Both short- and long-term trends to boost demand for plant proteins, DuPont experts say

By Hank Schultz

- Last updated on GMT

A renewed emphasis on protein quality coupled with a search for sustainable alternatives augers well for soy-based proteins, DuPont says.  DuPont photo.
A renewed emphasis on protein quality coupled with a search for sustainable alternatives augers well for soy-based proteins, DuPont says. DuPont photo.

Related tags Amino acid Metabolism Protein

This is the season of repetitive themes: Christmas carols, holly garlands, inflatable Santas.  So it comes as no surprise that DuPont protein experts sound a familiar strain, too: Plant proteins were big in 2015 and they’re going to be even bigger in 2016.

FoodNavigator-USA talked with Jean Heggie, DuPont’s strategic marketing lead and Ratna Mukherjea, PhD, director of global nutrition for a look at where the market is going.  Their chorus was unequivocal: The groundswell toward plant proteins on the part of consumers is a long way from its crest and is only gathering momentum.  And as that wave continues to build, mini trends within it become more discernible, Heggie said.

Deep dive on ingredients

“Clearly in 2015 we saw a lot more consumer energy around the notion of plant-based proteins and the value of plant-based diets. I think we will continue to see that in 2016,” ​she said. “And just as we have seen with other trends, whether positive or negative, as those evolve, consumers will be learning a lot more about the nutrients themselves.

“It happened with fats, for example. First, fat was just bad. Then there were good fats and bad fats,”​ Heggie said.

DuPont is a key supplier of soy protein ingredients, and Mukherjea said that’s where the trend that has seen consumers go more in depth on ingredient specifics will be a boon. An influential early book on the subject of vegetarianism in the United States titled Diet for a Small Planet​ included detailed charts of which plant proteins to combine in what ratios to get a complete suite of essential amino acids.  The myopic focus on these detailed combinations receded somewhat in subsequent years, and later editions of the book by Francis Moore Lappe omitted the complex combination tables and played down the almost Talmudic stress on getting just the right ratios of amino acids in the diet at all times. In other words, eat a varied diet and get enough protein overall and in a week’s or a month’s time it’s all good.

But Mukherjea said that consumers are now revisiting the subject of protein quality.  And that’s good news for soy.

“We know that protein needs vary through life from child, to adult, to an aging population. Protein needs can be met through various sources of protein, and overall you want to choose lean sources of protein and there’s where plant-based proteins have an advantage over animal,”​ she said.

“The second question is protein quality. Does it have all the amino acids necessary for proper growth in children?  That’s where consumers are looking at the PDCAAS scores for judging protein quality.  Meat, dairy, egg and soy proteins all score 1.0, the highest score on this scale,”​ Mukherjea said.

New take on blending

The original idea of blending, put forth by Lappe, was an effort to avoid a deficiency in one amino acid or another.  Mukherjea said the modern idea of blending is to boost the functional properties of the proteins themselves.

“Consumers don’t eat just one source of protein in the day. They choose many different proteins.  We have a research program that looks at different blends as they pertain to muscle health. Both dairy and plant proteins are high in protein quality and they have different digestion rates and that can bring advantages. Our research program shows that by combining soy and whey you can an increase in muscle protein synthesis. We have done this study in young individuals and we have an ongoing study in older individuals,” ​she said.

The long view on sustainability

Dupont soy detail
DuPont photo

Another strain running through the season is sustainability, supported in part by the emphasis placed on climate change questions by Pope Francis and the news surrounding the recent international meeting on the issue. Heggie said soy’s soil-nitrogen-fixing qualities as a legume and its lower carbon footprint as a plant protein fits in nicely with this trend, which can be expected to boost demand for plant-based proteins for decades to come.

“I think that represents a real opportunity for soy. This is a more sustainable source of protein with a lower carbon footprint. If you listen to a of the experts around protein sources, most of them say that with the world population growing to 8.5 billion people with a peak at 9.6 billion expected by 2050, that will put huge pressure on protein supplies. Plant proteins will play a huge role in meeting that future demand,” ​Heggie said.

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