Plant protein applications evolving

by Keith Nunes
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Plant proteins
Plant proteins are emerging as a competitive ingredient.

Protein remains a popular nutrient among consumers. Its association with physical fitness, satiety and as a key component in a nutritious diet is driving consumers to seek it in a variety of product applications. The product development efforts have led to a broadening in the use of animal-based proteins and to innovation around the use of plant proteins. As the market continues to evolve it is becoming apparent it may be large enough to accommodate a variety of protein sources and plant proteins are emerging as a competitive ingredient.

Tom Vierhile, Canadean
Tom Vierhile, innovation insights director for Canadean

“Plant protein is definitely trending for a variety of reasons,” said Tom Vierhile, innovation insights director for Canadean, Fairport, N.Y. “For one, animal-based protein is coming under increasing fire, with the World Health Organization issuing its recent warning that processed meat causes cancer and upping the projected risk of processed meat.

“Animal-based protein sources also have issues with antibiotics and growth hormones. Friends of the Earth recently issued a report that graded operators of 25 of America’s largest fast-food and fast-casual restaurants. They found that only 5 of the 25 restaurants evaluated for their use of antibiotics in meat and poultry products received a passing grade.”

Innovation also is being driven by changing attitudes toward protein, said Mr. Vierhile. A 2014 consumer survey conducted by Canadean found an increasing appeal for vegan and vegetarian diets, especially among younger consumers in the United States. Among consumers in the 25-34-year-old age group, 12% said “vegan” or “vegetarian” best described their daily diet. For consumers aged 45-54, just 3% followed a vegan or vegetarian diet, a percentage that dropped to just 1% for those consumers 65 years of age and over.

“The motivation for going vegan or vegetarian is what should really concern animal-based protein producers,” Mr. Vierhile said. “Among those 25-34-year-old consumers, 42% said that ‘vegetarian/vegan food simply tastes better than meat’ when asked to evaluate which statement described why they were vegan or vegetarian. That response beat other options like ‘eating animals is cruel,’ ‘eating meat is unhealthy,’ or ‘I am vegetarian or vegan for religious or cultural reasons.’

“To put their response in perspective, 28% of consumers of all ages said ‘vegetarian/vegan food simply tastes better than meat.’ Younger consumers are literally developing a taste for plant proteins.”

Plant Power Fast Food restaurant, plant protein
Power Fast Food only serves plant and plant protein ingredients.

The emerging taste preference for plant-based protein sources seems to be guiding new product innovation in such categories as meat substitutes, yogurt, milk and milk alternatives, pasta, and snacks. It is also manifesting itself in the emergence of nascent restaurant chains that only feature plant and plant protein ingredients on the menu. Such businesses include San Diego-based Plant Power Fast Food, Veggie Grill, Santa Monica, Calif., and Native Foods Cafe, Los Angeles.

Bob Goldberg, Follow Your Heart
Bob Goldberg, c.e.o. of Follow Your Heart

“There has been a tremendous acceleration of people self-identifying as vegan,” said Bob Goldberg, chief executive officer of Follow Your Heart, Canoga Park, Calif., a manufacturer of vegan food products. “For people of my generation, it was far out to be a vegetarian. Not so much today compared to how it was even a decade ago. Today, a lot of younger people don’t understand being a vegetarian. They go straight to being a vegan for all of the reasons people choose to do that, whether it is compassion for animals, about the environment or because of health.”

Almond, jackfruit and soy

As an indication of how plant protein ingredients are trending, Mr. Vierhile referenced the versatility of almonds and how the ingredient is spurring innovation in yogurt, smoothies, cheese-style spreads and more.

“Almonds have a lot going for them,” he said. “Canadean’s 2015 ingredient survey found that 80.6% of American consumers felt that almonds would have a positive impact on health — elevating almonds to No. 4 on a list of 100 different ingredients that consumers were asked to evaluate. Only whole grains, blueberry and green tea ranked higher.”

Simple Mills almond flour baking mixes, plant protein
Simple Mills uses almond as a base for its line of cake, cookie and muffin baking mixes.

The strength of almond as a base for milk and yogurt alternatives is well known. But other entrepreneurs are using the ingredient in additional applications. Simple Mills, Chicago, uses almond as a base for its line of cake, cookie and muffin baking mixes.

Katlin Smith, Simple Mills
Katlin Smith, founder and c.e.o. of Simple Mills

“I don’t think the use of almond flour is rare,” said Katlin Smith, founder and c.e.o. of the company. “I know there are a number of retailers that sell it, and it does very well. It is something that is higher in protein and vitamins and minerals, and it has a glycemic index of one. To give you an idea, rice flour has an index north of 90.”

Experimentation also has led to the introduction of food and beverage products featuring new varieties, Mr. Vierhile said.

“Jackfruit came out of nowhere last year with a couple of launches that offer consumers a new alternative to pulled pork and pulled chicken dishes since jackfruit can mimic that type of texture,” he said. “Pulses like chickpeas also seem to be a new center of innovation. Chickpeatos is a new snack that turns protein-rich chickpeas into a snack that can be eaten like peanuts or popcorn.”

Chickpeatos chickpea snacks, plant protein
Chickpeatos is a snack that turns chickpeas into a snack that can be eaten like peanuts or popcorn.

With the United Nations declaring 2016 the year of pulses, it is believed it may spur innovation, but Mr. Vierhile said in the United States pulses are not an ingredient consumers are familiar with.

“One of the surprising findings that came out of Canadean’s 2015 consumer survey is the relatively low level of consumer awareness for the term pulses,” he said.

“Fifty-nine per cent of U.S. consumers responded that they ‘were not familiar with this ingredient’ when asked about pulses. Globally, only 17% of consumers responded that way. U.S. consumers are much more likely to understand terms like ‘lentils’ or ‘beans’ than the term pulses, and marketers should respond accordingly.”

While product developers research the use of new plant protein sources, soy also remains a choice.

“Soy is a bit of a problem child in the plant protein area,” Mr. Vierhile said. “For one, there is the uncomfortable fact that soy is closely linked with genetic modification at a time when many packaged food companies are trying to distance themselves from G.M.O.s. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, 94% of U.S. soybean acreage consists of ‘herbicide-tolerant’ crops, which is another way of saying that 94% of the U.S. soybean crop is genetically modified. That’s up from 68% of the crop that was herbicide-tolerant in 2001 and just 17% that was herbicide-tolerant in 1997.

“Soy is also hip deep in the food allergy controversy. It is estimated that just eight foods — milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, soy and wheat — cause about 90% of food allergies. I suspect that this is another reason why enthusiasm for soy is muted when it comes to plant protein.”

Yet there are major companies working to bring soy-based concepts to market. The Hershey Co., Hershey, Pa., for example is trialing its SoFit soy-based products in the United States. SoFit is a well-known brand in India, and Hershey has made some applications available in the United States via Amazon. The line includes bars, squeeze packets and protein seeds. Some of the items use soy and soy protein isolate as an ingredient, but they are marketed as non-G.M.O.

J.P. Bilbrey, Hershey
J.P. Bilbrey, chairman, president and c.e.o. of Hershey

“Think of SoFit as a test and learn,” said J.P. Bilbrey, chairman, president and c.e.o. of The Hershey Co., in a conference call with financial analysts on Jan. 28. “It’s a brand out of India, it’s soy protein and it’s part of our efforts to learn about the protein segment; plant protein.”

Algae as an alternative

During the Winter Fancy Food Show, held in San Francisco Jan. 17-19, Follow Your Heart debuted its VeganEgg product, which is an egg alternative formulated with algae.

“In the vegetarian, vegan world avoiding eggs has always been a bit of a problem, because it is such a ubiquitous ingredient,” Mr. Goldberg of Follow Your Heart said. “There have been egg replacers around forever, like starches and leavening agents for baking. But making anything that would scramble, that was a big challenge.”

Follow Your Heart VeganEgg, plant protein
Follow Your Heart's VeganEgg product is an egg alternative formulated with algae.

He said Follow Your Heart’s product development staff has been working off and on for years to develop a vegan egg alternative that would scramble.

“As it turns out, I was introduced to some people from a company working with algae products,” Mr. Goldberg said. “We learned very quickly that algae shared some of the same characteristics to egg. For example, the level of lipids and the yellow color were similar. The algae also has a lot of lutein, like eggs.”

Mr. Goldberg called algae one of the “missing pieces” to developing a vegan egg product that would scramble. Once the company’s applications team began working with the algae, it took approximately a year to develop the concept.

“Algae is the key, but there are three or four other pieces that are required,” Mr. Goldberg said.

The company has filed a patent application for the concept, and Mr. Goldberg said Follow Your Heart is looking at VeganEgg as a concept that extends beyond products for retail or food service.

“It may be used as an industrial ingredient as well,” he said. “It is a yellow powder that you mix with very cold water. Once mixed, it has the consistency of liquid egg, but is less slimy.”

The company is in the process of rolling the product out to retail and food service and plans to introduce the industrial variety at a later date.

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