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.

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