Exploring the functional potential of plant proteins

7 Mar 2019

Plant protein has emerged as an industry megatrend, and researchers are starting to look at its broader potential to create healthier foods and drinks – beyond one-to-one replacement of animal ingredients.

Proteins from grains, pulses and seeds have started to feature in a wide variety of products, including in plant-based substitutes for meat and dairy. Plant protein has a number of advantages over animal proteins, particularly its lower environmental impact. But researchers now are beginning to explore the functionality of plant proteins, including for reducing fat and increasing fibre in foods and drinks.

Exploring the functional potential of plant proteins
Fat-reduced cream fillings are among target applications for plant proteins

The Fraunhofer Institute for Process Engineering and Packaging IVV in Germany has launched a research project looking at how to use proteins from lupines and other pulses to cut the fat content in products like creamy fillings, sauces and dressings. It says the proteins from these plant sources have similar structural properties to fats, meaning that manufacturers could use them to cut saturated fat by up to 30% and also significantly reduce calories.

Fat reduction is often associated with reduced shelf life, but the Fraunhofer researchers have found a way around this problem, by combining plant proteins and ultra-high pressure processing technology. They say this could allow for longer shelf life, improved texture, and a reduced need for artificial preservatives.

Consumers have moved away from low-fat foods in recent years, but many Europeans still consume more saturated fat than nutritional experts recommend. Many have also become wary of low-fat foods that are high in carbohydrates, often in the form of sugars, so using proteins may provide a more palatable solution. Protein has become increasingly sought-after, and manufacturers are responding by adding it to a wide range of foods and drinks. According to Mintel, average protein content across all European product launches has steadily risen from 7.5 g per 100 g in September 2013 to 8.6 g in August 2018.

Meanwhile, researchers from Finland’s VTT Technical Research Centre are working with a variety of plant ingredients, such as grains, seeds and pulses. They use fractionation to split these raw materials into their constituent parts, and then recombine them, allowing for ingredients with higher protein or an improved ratio of soluble and insoluble dietary fibre.

On the one hand, the process has nutritional benefits, but on the other, it also improves their functionality. Removing the highly insoluble parts of cereal brans, for example, gives them better foaming properties and provides a crisper texture and richer flavour in baked goods.

With interest in plant proteins continuing to rise, researchers have extra motivation to look closer at their functional potential. Healthier foods and drinks with added plant protein are a clear target.