Strong consumer interest and the rising number of plant-based products entering the market has fueled the plant-based food industry, which saw dollar sales grow 20% in 2018 compared to last year reaching $3.3bn, according to Plant Based Foods Association data commissioned from Nielsen.
While soy, wheat, and pea proteins may be leading the plant-based category by market share, the distinct advantages to cultivating and scaling the production of lemna that could make the protein a strong category contender.
“It [lemna] hasn’t been a crop that humans have been eating because in traditional agriculture, it’s always been harder to control the growth of duckweed so they’ve never been considered to be produced as food ingredients,” Plantible Foods co-founder, Maurits van de Ven, told FoodNavigator-USA.
“However, now technology, especially in aquaculture, has advanced.”
Plantible Foods said it is developing a cultivation infrastructure and working towards an automated system to grow a sustainable supply of lemna for use in food industry formulations.
“We have designed an agriculture solution to control the growth of lemna in such a way that we have incredible high yields in a food safe environment in order to have a stable supply of this great crop that can go directly into our processing facility where we can extract the protein.”
The company uses a proprietary cold-press extraction process to extract the organic and white protein ingredient from the green lemna plant.
According to Plantible Foods, lemna naturally doubles its biomass every 48 hours, allowing it to be harvested on a daily basis.
“If you look at the more traditional plant-based proteins, many of them are subject to annual crop cycles. Meaning that with global climate happening and thereby creating these unpredictable weather patterns, the yields of these crops can be unpredictable and because you have only one shot to plant,” added co-founder Tony Martens.
Nutritional profile and sensory properties
Due to the rapid, natural growth of lemna, the plant naturally contains higher quantities of the complete protein RuBisCO, which is more digestible than pea, rice, and other alternative plant-based proteins.
“Lemna is one of the fastest growing green leaf materials in the world and because it grows so fast, it’s protein content is extremely high,” van de Ven said.
“The faster a plant grows the more photosynthesis takes place so there’s more of this enzyme that’s present in the plant cell.”
The protein behaves just like an egg white, according to the company, while also being neutral in taste and color and free from the top eight allergens.
Targeting meat and dairy alternatives first
Currently, Plantible Foods operates on two acres of land in San Diego County where it grows its supply of lemna in contained and covered ponds. The company is working towards expanding its operations to 100 acres within the next two years, according to van de Ven.
The company is able to produce its high-quality and complete protein much more efficiently due to its productive use of water (recycling nearly 95% of water used) and lemna's naturally high growth rate.
During the next two years as it scales and optimizes its production, Plantible Foods will be working with food scientists to develop ways to incorporate lemna into new food formulations.
“If you look at the nutritional profile as well as the functional profile of the ingredient, you can apply it to a wide array of markets. We’re targeting meat and dairy alternative companies because the functionality of the protein ingredient itself behaves just like an egg white,” Martens said.
“The amino acid profile of the protein is so unique and so in line with animal-based proteins like whey that it also makes a lot of sense to see how we can apply our ingredient in the other health and wellness product categories.”