Plant Based Proteins: The Past, Present and Future

Which plant proteins are the future of food and what do we need to know about them?

Bill Gates has claimed that the plant protein movement is the “future of food,” reports show that plant-based foods outpaced the growth of the whole food and beverage industry by 3.5%, and Mintel has found that the vegetarian market is a 2.8 billion/year industry. Love it or hate it, plant based foods are making their grand debut, and thanks to modern science, these highly functional proteins are replacing meat in a substantial way. Recently, Beyond Meat, a meat alternative, that tastes, feels and bleeds like meat, has come to the mass market across Safeway stores in California, Nevada and Hawaii.

Plant based proteins come in number varieties. In this article we take a deeper look at the meat alternative choices, how each is serving a need for protein replacements and what challenges need to be solved in order to bring them to the mass market.

Soy

Today, “the king of all alternative proteins” soybeans and the various ways in which they are used, are ubiquitous in Asian cuisines, predominantly in China and Japan. The crop which was first planted in 1765 in the United States, wasn’t used for commercial purposes, until the 1960’s when tofu and soy sauce became commonplace in the U.S households. Today the United States is responsible for 40% of the world’s soy production, and soy is used to make tofu, soy milk, tempeh, shoyu, amongst other things.

Benefits:

  • Soy protein is a very flexible meat alternative
  • Mild taste, easy to manipulate
  • High in essential amino acids and protein

Cons:

  • Most soybeans in the world are genetically modified and there isn’t enough research to understand how this will affect our health
  • Soy is a common allergen
  • Soy doesn’t replicate the texture or flavors of traditional animal proteins

Pea Protein

Peas were first mentioned in science when geneticists used peas to illustrate the presence of recessive and dominant genes. By the 21st century, studies using peas proved their nutritional and environmental benefits. Today, with the development of isolating proteins in peas identical to “heme” molecule in meat, the iron containing molecule that carries oxygen, the pea protein industry is growing rapidly.  Pea protein concentrates being used to make alternative milk and mayonnaise by companies such as Hampton Creek.  By using pea protein compounds to replicate muscle cells and fat tissue of an animal, companies such as Beyond Meat and  Impossible Burger have created a “bleeding” burger that is already being served across restaurant menus and in select supermarkets in America.

Pros:

  • Peas are high in protein, approximately containing 15grams of protein per serving of concentrate
  • Yellow split peas are very nutritional and have complete array of amino acids
  • Peas are some of the most sustainable vegetables on the market
  • Peas behave like an acting emulsifier

Cons:

  • Due to the color and the strong odor of peas that cause off flavors in peas, they require pre-milling thermal treatments that can be costly and impede production efforts.
  • It’s still quite expensive to make
  • It’s still not ready for the mass market, as it’s difficult to carry out in large productions

Algae protein

Although, algae was used up to 2,000 years ago in China, it hasn’t been used up to its full potential until recently. Algae, which are photosynthetic plants fall between two categories:  macroalgae, which are large seaweeds and microalgae, which are single celled organism that convert energy from the sun into sugars and protein. Companies such as Seamore Food, uses macroalgae known as  himanthalia, to create algae pasta and algae “bacon.” While companies such as AlgaVia use closed, stainless steel fermentation tanks to produce a strain of microalgae known as, Chlorella, which are then processed into oils and powders that can be used in pastries, shakes, breads and more.

Pros:

  • Algae can be produced within a very short span of time
  • Algae is an extremely nutritional meat alternative as it is high in protein and can include fat, fiber, vitamins A, B,C and E, and minerals
  • Algae require few inputs to produce and don’t require fertile land to grow on

Cons:

  • Producing algae can be costly and may need a lot of water
  • Due to the rapid rate of growth and “shading” that prevents plants from growing optimally, it is currently difficult to produce algae on a large scale
  • Strong flavor and color of algae are difficult to manipulate

Chickpea Protein

Chickpeas, one of the oldest cultivated vegetables, have always been renowned its nutritional value and taste. However, chickpeas have become more than a bowl of hummus. Thanks to innovation, concentrated chickpea protein, has become an alternative source for dairy and gluten. Companies such as Innovopro are at the frontier of developing chickpea protein concentrates that can be used as a dairy, egg and gluten substitute in a variety of foods.

Pros:

  • Functions as an emulsifier and foaming agent that remains stable during shelf life, therefore a perfect substitute for eggs and dairy
  • Rich in amino acids, protein, vitamins and minerals
  • Light in color and flavor

Cons:

  • Quite a new industry therefore they science needs to be refined.
  • Not sold or produced on a commercial scale yet.
  • Needs further research before it’s developed for the commercial market.

 

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