Four emerging plant proteins to watch: Pongamia, hemp, barley, and chickpea

By Elaine Watson

- Last updated on GMT

Clockwise from top left:  Pongamia (credit: Terviva); hemp seeds (credit: istockphoto marekuliasz), barley (credit: GettyImages-Terrababy) and chickpeas (credit: istockphoto-natashamam)
Clockwise from top left: Pongamia (credit: Terviva); hemp seeds (credit: istockphoto marekuliasz), barley (credit: GettyImages-Terrababy) and chickpeas (credit: istockphoto-natashamam)

Related tags plant proteins

Hemp, barley, chickpeas, and Pongamia (a.k.a. ‘vertical soy’) are four plant-based proteins to watch in the next decade, according to panelists at FoodNavigator-USA's recent ‘Plant-based protein in focus’ webinar, who predicted advances in crop breeding to increase protein content or functionality will also unlock new opportunities in the field.

The Holy Grail ​[for food formulators] is often to have a neutral, clean flavor and color, and I think that is on the horizon for all of these ​[emerging] proteins, including duckweed," ​Dr Justin Shimek, CEO at innovation and product development firm Mattson​, said at our March 24 webinar, now available on demand.

On the downstream side, we see improvements in proteins through proprietary processing that makes them more functional, so for example, with chickpea, an inherently consumer friendly protein, ​[firms have] made it even more functional when it comes to gelling and a broadening of applications.

"But I’m also excited about all the work being done on genetics to take wild type genes and further tune not only the content of the protein, but sometimes the functionality.”

Pongamia protein: ‘We don’t detect beaniness’

Pongamia protein is a particularly intriguing new addition to the formulator’s toolbox, said Shimek, who has been working with San Francisco-based Terviva​, which is bringing Pongamia flour, oils, and proteins to market under the 'Ponova​' brand: “On the protein side, it actually seems to work really well with a lot of other proteins and grains in formulations. It’s relatively neutral in flavor and we don't detect ‘beaniness.’

Pongamia trees produce significantly more biomass per acre than soybeans, with a fraction of the water, fertilizer, and pesticides, claims Terviva.

“From a functionality point of view, it seems to bind oil and water well… and in some bakery style applications, there's a good elasticity, maybe better than some other legumes, so it worked well in pancake mixes, gram crackers.

"It’s early days, but we’re also really excited about the oil, which could be a great substitute for a lot of industrial oils, and consumers are also intrigued with the ​[high-yield, low-input] sustainability message​.​”

Panchali Chakraborty, technical director, savory and snacks at Givaudan, ​added: “I'm super excited about Pongamia protein. We have recently gotten a sample and we started to play with it.

"It’s a very neutral protein, with very slight bitterness, which could be easily overcome, and really functional, although I think the hero ingredient here is the culinary oil, which has a fatty mouthfeel… which is very beneficial in a lot of bakery applications and in beverage applications where you're trying to bring back some of the milkiness which is missing in some plant based milks.”  

Hemp protein isolate: ‘Bone white’ color, neutral flavor

Colorado-based Nepra Foods​, meanwhile, is working extensively with next-generation hemp seed proteins, said co-founder and chief innovation officer Chad White.


“A lot of what we do is allergy-free bakery, so I’m always looking to replace eggs, so I like potato protein, which is expensive but highly functional. I like canola protein​ and lemna protein​, but in a lot applications, I can replace eggs entirely using hemp.

“When you mention hemp protein, people envision this green, slightly bitter powder… but in order to really isolate the proteins properly, you have to de-hull the hemp before extracting the oil, and once you do that, the resulting powders are very neutral.

“One of our production partners in India, has actually been able to produce a 99.9% protein isolate based on a dry basis and that product is absolutely amazing, it’s bone white and has no off flavors.”

He added: “From a functionality standpoint, I'm able to do just about anything with it, I can make meringue, mousse cakes and a lot of different products that require aeration. The emulsification properties are also wonderful. It holds many times its weight in oil and binds to water as well.

“We’re also culturing hemp milk and making some pretty fantastic cheeses as we're seeing an enhancement of the functionality once we ferment it.”

Asked whether hemp protein can replicate the melt and stretch that casein delivers in dairy cheese, he said: “By itself it's still somewhat challenging. We do see some of the stretchiness, but what we're really doing is combining it with a couple of other proteins… I've actually got one I'm working on that I'm not willing to talk about yet that is allowing me to get close to the elasticity of casein.

“So… in the near future, I think we will start to see some cheeses being manufactured that are quite remarkable.”

Barley protein: High solubility, low viscosity


Barley protein, which AB InBev is upcycling from brewer’s spent grain via its EverGrain Ingredients​ subsidiary, ​is also proving attractive to formulators, claimed CEO Greg Belt (speaking at the start of the webinar​ in a fireside chat)

“Anyone that tries​ [formulating with our] barley protein for the first time is surprised by its high solubility and its low viscosity, so you can mix it in water and it'll look like an iced tea. On taste, it has a slight malty, caramel note, so it works really well in chocolate and vanilla applications.

“We can produce a plant-based milk with anywhere between 5-12 grams of protein… without ​[negatively] impacting taste… and that caramel note also works well in meat alternative applications.”

For food marketers, meanwhile, EverGrain’s barley protein from spent grain – which now comes with the Upcycled​ certification – hits the right buttons on sustainability, which CPG companies are increasingly factoring into their purchasing decisions, assuming the key elements of taste, functionality, price, and availability are all there, said Belt.

“The comment back to us is usually, ‘Greg, everyone says they're sustainable… so prove it.' And that's where the lifecycle analysis performed by a third party comes in, and it shows that our protein isolate is the lowest protein at large scale in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, in terms of water usage, and in terms of land use.”

He added: “Our large-scale facility in St. Louis ​[to produce barley proteins and fibers from spent grain] will go online in the first half of this year, and that will enable us to support over 100 customers. We see amazing launches in the second half of this year in ready to mix protein powders and protein shakes and many dairy alternative consumer products.”

Chickpea protein: ‘A fatty mouthfeel inherent to the protein’


Another protein to watch is chickpea protein, said successive speakers, who highlighted the work of firms developing techniques to remove key anti-nutritionals and preserve the qualities of the protein that make it attractive to formulators, and startups such as NuCicer, which is breeding varieties with 75% more protein.​  

Chakraborty at Givaudan said she is a big fan: “It’s not a complete protein but it has good functionality, great water absorption, fat absorption and emulsification properties, which makes it suitable for different applications.

“There are some sensory off notes which can be easily overcome by masking and the additional advantage is that there is a fatty mouthfeel that is inherent to the protein, which really minimizes the astringency associated with most plant proteins.”

Potato protein and coconut fat make for a grim combination

When it comes to flavor and plant proteins in general terms, said Chakraborty, everything can depend on the food matrix you’re working with.

Takepotato protein, when it is used in a plant-based meat application in combination with coconut fat, it’s a perfect storm. It's this interaction of a residual enzyme that is present in the potato protein that interacts with fatty acids in the coconut fat and you get this fatty acid burn at the back of your tongue that's just impossible to mask.”

David Welch, Synthesis Capital: ‘What excites me is being able to connect the end product design and product characteristics with crop genetics’

But what will determine whether proteins with potential from a functional or sensory perspective can move from the niche to the mainstream? 

Even where there is already established infrastructure for growing and processing a given crop such as canola, for example, it has still taken well over a decade to scale up cost-effective technology to get a functional protein out of the cake left after oil crushing, for example; while AB InBev spent years perfecting a process to get highly functional protein out of its spent grain.

“I personally think there's a load of whitespace in crop breeding, particularly as new genetic engineering methods come out of the lab or from other adjacent sectors, because those can really shorten the product development lifecycle,” ​said Dr David Welch, formerly director of science and technology at the Good Food Institute and now CSO and co-founder at Synthesis Capital​.

“What excites me is being able to connect the end product design and product characteristics with crop genetics, and then being able to deploy CRISPR or some other technology to look at not just one trait, but multiple traits, from higher protein, to higher yield, at the same time, and get those crops to market not in seven years, but in a couple of years.”

Breeding out undesirable flavor characteristics

Chakraborty at Givaudan added: “Off notes from plant proteins are a product of complex interactions of a large number of volatile molecules, and the volatiles are either already present natively in the source or are formed during harvesting or processing.

“So fat oxidation products, which could be activated through the lipoxygenases or lipases during the harvesting process, can generate undesirable volatiles, so there is obviously an opportunity​ [to address these issues] through plant breeding where we could level off some of these aroma producing molecules and bring down the quantity of polyunsaturated fatty acids for example, or other precursors of these volatiles that are responsible for the off notes.”


To watch our March 24 Plant-based protein in focus webinar on demand, click here​. If you haven’t already registered, select the full title of the session is ‘Plant-based protein in focus: From Pongamia to chickpeas (USA’).


  • Fireside chat​: Greg Belt, EverGrain (barley protein): 02:10
  • Presentation​: Pea protein, the lowdown with Dr Mauray at Roquette: 19:30
  • Panel​: Plotting the next 10 years in plant-based protein: 44:00
Elaine and Greg
FoodNavigator-USA editor Elaine Watson and EverGrain Ingredients CEO Greg Belt at our March 24 'Plant-based protein in focus' webinar

Protein panel screenshot
Clockwise starting top left: Elaine Watson, FoodNavigator-USA; James Astwood, TerViva; Justin Shimek, Mattson; Chadwick White, Nepra Foods, Roi Wurgaft, Wurgaft Consulting & Development; Aurelie Mauray, Roquette; Panchali Chakraborty, Givaudan; center: David Welch, Synthesis Capital

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