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No picnic: Is pea protein moving from the fringe to mainstream?

By Annie Harrison-Dunn

- Last updated on GMT

Pea protein: From fringe to mainstream?

Related tags Pea protein Nutrition Amino acid

Pea protein may be moving in from the food and beverage fringes, however formulating with the fast-growing ingredient is 'no picnic' according to functional confectionery firm Carmit.

With global launches of products with the ingredient growing by 234% between 2010 and 2013, according to Mintel data, pea protein is moving in from the food and beverage fringes. However, creating more 'mainstream' foods with pea proteins can be a challenge for manufacturers, says Carmit.

Of the increase in new products containing pea protein, almost half of all launches in the past five years occurred in 2013 alone, added Mintel's food science analyst Laura-Daisy Jones - adding that this was part of a growing overall interest in plant-based protein sources.

While pea protein may be taking off mainstream food segments, formulation with the ingredient is "no picnic". ​Discussing the upcoming launch of its gluten-free pea protein wafer bar, the Israeli company said the ingredient's appeal lay in its amino acid and hypoallergenic profile.

Of the formulation challenges, the Israeli firm's technologist, Anat Goldshmidt, told FoodNavigator: "The main challenge in developing this bar was making sure that the product tastes great. That’s not always easy when working with protein, or pea protein in this case, as it tends to have a dominant flavour and a high viscosity." 

A long and bumpy road

Goldshmidt said: "The road to our existing product was long and bumpy."​ He said several changes to the original wafer and cream recipe had to be made in order to maintain taste while ensuring the product incorporated its target five grams of pea protein and kept an eye on calorie count. In addition the firm wanted to create a gluten, egg and dairy free wafer bar, which posed additional formulation obstacles.

Carmit's international sales and marketing manager, Alex Felman, told FoodNavigator that protein consumers were becoming more demanding in their expectations of taste. "Customers are avid for protein, particularly in a snack form, but now they’re less willing to make compromises on taste while also looking out for allergens and digestibility. Pea protein provides all these,"​ he said.

Jones said the top five product categories using pea protein were meat substitutes, water-based frozen desserts, poultry products, meat products, snack/cereals and energy bars. 

To mask the pea protein flavour Carmit used a 60% dark chocolate coating, it said. "We also had to find the right mix of wafers and filling to preserve the crispy and airiness of the wafers. Adding too much of a viscous cream would make the product hard to swallow,"​ Goldshmidt said.

"From a production standpoint, working with pea protein is no picnic either,"​ he said, explaining too much pea protein would have made it difficult to spread the cream evenly. Uneven spreading would mean varying amounts of protein across bars, he said. "So in addition to the technological challenges we also had to make sure that to keep the viscosity of the cream to the levels our equipment can work with."

Pea over soy and whey?

Felman said the company had chosen pea protein over more common sources like soy or whey in part due to a recent consumer shift that has seen the ingredient move from fringe to mainstream.

Looking at the nutrition and performance drinks market in the US this year, Jones echoed this sentiment saying 24% of protein drink users like the trend towards greater use of plant protein in protein drinks like soy, pea or rice protein. “The fact that 12% of users of protein drinks won't use products in the segment made with soy means that companies have room to innovate with newer plant proteins such as pea or hemp,”​ she said.

Felman said the company also chose pea protein because of its amino acid profile. "Pea protein is an excellent alternative for sports enthusiasts looking for new plant based protein sources,"​ he said. "For us, however, being in the allergen industry for almost 2 decades, the most important attribute of pea protein is the fact that it is an hypoallergenic." 

"We believe this product has an enormous potential as it responds to a lot of customer’s demands: it's gluten and egg free, contains no milk - it’s manufactured on a line that also processes dairy, though - it is suitable for vegetarians, it’s low in calories vis a vis other protein bars, it delivers a good amount of protein, but most importantly it’s a great tasting bar,"​ he said.

Jones also said pea protein could appeal to the growing number of “part-time vegetarians”. “In the UK almost two-fifths of UK consumers bought vegetarian or meat-free foods during 2012, which is considerably higher than the 'vegetarian' segment of the population that stands at 6% and the 13% of consumers that claim they try to eliminate meat from their diet. Highlighting the 'part-time' use of vegetarian and meat-free products, and their widened appeal,”​ she said.

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