Companies are developing plant-based food products to keep up with consumer demands, but they also see opportunities in developing co-products and extraction technologies.
By: Ellen Goodman
As consumer trends in Canada and the U.S. show a growing preference for natural, sustainable and nutritional food sources, especially among women and younger people, more processors are realizing this translates into new opportunities for manufacturing plant-based ingredients and incorporating them into food and health products.
Ontario-based Maple Leaf Foods, for example, is investing big in meat alternatives, doubling its capacity to meet demand for plant-based protein products with its recent announcement for a new $310-million U.S. facility. And it was recently announced that the Beyond Meat burger was broadening its market reach as it was headed from A&W popularity to Canadian grocery stores.
According to preliminary findings from one study released last fall by Dalhousie University, “Plant-based dieting and meat attachment: Protein wars and the changing Canadian consumer,” 6.4 million Canadians limit their meat consumption, a number expected to grow, and that younger and more educated respondents are more likely to want plant-based alternatives. For companies, such market information marks the beginning of potential opportunity but the path to commercialization of products also requires an understanding of the proper tools and technology involved in optimal processing of plant ingredients.
In March, about 100 representatives from food processing companies, agri-science companies, research centres, universities and government attended a one-day technical seminar on plant-based ingredients and applications with a focus on plant protein, hosted by the Food Development Centre (FDC) in Portage la Prairie, Man. Co-sponsored by the National Research Council’s (NRC) Industrial Research Assistance Program, presentations from industry experts included opportunities in developing plant ingredients and co-products, extraction technologies, evaluation of plant protein functionality and quality, food applications, and regulations governing the development of plant-based protein products.
“This is a sign of what is happening as companies are really aware of the opportunity,” says Robin Young, CEO of the Food Development Centre. “They are also trying to figure out the technology they should be investing in, what type of innovation. And as a centre, we really want to play a role before they make big capital investments. They can flesh out those ideas, see what is actually working and what’s economically feasible.”
She says a contribution agreement allows NRC clients to have access to FDC services where the NRC also covers a portion of costs for project work. The recent session came about in part because the NRC has shown interest in providing companies with more information on what the FDC and other centres across Canada have to offer.
“We’re seeing a lot of demand, looking not just at protein, but for plant-based ingredients, extraction, application, and functionality,” says Young, adding that the FDC also works in partnership with the University of Manitoba. “There’s a lot of infrastructure and knowledge for clients to access here in Manitoba.”
The FDC focus on protein in ingredient development is partly due to the province’s recently announced Manitoba Protein Advantage Strategy for economic investment into long-term sustainable development of both the plant and animal protein sectors, she says. The FDC aims to undertake work in innovation that’s required to explore new opportunities and to increase opportunities for producers, processors and users of new ingredients.
“When you think of the landscape of Manitoba and our agriculture, it’s a good opportunity for both sides that plant-based is coming up. Meat is still going to be there, and how do we look at our crops differently. We’ve been saying for years that we wanted a more value-added strategy.”
In addition, the newer federally funded Protein Industries Canada initiative features a supercluster concentrating on plant-based opportunities, potentially acting as a larger voice on behalf of the industry.
”We work with both plant and animal proteins at the Centre but are aware that the plant-based side is requiring a lot of innovation at this point,” Young says. “We (in Canada) typically sell commodities and this is a shift to add more value in ways of looking at extraction and applications.”
The seminar was intended to showcase work that needs to be done in all areas, she says, noting that companies should be aware that equipment and technology providers are available to them. The FDC also needs to work together with the industry in selecting the right equipment for its clients.
Although commercialization of a product is a goal, it isn’t based on success with one high-value ingredient, but also for co-products.
“You have to consider co-products like starch, fibre, oils, or whatever else is left over,” Young says. “Companies need to have an end use for all of the components that come out of extraction technology. Economically, you might have a high-value oil but if you have a starch left it’s important that businesses have an opportunity to capture value from that as well. We want to help them through those challenges.”
She says the FDC has also been trying to “think outside the box,” reaching out to plant-based material users for non-food purposes to look at where they might use starch or other leftover products. “We want to make sure the whole industry is talking and understanding the needs and demands of one another in the value chain.”
In addition, processors should be prepared for delays in commercialization of plant-based products. “When you create a new ingredient there are regulations that require you to prove it meets such requirements as digestibility and viability. So there are reasons some of this can take time. As part of our role in the Department of Agriculture we are trying to communicate there’s not only the technical challenge of getting at a functional ingredient that’s going to perform.”
Currently, there is more of a focus on larger volume crops like yellow peas and canola, Young says, and more to explore as far as lower acreage or specialty crops. Other areas for further investigation include water usage required in processing as well as any allergen issues.
“The market is growing so fast there’s room for other alternatives. Consumers are looking for alternatives. So there’s lots of opportunity with plant-based ingredients and a reason to get past any hurdles.”
Equipment, ingredients and co-products key
The value of agricultural production increased from $57 billion in 2015 to $112 billion in 2017 and, along with support from provincial and federal governments, means this is an exciting time for potential growth in ingredient processing and product manufacturing in Canada, according to Dr. Rick Green, president of Intellectual Capital Generation with Keyleaf Life Sciences (formerly POS Bio-Sciences) in Saskatoon. Green was one of a dozen speakers at the seminar and focused on a broad theme of opportunities in developing plant ingredients and co-products.
POS, which started in 1977 as a fee-for-service facility for ingredient development from concept to pilot scale, was recently rebranded into Keyleaf, now a private enterprise specializing in plant-based ingredient commercialization. KeyLeaf no longer offers the same services as POS, but still works with some companies and plans to collaborate with local businesses and food development centres to make equipment available off-site for process development.
Consumer trends, particularly with millennials, show a desire for natural ingredients, clean label and sustainable production, Green says. A preference for healthy foods that includes low fat, no trans fat, Omega-3, reduced sodium, nutrient dense and high fibre is providing opportunities for plant ingredients and co-products. These include designer oils, bioactive extracts, fibre, phytosterols, nutritional lipids, probiotics, prebiotics, and alternative sources of protein.
“I learned in school about food additives but now we are talking about plant proteins that can do some of this,” he says. “Protein and protein fractions, or peptides, for example, are being associated with mediating systems for health and wellness benefits.
“We don’t say we are in the food industry, but in the health and wellness industry. People are getting more than basic nutrition from food and they are looking for the health and wellness aspect.”
Plant protein has extensive potential in foods and nutraceuticals, not only improving nutritional value but also can be used for emulsification, aeration, foaming, gelation, protection from oxidation (in microcapsules, for example), viscosity, water holding capacity, texture modification, and elasticity in baked goods.
Green emphasizes the importance of looking beyond the main ingredients to recognize the value of co-products and understanding the right equipment for processing. “The equipment that you select is not only to increase yield but the quality of the product, like your protein for example, and also your other products. It’s very important for equipment selection, and to know the nuances of each equipment manufacturer.”
He outlined various plant protein processing technologies and highlighted value-added opportunities for various components. Processes include dry milling and air classification, wet processing (extraction and isolation), fractionation and protein hydrolysis for higher value ingredients.
“We have to decide whether it’s a wet or dry processing approach, and there’s maybe solid processing that’s more detailed the further on you go down the line,” Green says. “What type of ingredient do you want to process and (what are the) co-products? The processing line for each ingredient must be economically viable.”
Processors should be aware that with the range of commercial protein products from oilseeds, cereals and pulses, comes high variability in function and performance, depending on the process, equipment, processing conditions and seed source. “A pea protein isolate (protein with high purity) from one company may be a little different than from another company. And that’s because of the function of the integrated process they put together.”
Green explains this integrated process involves more than just one or two ingredients when a seed is taken apart during processing; it is important to understand what potential it contains along with the markets for its components.
“Basically you have your raw material, raw seed, and you take it to a processing plant to produce that ingredient like a powdered protein,” he says. “But what more can you get from that? If you’re a pulse and cereal processor, and you are processing proteins you’re obviously in the starch business as well. So these co-products are other ingredients and let’s try to maximize their value.”
In addition to starches and modified starches for food and industrial uses, co-products include soluble and insoluble fibre and bran for functional foods and natural health products, anti-oxidants and phytochemicals from hulls, and seed/germ oil that has different fatty acid composition and flavours. These may be applied in different ways to meat analogues, baked goods, beverages, pasta, dairy alternatives, nutrient bars and extruded snacks and cereals. Products from oilseeds such as canola, for example, range from health and cooking uses to industrial oils, and co-products are as varied in food and feed applications.
He also points out that if a protein, starch, fraction or fibre co-product is not cost-effective, it will take away from the financial end of a business. Looking at the economy of scale it might work better for a larger production or there may be value in aligning with other companies that can transform that value into a commercial product.
“Overall, a co-product can increase the economic viability of a process. In Western Canada we’re very fortunate, we have this land, the great crops and the farmers. Pulses are really big and a driver behind the whole protein industry we’re talking about developing here.”
New opportunities may also exist with other crops such as fruits and vegetables and also high-value herbs and spices that may be produced on smaller farms, Green says.
“Food centres throughout Canada do a wonderful job,” he adds. “They can develop prototypes. It’s one thing to take the ingredient and say we did functionality testing, which are physical chemical tests, and that we’ve got a good emulsifier here. You need to demonstrate it. And that’s where food centres and product development divisions come in. The buyer wants to see it to believe it and you can show them the ingredient works.”