KANSAS CITY Legumes like soybeans and peas have stood out in advancing plant protein product development in recent years. Other protein sources and new technologies are starting to make inroads as well. For example, fermentation plays a role in producing upcycled ingredients. Another instance involves growing seaweed in the desert.

The innovations come as plant protein product sales remain on an upward trajectory. US retail sales of plant-based food grew 6.2% in 2021 to reach $7.4 billion, according to data released in March by the Plant Based Foods Association, The Good Food Institute and SPINS.

MycoTechnology, Inc., Aurora, Colo., and the Oman Investment Authority (OIA) have partnered on developing upcycled ingredients. MycoTechnology uses a fermentation platform to harness mushroom mycelia to create ingredients, including plant protein. The OIA grows about 400,000 tonnes of dates per year, but more than half goes to waste or animal feed.

The two companies have formed a joint venture that will upcycle the excess dates by using the sugar in the fruit as a source of carbon to fuel the production of mushroom-based protein. Upcycled foods use ingredients that otherwise would not have gone to human consumption, are procured and produced using verifiable supply chains, and have a positive impact on the environment, according to the Upcycled Food Association.

Construction of a production facility in Oman will begin in 2023 on a 10-hectare (25-acre) site. Commercial production should begin by the second quarter of 2025, according to the OIA. A total of 16,000 tonnes of dates are expected to be processed each year.

Seaweed in the desert

IFF, New York, is expanding in the plant protein category through seaweed, sourcing both at sea and on land.

The company partnered with Israeli startup SimpliiGood by Algaecore Technologies Ltd. to develop a smoked salmon analog made from spirulina. Spirulina is a type of seaweed, but this spirulina is grown in the desert under controlled conditions. SimpliiGood produces 50 tons of spirulina per year with a harvest every 24 hours.

“The spirulina SimpliiGood cultivates is one of the most efficient converters of sun energy into protein,” said Lior Shalev, chief executive officer and founder of Algaecore. “Spirulina requires salt, minerals, heat, CO2 and water to thrive. The process of growing spirulina actually captures carbon and uses it to grow.”

To advance the initiative, an agreement for strategic development was signed by the Israeli Innovation Authority, SimpliiGood and FoodNxt (an innovation lab established by IFF). SimpliiGood provides the raw material and texture and color qualities while IFF contributes the flavor and aroma attributes. The salmon alternative is expected to enter the market by the end of 2023.

IFF in May launched Seaflour, a hydrocolloid sourced from red seaweed, in the United States, calling it ideal for plant-based beverage applications like nut-based and soy-based milk alternatives. The ingredient contains protein, fiber and minerals. It offers benefits in stability, high-suspension ability and mouthfeel.

“Seaflour has a unique synergy with plant proteins, keeping plant-based beverages stable and appealing, and providing smooth, creamy texture and mouthfeel throughout their shelf lives,” said Michael Cammarata, senior beverage technologist, IFF, Nourish division. “This eliminates the need for additional stabilizers. With this single ingredient, manufacturers have the potential to reduce fat and sugar levels in their products without compromising texture or mouthfeel.”

Microalgae is part of ADM’s protein mapping as the company seeks to understand not only new protein technologies but also consumer perceptions and demands, said Wendy van Buren, ADM’s global commercial growth leader, alternative proteins. ADM’s Outside Voice research showed 30% of global plant consumers, which are defined as flexitarians, vegetarians or vegans, are aware algae is a protein source.

“However, awareness of this emerging protein source does not necessarily translate to consumption,” she said. “In fact, only 7% of global plant consumers state they consume algae. This presents a fantastic opportunity for brands to bridge this gap with innovative alternative meat, dairy and more offerings with algae and microalgae.

“Algae, including microalgae, also hold an interesting consumer associated nutrition and sustainability story, with 21% and 18% of global plant consumers perceiving algae as nutritious and eco-friendly, respectively. However, from a sensory and functionality, and even a nutritional quality perspective, algae and microalgae still have a way to go until they reach similar characteristics to other alternative and plant proteins.”

Legumes’ many attributes

Legumes, including soybeans, black beans, peas and chickpeas, have unique attributes, said Dina Fernandez, global director, protein nutrition solutions for Chicago-based ADM.

“For instance, legumes tend to have a higher nutritional quality than other cereal-based proteins, including corn, wheat and rice,” she said. “This is critical to the plant-based space, as many consumers dabbling in the flexitarian diet are motivated by nutritional goals when considering purchasing plant-based alternatives. This characteristic is particularly important to consumers seeking products like protein shakes and dairy beverages since they tend to be more focused on nutritional attributes.”

She added legumes provide emulsification and gelling properties that are essential for meat and dairy alternatives.

Ingredion, Inc., Westchester, Ill., remains invested in legume-based ingredients. The company at the Institute of Food Technologists annual meeting and food expo July 11-13 in Chicago will feature its Vitessence TEX Crumbles textured protein and Vitessence Pulse pea proteins in such plant-based meat alternatives as Italian sausage crumbles, burgers, seafood patties, shredded chick ‘n and vegetarian frankfurters.