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August 2017 – Veggie plant proteins will prop up our diets – Interview with Biomagazine Europe

Veggie plant proteins will prop up our diets 

How the PROMINENT project taps cereal brans as a source for high-value proteins

With the world population growing, and a huge increase in the number of middle class people, protein consumption is set to raise by 75 % by the year 2050. If animal proteins from meat and dairy are to be the main sources to meet the new demand, this will mean extra stress for the environment as animal-based proteins are produced with high-resource inputs of energy, water, cereal feed, and animal drugs, all contributing to greenhouse gas emissions. Though different in composition to animal proteins, plant proteins (known as ‘green’ proteins or `veggie`-proteins), derived from cereals or pulses, are much more resource-efficient to raise. They should  be the preferred response to the growing global protein hunger  of the future. The EU Commission, through its HORIZON 2020 programme, lays an emphasis on research projects that deal with plant-based proteins as new nutritional sources. One of these projects is PROMINENT — its goal is to mine  wheat and rice residues for proteins after their regular processing for cereal consumption. The cereal side-streams  are worth a closer look, say PROMINENT project coordinator, Professor Kaisa Poutanen and the project communicator, food technologist Gerard Klein Essink.

What’s the big picture behind your research on proteins from wheat bran and rice bran?

Kaisa Poutanen: There is a growing amount of people, asking for more and more protein, on this planet. This will pose enormous sustainability challenges to our environmental systems if the sources of the proteins are not chosen carefully. In our project we are, therefore, looking to valorise plant materials by exploiting wheat bran and rice bran using new and varied  technological pathways to unlock the protein potential.

How efficient is this closer focus on the side-streams?

Kaisa Poutanen: So far, these residues are totally underused. In the cereal brans we find that 15–20 % of the proteins are regularly thrown away if, after the procession of bread, noodles or food and feed grains, no protein mining and exploitation is undertaken. The mining for proteins in wheat and rice can be done with physico-chemical and enzymatic engineering to break up the cell-walls.  This improved exploitation is also a question of raw material efficiency.

How much of the protein demand could be covered through the re-processed cereals?

Kaisa Poutanen: Take the 250 million tonnes of wheat harvested every year in Europe. Up to one fifth of this is protein. In other words, with the revalorised bran-streams, we could offer up to 50 grams of added protein to the diet of an average citizen.

So, people will have to change their diets and shift to green proteins?

Gerard Klein Essink: This should indeed happen, if we want to ensure food and nutrition security in 2050. There is also another reason for the research in protein-rich cereals: they will allow Europe to develop an more self-sufficient protein supply and to become more autonomous.

The question of food autonomy is high on the EU agenda. Is there any political support for these green protein developments? 

Gerard Klein Essink: We will organize the 10th Protein Summit in France, 26-28 September  this year. Top managers from 400 firms will attend the Summit, where they will learn from the new protein strategies pursued by different countries. Germany, for example, has started a big programme for new pulse plantations. The Netherlands is proposing a hybrid diet composed of animal- and plant-based proteins on a 50–50 basis.

Will consumers follow the new taste proposals?

Kaisa Poutanen: People don’t sacrifice eating quality for a new product. We therefore have to look for interesting products coming out of the bran valorisation. The new products need to be tasty, soluble, and generally satisfy the sensory qualities that people demand from food. In my institute at VTT, the Technical Research Centre of Finland, we are working on a new ‘cereals matrix’ of new product functionalities.

What products will come out of the PROMINENT project?   

Kaisa Poutanen: Our exploitation partners will develop new baked goods, pastas and beverages from wheat bran. We expect new fibres and new protein ingredients to come from rice bran. The new ingredients could, for example, replace eggs in cakes and deliver a new food structure, while saving animal proteins and offering a favourable environmental footprint compared to other end-products. The main project achievements will be three new product applications and three new ingredients, which also will create new business opportunities.

What benefits do the industry partners in the consortium reap?

Gerard Klein Essink: My task as entrepreneur and dissemination manager is to guide the industry partners to the next level. The industry will do the market introduction and the marketing. This requires the research to be translated for those intending to work on the model products, including such aspects as market research. Companies also have a lot of interest in acquiring food labels with validated health claims such as ‘Source of protein’ or ‘High in proteins’.

How can the public be better informed on the more sustainable consumption opportunities ?

Gerard Klein-Essink: In many countries we currently see a shift in diets towards a more plant-based nutrition. Here, the plant-proteins will complement and contribute to healthy hybrid-diets with a favourable mix of nutritients. Our dissemination platform in the PROMINENT project  offers a wealth of information to all who want to be informed first-hand.       

When will we see the first plant protein food compositions on the market?

Kaisa Poutanen: These will come after the end of the project, but the first demonstration models containing new protein compounds will be available in 2018. New applications could also be seen in cosmetics. For this, another project is the next step.

Thank you very much for this interview!