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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.