May, 2022

What is protein functionalization?

Plant-based ingredients are becoming increasingly attractive to the food industry because they have the potential to both replace currently used animal ingredients and to enrich products with protein and improve their organoleptic properties. The interest in these ingredients is also being driven by the plant-based products trend, with products becoming more and more appealing to consumers. However, while attributes such as sustainability and health are important in plant-based products, taste remains the most important quality for consumers. The demand for an increasingly diverse range of plant-based products is leading companies around the world to invest more in research, seeking to maximize the potential of plant-based proteins.

In addition to the taste, color, and protein content of a plant protein, it is important to know its functional properties, meaning those characteristics that not only affect the final product in terms of organoleptic properties, but also how to industrialize production. For example, solubility, ability to absorb water and/or oil, ability to create emulsion, foam or gel.

According to the article Plant Proteins for Future Foods: A Roadmap, plant proteins generally have different nutritional and functional properties than animal proteins. For example, plant proteins may suffer some denaturation, aggregation, and loss of functionality, during the extraction process. Or again, plant proteins may be less soluble, affecting their use in food formulations.

Since each plant matrix differs in composition and structure, they may vary in their functional properties. To take full advantage of the opportunity provided by these ingredients, modifications, whether chemical, physical or biological, can be used to enhance certain functional properties through functionalization for specific applications.

Who wouldn’t want a plant-based cappuccino with a creamy foam? To achieve this we can use functionalization techniques, improving a functional property of the plant protein used, in this case, for example, the ability to create a lot of foam, having a good stability.

How can we functionalize a plant protein?

These treatments can optimize and diversify their structural and physicochemical properties, making, for example, proteins more soluble in water, or improving their techno-functional properties, such as emulsification, water and fat holding capacity, gelling and foaming. The resulting proteins can be easier to apply in formulations and can improve final product digestibility and organoleptic properties.

According to the study carried out by the Good Food Institute, after the extraction and concentration of the vegetable protein, this can be subjected to chemical treatments such as salt washing, chemical hydrolysis in acid and alkaline conditions and precipitation, leading, for example, to an improvement in the ability to absorb water, to create gels and emulsions.

Physical treatments include processes such as heat treatment, application of pressure or sonication. Heat treatment is commonly applied to modify the structure of proteins and reduce the content of anti-nutrients and volatile components, but also to improve the ability to create foam and emulsion.

Other protein modifications can be achieved through enzymes. For example, hydrolysis, glycation, and cross-linking are modifications that research is focusing on because they are potentially very effective.

However, we need to keep in mind that there are no standardized and effective functionalisations on all plant proteins, but each one needs its own parameters and optimizations to obtain an effective improvement of functional properties. To be able to fully take advantage of the potential of plant proteins, in order to give plant foods satisfactory nutritional and organoleptic properties, research will play a key role in the near future.

Protilla Finder wants to help research on vegetable proteins, supporting the first step for the development of new innovative products: the choice of the most suitable vegetable protein. Through a matching system, Protilla allows you to find the vegetable ingredient that best suits the formulation you are looking for, associating the functional properties to the desired application.