Beyond Soy, Pea, and Wheat. The Five Innovative Plant Proteins To Watch in 2023 and Beyond
The search for sustainable plant-based protein sources has accelerated in recent years. Concerns about global emissions, human health and animal welfare have driven food-tech scientists to seek protein beyond the more common sources such as soy, pea, and wheat. There have been some notable successes that are gaining investment and interest from manufacturers and retailers.
Investment is split across different categories of innovations: cultivated meat, precision fermentation and plant-based protein. While cultivated meat and precision fermentation promise to replicate animal-origin food identically, plant-based protein offers something different for consumers: nutritious plant ingredients. The applications include ready meals, curries, chunks, nuggets, cuts, cookies, bars, and powders.
We look at five proteins beyond soy, pea, and wheat that are driving innovation in plant-based.
Researchers at the University of California, San Diego, describe microalgae as a new sustainable superfood. It contains between 27% and 70% protein, which is higher than eggs or meat, with essential amino acids, vitamins, minerals, and Omega 3 fatty acids. It grows naturally in ponds but is now grown commercially in tanks. The Danish government is investing heavily in microalgae, focusing on Chlorella vulgaris. And Israel-based start-up SimpliiGood is developing plant-based smoked salmon with another microalga, spirulina.
Fava beans (known in the UK as broad beans) have a higher protein content than most pulses. Protein powder from fava beans is already used in sports nutrition drinks and bars. Fava beans are now being made into plant-based meat substitutes such as Beyond chicken tenders, chosen for its poultry-like texture. Fava bean is the main ingredient in Finish company Muu’s plant-based ready meals. It can also be used in gluten-free baking.
With nine grams of protein per 100 grams, lentils are already a good source of nutrition, as fans of dhal and lentil soup will attest. Now scientists are finding new ways to reinvent this traditional store cupboard staple. UK Food-Tech company SPG Innovation, together with Baker Perkins and the University of Leeds have made New-fu, a tofu-like substance which can be moulded into cubes from locally grown lentils under the brand Rootiful.
It could soon be humans rather than animals grazing. Scientists at the Food Institute, Technical University of Denmark, have extracted the protein from grass. They successfully removed the grass flavour and produced a protein bar containing 10% grass protein.
Grass produces more than double the amount of protein per hectare as soy. Dutch company Grassa is processing grass as an ingredient in animal food and has plans to use it in plant-based meat for humans.
A UK farm has developed a method for extracting protein from cabbages and other brassicas. Naylors Farms in the East Midlands is building a $40 million factory funded by Dutch state-funded investor Invest International. Naylor Farms worked with Dutch scientists to develop a cold press system for extracting protein from the outer leaves that are usually wasted when coleslaw is made. The protein fibre can be used in plant-based meats, drinks and baking. Production is due to start in 2024.
While not technically plants, fungi are a great crop from a sustainability point of view. They don’t need agricultural land, can happily grow in a cave or factory, and use minimal water. Loved by chefs and foodies, mushrooms offer a strong umami flavour and meaty texture. But they don’t generally contain much protein. The key to extracting protein is the mycelium – the roots below the surface. The UK brand Quorn has processed mycelium into nutritious meat substitutes since 1985. Newer entrants are now scaling fermentation techniques to drive an expansion of fungi protein. Swedish company Mycorena recently announced a partnership with Revo Foods to make mycoprotein seafood using 3D technology.