."

All these consumer-led issues will have a stronger influence on the specialist health food sector, but for general manufacturers who are mainly looking for the right functionality at the right price, the rising cost of milk and egg-based products is the key driver. For example, milk prices doubled from 2006 to 2007.

And it's not just market factors that are driving development. Research and new technologies are also delivering some big changes.

Potato

For example, the latest vegetable protein to enter the commercial ingredients market is potato, which arrives courtesy of Solanic - a subsidiary of Dutch starch giant Avebe. Potatoes are around 2% protein, but it has not been possible until recently to process the proteins for use as food ingredients. Most protein extraction involves a membrane separation stage, but it was not possible to separate the proteins from other compounds in the potato effectively using this approach.

Instead, Solanic uses a process called chromatography, which involves adsorbing the protein onto the surface of a resin and washing everything else away before changing the conditions in the reactor to release the protein.

The technology was developed by Danish company, Upfront Chromatography, which claims it can isolate almost any biological molecule from a liquid waste stream by using the right resin. The big, practical innovation is to hold the resin in a loose, expandable bed, which enables it to cope with high flow rates and "crude" process streams that would soon clog up a packed bed. Morten Olander, Upfront's business development manager, says chromatography may even have a role to play in the fuel versus food debate, because it enables food-quality proteins to be recovered from biofuel crops.

Solanic's first commercial plant began production earlier this year next to Avebe's potato starch factory in Gasselternijveen.

Production is currently on hold until the next potato season, but the nominal capacity of this first plant is around 1,000t per year. A second plant is already being built to bring an extra 3,000tpa on line by 2009, with capacity for a further 10,000tpa planned by 2011. Avebe processes enough potatoes to give Solanic an eventual target of 35,000tpa.

Solanic's range boasts a balanced amino acid profile and covers the full gamut of functionality in terms of emulsification, whipping, foaming, gelling and so on. There are no food products in the supermarkets yet, but a large number of companies are trialling the range, according to Solanic application specialist, Paul Hart.

Hart puts the proteins' high functionality down to the fact that potato protein is not dried prior to extraction: "Many other plant seeds and nuts from which protein is extracted naturally dry out during harvest time, but proteins which have dried out lose functionality. Nutrition is, of course, not affected."

Solanic claims that one of its products - SATIS-Factor - contains a protease inhibitor that can deliver a 20% reduction in appetite when used at levels of just a few milligrams per serving. "At these levels it needn't have a big impact on the recipe or the process, as long as you don't to anything to denature it," says Hart.

Rape

Another candidate waiting to join the ranks of vegetable proteins is rape. Rape proteins (or canola in the US) are working towards Generally Recognised as Safe (GRAS) status in the US and Novel Food approval in Europe. Two rape protein products are being developed by Canadian firm Burcon, with a plan to enter commercial production in partnership with ADM once the regulatory situation is resolved.

"In the US, we're not only seeking approval to sell proteins, we also have to seek approval for the process and uses," says Burcon chief executive, Johann Tergeson. "But all the scientific trials are now complete."

Rape seed oil is the second largest oil crop in the world and the canola meal left behind after oil extraction is already used as a feed ingredient for billions of animals. Rape seed is around 40% oil and the oil is worth five times as much as the meal, so extracting the proteins that make up 38% of the meal could be extremely lucrative.

Again, novel extraction technology has been the key. Tergeson says that Burcon's process uses salt water rather than caustic so it can solubilise the proteins without solubilising unwanted compounds from the meal. One of the proteins is hydrophobic, so it is attracted to itself and forms micelles, while the other remains in solution. "The best analogy is egg white and egg yolk. You separate egg proteins using their physical functional properties and it's exactly the same principle with canola proteins," he says. Burcon says its two protein isolates successfully mimic the functionality of a range of egg and milk proteins.

He expects the proteins to have GRAS approval within the year. European approval may take longer, but the company is confident it will come now the science is in place. "The EU is responsible for a third of the global crop of canola, so we're really excited about the potential in Europe," says Tergeson. Independent research published in the British Journal of Nutrition earlier this year brought further good news by showing that canola proteins may help in the management of metabolic syndrome.

Pea

For companies looking for an alternative with a more established track record, yellow pea protein could be the answer. Belgian company Cosucra has been working with pea protein for 20 years, but relaunched its Pisane range in 2005 to provide tailored functionality for different sectors, such as meat and dairy, bakery and beverages. French rival Roquette joined the party in 2006 with the launch of its Nutralys range.

Peas are 25% protein, grown in Europe, available at a price to rival soy, and not on the EU's list of allergens. "At first we were more focussed on the functional benefits of pea protein," says Bruno Gehin, senior market development manager for Roquette. "Now we're seeing increasing success with these products in nutrition."

A recent project carried out by Cosucra and Leatherhead Food International on the effect of pea protein isolate on satiety found that it increased and prolonged satiety by affecting several key biomarkers, such as gastric emptying and levels of at least two key compounds in the bloodstream. Furthermore, the effect appeared to last all day.

These novel alternatives may be promising, but it will take some serious benefits to knock soy and milk-derived proteins off their perch. But with the newcomers offering various advantages from functionality to cleaner labels, consumer appeal and nutritional benefits, it's a market worth watching.

Related topics: Ingredients, Healthy foods

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