Innovations & Emerging Trends: KeyLeaf’s Role in the Plant-based Protein Space (Part 2)

A conversation with Dr. Anusha Samaranayaka (Dr. Anusha), KeyLeaf Lead Scientist – Proteins, and Dr. Rick Green, KeyLeaf’s President of Technology Development (Part 2 of 3)

Besides solving flavor issues, what other issues need to be overcome when formulating with plant proteins?

Dr. Anusha
Beside finding or creating the desired taste, we must create a proper texture/mouthfeel and appearance. Also, the ingredient must function properly in various environments and at various temperatures, and the desired nutritional requirements for the ingredient must be met. Functional properties of ingredients can actually be tailored to specific product applications. There are many other factors to consider such as availability at scale, cost, and anti-nutrients that can affect digestibility and health.

Which plants are currently being researched by food formulators as protein sources?

Dr. Anusha:
There are several groups of plants from which protein can be extracted. Plants in the “cereal” group mainly include wheat, rice, corn, oat, rye, and barley. Plants in the “legume” group include soybean, pea, lentil, chickpea, beans, and lupin. In the “oilseed” group we find crops like canola, flaxseed, sunflower, and hemp. The “ancient grains” category includes quinoa, chia, teff, millet, and sorghum. The catchall “other” category has plants such as potatoes, algae, fungi/mushroom, yeast, nuts, and leaves.

Which protein source is currently the focus of KeyLeaf’s R&D efforts?

Dr. Green:
We are focused on hemp seed proteins right now as the hemp industry is the area in which our company now specializes. Dr. Anusha has found many functionalities in hemp protein by purifying it to produce isolates which can then be separated off into fractions; each fraction possessing unique and important bioactive properties. This fractionation is leading to the discovery of higher value uses for the hemp protein. We have been doing this type of processing for years, working extensively with pulse and other plant proteins, which has enabled us to compile a database of plant proteins, listing the protein’s functional attributes, bioactive properties and potential value-added peptides.

What applications currently exist for hemp protein?

Dr. Green:
Hemp protein applications depend on how far you purify the protein. In the crude state, you have hemp hearts as a source for hemp protein and hemp oil. Hemp hearts and hemp flours or dry fractionated hemp proteins can be used in various bakery, snack, and extruded product applications. As we get to the more highly processed protein, we find it has good digestibility, improved solubility, and functionality. Also, there are fractions and modified proteins that work well for specific applications like beverages, alternative meats, and egg replacers.

Dr. Anusha:
At KeyLeaf, we are working with different varieties of hemp seeds to produce hemp protein, oil, and fiber ingredients as well as finished products. These include protein ingredients with 60-90 % protein purity, as well as hydrolyzed, heat treated, extruded, and fractionated proteins for specific uses. Our proteins are lighter in color and have neutral taste compared to -most hemp proteins available in the market. They also contain less fiber and offer improved functionality. Of special interest to formulators is that our protein isolates and fractions have minimal or very low carbohydrate content, allowing them to be incorporated into low-carb or keto diets. These proteins, in general, are gut friendly and easily digestible. We have also developed technologies to use hemp proteins to encapsulate various sensitive oils, bioactives, CBD and THC isolates to extend the stability and expand product applications.

Does hemp seed protein contain all the amino acids?

Dr. Green:
Yes, all nine. Relatively few plant-based foods are complete sources of protein, making hemp seeds a valuable addition to a vegetarian or vegan diet. The limiting amino acid in most hemp varieties and protein extracts is lysine, but hemp proteins can be combined with pulses and other lysine-rich foods to fulfil the essential amino acid requirements. As far as other applications for hemp protein, you now see dry fractionated hemp flour and wet extracted hemp proteins in baked goods, bars, shakes, and protein supplements. Hemp cereal, ready-to-drink beverages, and alternative meat applications are still an up-and-coming industry for this type of protein.

Innovations & Emerging Trends: KeyLeaf’s Role in the Plant-based Protein Space (Part 1)

A conversation with Dr. Anusha Samaranayaka (Dr. Anusha), KeyLeaf Lead Scientist – Proteins, and Dr. Rick Green, KeyLeaf’s President of Technology Development (Part 1 of 3)

Can you give an overview of KeyLeaf’s activities in the plant-based protein space?

Dr. Anusha:
For over four decades, KeyLeaf has been helping companies to process, develop, optimize, and commercialize various alternative protein ingredients. During the last 4 to 5 years, our work has mainly been focused on pulses (pea, chickpea, lentil, fava bean, and other beans), oat, and hemp. In addition to helping companies with their ingredient needs, we also undertake internal R&D projects to develop new technologies. We are also working with industry partners and academia to do collaborative research, which has so far led to the filing of four patents. As for our current R&D work, most of it involves extracting, isolating, and developing hemp protein components. We have some very exciting ingredients based on our work with hemp protein waiting to be debuted at an upcoming industry expo.

What are the key drivers in the alternative plant protein market?

Dr. Anusha:
In terms of market share, alternative plant protein has several drivers. Many consumers select plant proteins because they like the healthy image associated with them. Surveys say that 38% percent of US consumers associate plant-based proteins with health benefits, 17% believe that plant-based proteins offer superior nutritional value compared to animal protein, and 14% now believe there is no need to eat meat to intake adequate protein.

Dr. Green:
I think the public’s interest in substituting animal protein with plant protein soared with the launch of the alternative meat burgers, which were picked up by grocery stores and restaurants. There was tremendous coverage in the media of the main companies involved. The new meatless burgers were looked upon as good for the environment and as a healthier alternative to animal-based proteins. And it wasn’t all about replacing meat – manufacturers also launched plant-derived egg replacers. In addition to the health issue, another big driver was the idea that plant-derived protein meals were better for the ecosystem. Not only that: in 2016 the World Health Organization launched the “Year of the Pulse”, embracing the cultivation and consumption of protein rich pulse crops such as dry legumes, peas, lentils and chickpeas. The big push for pulse was because it would be more friendly to the environment if humans started eating more plant-based protein. The Year of the Pulse coincided quite well with the launch of the meatless burgers, and the public then became very interested in alternative proteins. Around this time, we also started to understand that we might not have enough total protein to feed the world in the future. With projections that the global population could reach 9.6 billion, potentially doubling the demand for food by 2050, the threat of planetary protein deficiency became another strong factor driving research and development of new alternative protein sources.

Dr. Anusha
The flexitarians, not vegans or vegetarians, are the real market drivers of the alternative protein space. In addition to the health benefits, they want to hear about the product’s “story”, and transparency. Sustainability and animal welfare are other key factors. Today’s consumers, especially millennials and younger generation, like to try new things, and they’ve embraced the plant-derived meat, eggs, and dairy alternatives. Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods, Quorn, Good Catch Foods, Just, and Ripple Foods are some of the major alternative meat, seafood, egg, and dairy/beverage companies in the plant-based protein product space right now, among many others.

Dr. Green
After enjoying tasty “meatless meat” meals and dairy alternatives, our palates began calling out “what else can you do”, whereupon food processors started developing and formulating an array of plant protein dishes from fishless fish to non-dairy ice cream. Getting the flavor and texture right proved to be the make-break issue for every company entering the plant-based protein space, — far easier to say than do.