October, 2022

Emerging plant-proteins: what to expect

The market calls for differentiation in the area of plant-based protein sources. Nowadays, an increasing number of ingredient companies and start-ups are experimenting with a wider variety of protein sources, looking more and more at the nutritional aspect and the techno-functional role the ingredient should play in the finished product.

In fact, plant proteins contribute extensively in plant-based (and other) products both with protein enrichment and structural functions, such as stabilizers and gelling agents. A number of factors must be considered in the research and development of ingredients from new protein sources, from the nutritional quality of the protein, to flavor, to sourcing and supply capacity, to price.

Several experts have been speculating what will be the next plant protein to conquer the market. However, with the pace at which various companies and start-ups are investing in the development of new ingredients, it is hard to predict, but we can already see what protein sources we might expect in the near future.

Established and emerging plant-based proteins

Among the protein sources already established and settled in the market, we can find soy, wheat, rice, and pea as the most widely used proteins. Soybean currently remains the most widely used plant protein source, due to its high nutritional value and technological functionality; however, it is related to environmental issues associated with deforestation in certain parts of the world, as well as being a widespread allergen. Pea also turns out to be a good plant protein, having good techno-functional properties; however, it is characterized by medium allergenicity and undesirable taste.

The driving need behind the search for new protein ingredients is still one: to have an ingredient with neutral color, taste, and odor, rich in protein, and capable of contributing to the texture of the final product through its functional properties. Adding to this is the interest in new non-allergen ingredients, with a strong supply chain, and that can reduce the presence of other ingredients on the label, contributing to the clean label phenomenon and then attracting consumer attention.

Some of the most interesting emerging protein sources we can highlight include mung bean, oats, chickpea, hemp, and sunflower.

According to the Protein Primer compiled by the Good Food Institute, mung bean is one of the most important crops in East Asia, marked by its low cost. Due to its gelling capabilities and high solubility, this is already being used in popular products, such as Beyond Beef, the vegetable mince from the Beyond Burger company, or Just Egg, a preparation for scrambled vegetable eggs from the company of the same name. Mung bean seems to be a promising protein, but possible regulatory hurdles must be considered since there is no history of consumption of the mung bean protein isolate in Europe, and as a result, novel food certification will be required for distribution in the EU.

Oat is one of the most popular plant proteins lately, especially in its use in milk alternatives, baked goods, and cereals, according to Mintel GNPD data. The seeds or flour are generally used of oats, so the amount of protein it can provide in the finished product also remains limited. Despite this, oats are protein having a well-balanced nutritional composition, a good source of carbohydrates and quality protein, and, due to its neutral taste and color, are versatile in the development of new products.

Chickpea also seems to be a promising new protein source, given its emulsifying and foaming capabilities, suitable for the development of alternatives to ice cream, creams and desserts. The weakness as of today for chickpea protein remains its price, which is still high when compared to other proteins on the market. On the other hand, the taste, which is generally considered pleasant but assertive, proves to be a double-edged sword for this protein.