The Emergence of Plant-Based Protein - Pulse Research
July 03, 2019
The Canadian pulse industry is intensely focused on building new end-use markets for pulse crops and has set the goal of “25 by 2025”, meaning 25% of Canada’s pulse production will go to new-use markets including food ingredients, foodservice, and pet food markets by 2025.
The growing desire of food companies to include plant-based proteins in their products, presents a golden opportunity for pulse growers.
It is a complex market involving complex processes and, by funding research like this, Saskatchewan Pulse Growers (SPG) is helping the pulse industry meet its stated goal of expanding the use of pulses through new market opportunities.
No doubt you have noticed an increasing interest in plant-based proteins. The most conspicuous example in Canada at the moment is the plant-based meat products being offered by certain fast food chains. If you think this trend is just a flash in the pan, think again.
“Plant-based protein is a billion dollar business, and global demand for plant-based protein is projected to continue to increase,” says Dr. Bunyamin Tar’an, Professor and Agri-Food Innovation Chair in Chickpea Breeding and Genetics at the Crop Development Centre at the University of Saskatchewan (U of S).
To be clear, when Tar’an talks about plant-based protein, he is not talking about a veggie patty with visibly discernable ingredients, like grain kernels, carrot shreds, peas, mushrooms, or lentils. He is talking about specific proteins extracted from plants through a process of
fractionation and used as an ingredient in food production.
It is not a new industry, says Dr. Rick Green, but it is gaining momentum from a new generation of consumers. “The millennial consumer is looking for new sources of protein,” says Green, President, Intellectual Capital Generation with KeyLeaf in Saskatoon (formerly POS
Biosciences), a company that specializes in the commercialization of plant-based ingredients.
Pulse crops are at the forefront of this industry because they offer reliable and sustainable proteins and starches that are highly prized by food companies. The challenge therefore is to ensure that the pulses Canadian farmers grow are bred to provide the precise qualities food companies are looking for, and to ensure that they are both functional in the food manufacturing process and that they taste good.
Breeding High Protein Pulses
With funding from SPG, Tar’an and fellow pulse breeder, Dr. Tom Warkentin, are working on two projects designed to improve the genetic diversity of peas, and improve agronomic characteristics to help growers better access the plant protein ingredient market.
“Broad genetic diversity is key to continued progress in genetic improvement of peas in Canada,” says Tar’an, adding improving diversity is partly driven by the simple need to ensure this crop remains resilient in the face of changing weather patterns, and new disease pressures. “At the same time, the increasing demand for plant-based protein globally also opens up opportunity for field peas to fill the gap.”
“Both of these projects involve the use of molecular markers to improve pea breeding,” says Warkentin, adding that in one project, he and Tar’an are trying to introduce new genetic diversity into CDC Amarillo, a variety well-adapted to Saskatchewan, by introducing genetics
from five diverse pea varieties. “Each of those varieties carry one of the following: improved resistance to Ascochyta, improved resistance to Aphanomyces root rot, improved resistance to high temperatures at flowering, and improved protein concentration in the seeds.”
Introducing those genetics is not a simple matter of crossing plants. “We have made crosses then backcrosses to CDC Amarillo,” explains Warkentin. “Then we have used markers to select lines that carry specific quarter chromosome segments so that we develop a set of lines where each carries a different quarter chromosome. Since pea has seven chromosomes, we will produce approximately 28 such lines for each of the five traits mentioned.”
The second project is aimed at developing a panel of molecular markers that will, as Warkentin says, “help us make faster selections for these important traits.”
The end result should be pea varieties that are well-adapted to deliver high yields in Saskatchewan’s growing conditions along with high seed protein content, to take advantage of the burgeoning plant-protein market.
Making Protein Functional
Simply having a high protein pulse crop is not a one-way ticket to the food ingredient market. It has to physically work as a food ingredient and it has to taste good – and the two do not necessarily go hand-in-hand.
This is where Dr. Lingyun Chen, Professor and Canada Research Chair in the Faculty of Agricultural Life and Environmental Sciences at the University of Alberta, comes in. Her SPG-funded research is looking broadly into value-added applications for pulse proteins in human foods. More specifically, she is looking at whether or not a pulse’s variety, growing conditions, and the way it is processed, have impacts on protein functionality.
“Protein is used as a macronutrient and also as a functional ingredient, like how egg whites function in a sponge cake, for example,” explains Chen, adding that she is looking at pea, lentil, and faba bean protein in her study.
To become a food ingredient, pulse protein must be extracted from the seed to create an isolate – a lentil protein isolate (LPI), for instance. “Currently, the industry is focused on getting high yields from the extraction process,” says Chen. “This certainly increases the protein yield, but it can result in a protein structure change, so we are looking at how the processing parameters can affect functionality, not just yield.” To be functional as a food ingredient, that protein has to be useful as an emulsifier, a gelling agent, or offer foaming properties.
“All pulses have a different protein structure,” says Chen. “Lentil has very good foaming capacity, better than pea or faba bean, and we think it could be good at providing aeration in baked goods.” She adds that faba bean protein has strong gelling capacity and pea protein is good in most capacities, but has a beany flavour that is undesirable.
This is a critical factor. Protein isolates from both peas and lentils have that off-putting beany flavour, which is something Dr. Mike Nickerson, Professor in the Department of Food and Bioproduct Sciences at the U of S, and also Ministry of Agriculture Strategic Research Program Chair in Protein Quality and Utilization, is looking into.
The off-flavours are not easy to remove, even in more highly processed protein isolates. Nickerson is looking at how modifying these processes can affect the functionality and taste of protein isolates from peas, lentils, and faba beans.
New Markets, New Profitability?
Back at KeyLeaf, Rick Green sees a big future for pulse-based plant protein. “The food industry has realized the potential, globally,” he says. “Even beef companies are investing in plant protein – it is not beef or plants, it is both.”
He says it can take a long time and a lot of experimentation to successfully get plant-based protein into common foods, but once it is done, it is hard to turn back, meaning this could be a very secure market for Canadian pulse producers. “Once the industry starts using your ingredient, they cannot change it easily,” he says.
“For farmers, this market adds so much more value and provides the opportunity for them to have greater influence on the utilization of their crops,” says Green, adding he can see a day when producers can sell their crops into a higher-value specialty ingredients market. “I do not see why the farm community should not benefit from this.”
Peas have increasingly been added as a food ingredient in the human food, aquaculture, pet food, and animal feed markets.