Demand for plant-based proteins is only increasing, but there are still some serious functional and sensory issues that the industry needs to solve, according to Merit's co-CEO Ryan Bracken. Plant protein products are continually launching into the market, but many simply don't taste very good, claimed Bracken.
"You can easily mechanically separate the plant proteins to call it a 50% plant protein powder, the challenge is that you’re left with a whole bunch of other fibers or starches in the plant protein, which brings undesirable tastes and flavors that don’t offer high functionality," Bracken told FoodNavigator-USA.
Bracken realized the need for better-tasting and better-functioning plant-based proteins when working as the vice president of innovation at the world's largest hemp producer, Manitoba Harvest Hemp Foods (acquired by Tilray this year). While at Manitoba, Bracken connected with Burcon NutraScience Corporation, a global food technology firm specializing in developing and producing functional plant proteins.
"We met with Burcon eight to ten years into our hemp business, and they were actually able to take our hemp byproducts and make it into a 95% pure, slightly off-white, highly soluble protein isolate, which was just astounding to us," said Bracken.
According to Bracken, there's a broader opportunity in pea protein than there is in hemp protein (for now).
"There’s this overall global demand for plant proteins that’s not ending, it’s only growing, and there was so much poor-tasting, poor-performing plant proteins," he noted. "There are some high quality pea proteins out there but not a lot."
Bracken launched Merit Functional Foods earlier this year with Shaun Crew and Barry Tomiski, both hemp and plant protein industry veterans, each with decades of experiences working in the plant protein market.
"We took the leap and left Manitoba Harvest and Hemp Oil Canada to start up Merit Functional Foods in July," said Bracken. "While we’re a startup, we’re definitely not new to the industry."
The three former Manitoba executives have partnered with Burcon to help extract and produce its plant protein portfolio, which includes varieties of pea and canola proteins.
"We obviously wanted to partner with Burcon because they had the intellectual property [around its extraction technology]. They had the capabilities and knew exactly what they were doing," Bracken said.
Plant protein portfolio
Using Burcon's proprietary extraction technology, Merit is able to achieve upwards of 90% purity in both its pea and canola protein ingredients (meaning there are no additional fibers or starches, and just the protein itself), which creates a better-tasting and highly-soluble finished product, according to the company.
"From a purity perspective, anyone buying our pea or canola protein will be looking at a 10% increase in purity of the protein. Effectively, what that means if you’re looking to fortify with 10 g of protein or 20 g of protein, you can use a lot less raw materials from us, which is great thing for formulators," said Bracken.
According to Bracken, when working with formulators to develop its plant-based ingredients, its sensory profiles exceeded industry standards.
"We go off feedback directly from heads of R&D, and the feedback we've received -- whether it be meat analogues or RTD beverages -- has been phenomenal. Their direct feedback to us, and they've tested all of the proteins out there, is that they deem our protein to be in the top 5% of proteins (in regards to flavor and sensory experience)," noted Bracken
"I wouldn't spend my own money on this, if I didn't get that feedback from formulators first."
The company's pea protein ingredients include Peazazz, Peazac, Puratein (canola protein), and a canola/pea protein blend called MeritPro HS.
Canola protein: '...something the market hasn't seen yet'
"We believe that pea protein is where it’s at right now, but actually canola [protein] has more functionality and is something the market hasn’t seen yet," said Bracken. "It's also very highly soluble -- equal to or greater than pea protein -- which is tremendous."
Merit will be sourcing non-GMO canola from Canada and cold pressing (as opposed to high heat processing) the canola at its own facility, producing an end product with 90-95% purity and a PDCAAS (protein digestibility-corrected amino acid score) score of 1, which also has a natural sweetness to it, according to Bracken.
"You would usually have to blend different plant proteins together to get that PDCAAS score of 1," Bracken said.
Merit's plant protein ingredients portfolio can work in a variety of applications, but the company is focusing on a few key categories to begin with.
"We definitely see a high number of applications: No.1 is RTD beverage, No. 2 is meat analogues, No. 3 is ready to mix powders, nutritional bars... you name it," he said.
The company is currently building an 88,000-square-foot production facility in Winnipeg to produce its pea and non-GMO canola protein ingredients. The facility is scheduled to be completed by the fourth quarter of 2020.
“We’ve been meticulously planning this facility, and we’re eager to get it functional,” Bracken said. “Part of that plan includes anticipating further growth, and because of that, we have chosen our location and designed our facility to enable us to scale our initial throughput by up to five times the initial capacity when the time is right.”