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The Way of the Future: Alternate Proteins

Product developers and, in turn, food manufacturers, must stay updated on evolving trends, advances in nutritional science, and emerging ingredient technologies to develop successful new products as efficiently and cost effectively as possible. One of the biggest trends to keep an eye on is the role of novel, or alternate, proteins in the food & beverage space. Novel proteins can be everything from pulses, plant-based proteins, and even insect protein.

Tom Vierhile, MBA, vice president of strategic insights, North America, Innova Market Insights, recently spoke at the Global Food Forums’ 2022 Protein Trends & Technologies Seminar, highlighting a number of new trends in the plant-based protein space.


Annually, Innova releases a “Top Ten Trends” list that is generated from data and information on new packaged food products in the marketplace. This data was the core of Vierhile’s talk at the event. He highlighted the intersection and synergism of the plant-based protein trend with other current trends, including sustainability, environmental impact, and “upcycling” (using food processing byproducts as ingredients), which was also among Innova’s top trends in 2022.


According to the data collected by Innova, one in four American consumers increased their consumption of protein in the past year. One of the main reasons for this growth has been the association of protein with health benefits. While Americans consumed more meat than in 2021, plant-based proteins exhibited impressive gains. In fact, claimed Vierhile, the percentage of new products containing plant-based products has risen from 17 to 24% in the past four years; more than twice as many consumers reported they increased vs. decreased consumption of plant-based products last year.


Plant-Based Properties & Processing


Plant protein ingredients come from various sources (pulses, legumes, oilseeds, cereals) and can be categorized based on their protein content.


The term “plant-based” was coined in the 1980s by T. Colin Campbell to describe a vegetable-based diet as a cancer treatment strategy. Campbell used the term to describe the diet objectively and avoid terms such as “vegan” or “vegetarian.” The use of the term plant-based became widely used in about 2004. Although at first it was commonly associated with meat substitutes, plant-based is now widely used for many products.


Emma Laing, MSc, program facilitator, Saskatchewan Food Industry Development Centre, provided an overview of plant-based protein ingredients in a recent presentation also given at the 2022 Protein Trends & Technologies Seminar. She discussed the sources of plant protein ingredients, functional properties associated with plant-based proteins, and the effects processing technologies have on these proteins.


Every plant protein is processed differently, and there are multiple ways to process a single protein, Laing stated. In some cases, plants are processed initially for other purposes (such as the processing of oil from oilseeds) where the protein fraction is considered a co-product.

The percentage of new products containing plant-based products has risen from 17 to 24% in the past four years.

Finger on the Pulse(s)


Pulses include beans, lentils, and peas. While a pea pod is technically a legume, the pea inside the pod is the pulse. The seeds, or pulses, are what typically end up on people’s dinner plates—and are now being used by food formulators as alternate protein sources.


In pulse processing, protein is the primary ingredient of interest, but it only comprises about 20-30% of the seed. Starch and fiber, which make up the majority of pulse seeds, are considered co-products. Processors are actively trying to use these components to add value (i.e., upcycling).


Each protein source has distinct advantages and disadvantages that influence product developers’ selection. Pulses might be used if a processor wants to eliminate allergen issues inherent with soy and wheat, for example.


Where’s the Beef? Plant-Based Meats  


In a 2022 article published in Food Processing, Claudia Dziuk O’Donnell, MSc, MBA, co-owner & co-founder, Global Food Forums, Inc., noted that, despite appearing pure and simple, “the ingredient science behind plant-based proteins is quite complex.” Established protein ingredients, like soy and wheat gluten textured proteins, have gradually improved their sensory properties over the decades, she said. “When used in skillfully formulated consumer meals, some could easily pass as meats to the casual diner.” Practical advances with multi-functional, high-protein ingredients from other plant sources are growing in number.


No matter how much consumers might say they embrace plant proteins, they still expect their meat substitutes to be as close to the real thing as possible. The Impossible™ Burger and other plant-based meat success stories have set a very high bar for meat substitutes.


As noted, plant-based meats and meat analogs make up one of the fastest growing food industry segments. That said, the protein source and its functionalities can impact plant-based meats. Just a single parameter, such as a raw material’s absorption, can influence dispersibility and texturization—also influencing its performance during the extrusion process.


There are unique differences between meat proteins and those derived from plants. Meat proteins are fibrous, whereas plant proteins are globular. Such structural differences impact not only the food’s formulation; they affect the finished product’s taste, texture, and juiciness. Food product developers must understand the raw material they choose to use—its various forms; how additives can affect the protein; and how certain processes (such as extrusion) can impact its final formulation.

"The ingredient science behind plant-based proteins is quite complex... When used in skillfully formulated consumer meals, some could easily pass as meats to the casual diner."
Claudia Dziuk O’Donnell, MSc, MBA, Co-Owner & Co-Founder

Global Food Forums, Inc.

Insect Protein: Overcoming the Challenges


Insect protein is considered by many experts to be the “food of the future,” according to a recent article in Food Engineering. Insect protein is “packed with nutrients and considered to be an economically viable alternative to traditional animal proteins,”  but convincing Westerners to embrace them faces more hurdles then simply getting consumers past the “yuck factor.”


As a food source, insects are sustainable—able to provide nutrients with relatively low agricultural input. To assess consumer perceptions on this topic, researchers at Global Food Forums, Inc. conducted an “R&D Protein Trends Survey” in 2017 among food technologists attending their protein conferences. According to the survey’s results, consumer acceptance was the highest barrier, though this was closely followed by taste, allergenicity, and cost. Allergenicity concerns exist because insects are invertebrates, like crustacean shellfish. Therefore, including a “shellfish allergy” warning on food formulated with insect protein ingredients would be advisable.


Alt Proteins Going Forward


Alternate proteins are one of the quickest growing trends in food and beverage formulation. Consumers want them for various reasons, and alternate proteins can be derived from pulses, plant-based proteins, and even insect protein. Overcoming the various formulation, taste, and acceptance challenges are the focal points for food ingredient formulators and suppliers.

    Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a contributing author and not necessarily Gray.

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