Taste, texture, nutrition: Formulating with plant-based proteins

By Elaine Watson contact

- Last updated on GMT

Picture: GettyImages-piyaset
Picture: GettyImages-piyaset
Plant-based proteins are creeping into a dizzying array of foods and beverages, from dairy-free ‘milks,’ ‘cheeses’ and ‘yogurts’ to protein bars, chips, powders and meat analogs. But what are they like to work with? FoodNavigator-USA caught up with experts at Cargill and Kerry to find out…

From a nutritional perspective, most plant proteins with the exception of soy are not complete proteins in that they don’t contain adequate levels of all nine essential amino acids. So popular combinations often include pea (which is low in cysteine and methionine but high in lysine) and rice or oats (which are lower in lysine but higher in cysteine and methionine), says Kerry strategic marketing manager Orlaigh Matthews.

From a sensory perspective, however, they each present different challenges, she says, with consumers citing taste and texture as top of the priority list when choosing protein products, she notes.

 “Pea protein can have earthy off notes, and rice protein can be gritty​.”

Pea protein can have off notes, while rice protein can be gritty

But she adds: “Just combining multiple proteins doesn’t overcome these challenges, so in our ProDiem range ​[which combines pea, rice and oat protein to create a complete protein and uses natural flavors to tackle off tastes] we’ve used proprietary processing and flavor masking technology, and come up with products that are optimized for specific applications such as bars and beverages.

“ProDiem officially launched in March 2017 and the feedback has been very positive, because formulators want to use plant-based proteins, but they also want a complete protein, an improved flavor profile and reduced grittiness and chalkiness, so what we’re doing really resonates.”

Kerry has also been able to combine ProDiem with its TNT (total novel texture) technology to stop high-protein bars from hardening over their shelf life, she says.

“We’re seeing growth in bars, baked goods, milk alternatives, ready-to-drink active lifestyle products, sports nutrition products, smoothies, and powdered products.”

Cargill is likely to add more protein sources to its portfolio

Cargill, which has worked with soy protein for a long time, has been working with pea proteins from Puris (formerly World Food Processing) for a couple of years, and is now “in the process of finalizing its protein strategy and scoping out different protein sources,” ​says Paige Ties, ‎senior technical service specialist at Cargill Texturizing Solutions.

She can’t provide further details, but says that, “In the future you’ll definitely see more options in the vegetable protein space coming from Cargill.”

'Pea protein is still in its infancy'

From a formulation perspective, she says, “Soy, egg and whey are highly functional proteins that people have been working with and optimizing for years, whereas pea protein is still in its infancy, so there are functional gaps the industry is trying to address.

“What gives us an advantage at Cargill is that we also have a portfolio of texturizing solutions we can use to help customers formulating with proteins in a variety of applications, from using Treha trehalose to mask protein bitter off notes; pectin and gellan gums to protect and suspend proteins in beverage applications; to chicory root fiber for texture and flavor advantages in non-dairy yogurts and ice creams.”

When it comes to beverages – one of the biggest growth areas for proteins – pea protein presents challenges as it is not as soluble as soy or whey protein, she says.

“The goal is to keep the protein as far away from its isoelectric point as you can, for pea protein the isoelectric point is around pH 4.5, so some of these dairy alternative beverages with a neutral pH are fine, but when you’re dealing with a more fruity beverage with a lower pH, pea protein can precipitate out of the solution, or is not able to solubilize, so pectin is a fantastic tool to protect the protein from acids, while gellan gum and other texturizers can help suspend it.”

The market has completely changed

When it comes to formulation trends, she says: “The market has completely changed. Previously people were really focused on the typical athlete looking for performance – and you still see some of that - but our primary interest is coming from more general consumer products.

As for how much protein customers are looking to include, it depends on the application, she says: “In plant-based milks, some people are trying to push the needle from, say 5g to 10g per serving, so there’s a need for more highly soluble proteins.

Rice pairs particularly well with pea protein, as do potato and pumpkin protein, she says. "Chickpea also pairs well with pea in a beverage product, and it has better solubility than rice protein.

“We have a PDCAAS ​[protein digestibility-corrected amino acid score] estimator that helps our customers formulate faster and understand what using different protein blends might mean from a nutritional perspective.”

When it comes to price, she says, pe​a is more expensive than soy or whey, but less expensive than specialty proteins such as hemp, pumpkin seed and sacha inchi. "It’s not out of reach.”

Soy protein, meanwhile, will “always have a place in the market, as it has great functionality and nutrition, great emulsification and solubility, and it’s the only plant protein that’s a complete protein,” ​she says, although interest has cooled a little in recent years amid concerns about allergens, GMOs and health concerns – even if the latter are not supported by the evidence​.

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