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Plant-based protein: a snapshot

Plant-based protein offers consumers a balanced source of protein, while catering to dietary and lifestyle restrictions.

August 27, 2018

7 Min Read
Plant-based protein: a snapshot

By Connor Lovejoy

In terms of protein, animal products stand unopposed atop the popularity pyramid. Animal-based protein sources are generally favored for their quality, bioavailability and amino acid profiles. However, consumers are beginning to place an emphasis on alternative protein sources, with plant-based protein scaling quickly.

“The hottest trend in protein has been the rise of plant-based protein products, and all indicators say this trend will continue,” said Joe Weiss, president, Nutrition 21.

A huge contributing factor to the rise of plant-based protein has been what goes through consumers’ minds when they’re in the grocery aisle. It’s about more than just the bottom line for consumers.

“In general, production of most plant-based proteins is known for low impact use of land, water and energy, and low resulting carbon emissions,” said Dina Fernandez, protein ingredient specialist, ADM. “This is highly valued by consumers because they want the power to choose foods and products with ethical and environmental added benefits, and for wellness and balanced lifestyle reasons.” Not only do plant-based proteins offer an environmentally friendly protein alternative, they can stack up pound for pound with animal-based protein sources.

What’s in It for Me?

Plant-based protein isn’t just a simple nutritional trend. “When considering the importance of maintaining a healthy protein intake, plant-based protein products become a primary option for those looking to increase their protein consumption and meet the needs of various dietary restrictions,” said Jim Komorowski, chief science officer, Nutrition 21.

Options such as soy, lentils and peas offer vegetarians, vegans and the generally health conscious the opportunity to enjoy virtually the same protein perks as animal-based sources. Couple this with the fact that plants offer distinctive nutritional benefits and they become an enticing option. “Diets rich in plant foods are increasingly being recommended to lower risk of cardiometabolic diseases, since there is strong evidence that fruits, vegetables, soy, whole grain, nuts and seeds are protective,” said Michelle Braun, global protein scientific affairs lead, DuPont Nutrition & Health.  

Consumers are seeking products that check more than one box on the benefits list. “Observational studies of vegetarians demonstrate their reduced risk for numerous chronic conditions; recent research demonstrates that just small increases in plant protein intake can be associated with reduced risk of death and disease,” explained Braun. (Proc Nutr Soc. 2016;75(3):287-93 and JAMA Intern Med. 2016;176(10):1453-63.)

“Plant-based products are naturally cholesterol- and saturated fat-free,” said Mariel Enochs, press contact, Axiom. “They are also naturally free of contamination from growth hormones or antibiotics which may be in animal-derived sources.”

Amino Acid Profile

The human body requires more than 20 amino acids when it comes to repairing muscle and tissue. A common concern surrounding plant-based proteins is related to its amino acid profiles.

“From a nutritional perspective, the protein quality of protein ingredients is evaluated using the Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score (PDCAAS)—the official method used to evaluate protein quality,” Fernandez said. The PDCAAS scale ranges from 0 to 1, with 1.0 proving to be the highest-quality protein. A majority of plant-based proteins fall between 0.5 and 0.7.

“Plant protein ingredients with PDCAAS values of 0.7 and above include pea, lupine, lentils, chickpea, quinoa, some edible beans and cashews, among others,” she said. “Protein ingredients with PDCAAS values of 0.5 to 0.7, include various edible beans, pumpkin seed, sunflower seed, chia, hemp, sacha ichi and most nuts. Finally, protein ingredients with PDCAAS values below 0.5, include wheat, rice, corn, barley, oat and algae. Plant proteins of high or low PDCAAS are loaded with nutritional elements such as fiber, vitamins, mineral, antioxidants and bioactive components, and have a wide range of functionality profiles.”

Using this evaluation method, the amino acid gap between plant and animal proteins may not be as significant after all. “It’s somewhat dangerous to use PDCAAS as the ‘gold standard’ of measurement because it leads you to believe that plant proteins are nutritionally inferior to animal proteins,” said Kelly Shone, director of innovation, Bioriginal. “Rather, plant proteins offer a wide variety of complementary amino acid profiles. So, as long as a variety of plant proteins are being consumed throughout the day, the recommended daily amount of complete protein can be obtained.”

Each plant source carries a different portrait of amino acids. “The essential amino acid profiles of plant proteins vary by source. Many plant sources are low in lysine, such as lupin, rice, wheat, sorghum, oats, hemp and flax, while pea and lentil are lower in sulfur-containing amino acids,” Braun said.

A Good Balance

Of the plant protein sources available, soy breaks away from the pack. “Soy protein is the only widely available plant-based source of protein that is considered a high-quality, complete protein on its own,” Braun said. “It meets all of the essential amino acid requirements for children, as well as adults, and is well-digested.”

However, as interest is growing in alternative protein sources, suppliers are getting more creative to deliver a complete amino acid profile.

“We’re seeing brands more interested in unique, innovative protein blends,” Shone said. “Formulations with different protein concentrations and multi-plant sources help with solubility and taste profiles. By blending plant proteins, formulators can achieve a more nutrient-dense product in addition to offering a combination of proteins to meet daily nutritional requirements.”

Certain plant sources are selected specifically to add some of the less common amino acids into blends. Pumpkin seeds, seaweed and soy are packed with leucine. Beans, hemp and cashews provide a less common plant-based amino acid: lycine. Lentils, oats and quinoa help round out blends with isoleucine.

Currently, blending remains at the forefront of providing consumers with a non-animal-based, complete amino acid profile. “Brands are moving away from standard protein sources, such as soy, and toward a variety of more novel protein sources such as pumpkin, hemp and flax,” Shone said. “These sources offer an assortment of nutrients in addition to being a quality source of protein.”

Formulation Challenges

A common issue brands face with plant proteins isn’t in the amount of protein offered—but the taste of the plant blend. Compared to the dairy-based taste of whey and casein protein blends, plants tend to have an earthier taste that can be tough for consumers to overcome.

“The biggest challenge is taste, identified as the top purchase driver for consumers when it comes to plant proteins,” Shone said. Each plant protein offers its own distinct flavor profile and texture that can affect the end product. For brands to circumnavigate issues consumers face with taste, flavor masking comes into effect. Flavor masking allows brands to create a pleasant mouthfeel for their plant-based products.

Ultimately, brands face a bigger issue that chemical engineering won’t be able to fix. Misconceptions about how effective plant-based proteins can be are being tackled every day, noted Shone. “Common misconceptions about plant-based proteins also pose a challenge for brands. One of the biggest myths is that you can’t get a complete amount of protein from plant sources. However, the truth is that eating a variety of plant-based proteins throughout the day can supply enough of the essential amino acids that you need.”

What Does the Future Hold?

Animal-based products still take up a significant amount of the protein market. “For years, whey protein has been the most popular and widely consumed product type in the protein market,” commented Weiss. Not only does whey protein offer all nine essential amino acids, it also is the most bioavailable form of protein. Although, brands are beginning to see a shift in what consumers want.

“It is widely thought that the plant-based protein market will continue to grow in the coming years. Statistica has estimated the plant protein market may grow more than 30 percent by 2020 to exceed US$10 billion,” explained Weiss. There’s been a very noticeable shift in consumer attitude toward plant-based products in general. Plant-based protein looks to benefit in the coming years from this attitude shift.

“More consumers are identifying as ‘flexitarian,’ not abandoning meat, but actively reducing meat consumption and choosing plant-based options,” said Jean Heggie, strategic marketing lead, DuPont Nutrition & Health. “These are fundamental shifts in consumer attitudes and behavior that are only building momentum in the market and support a bright outlook for growth of plant proteins.”



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