Proteins: more than just soy

Soy is still king in the protein ingredients market, but a number of new plant- and animal-derived alternatives are hot on its heels. Shane Starling reports on an ingredients segment poised for growth

For many years, soy has dominated the protein isolates and concentrates market, but that is changing as new plant- and animal-derived protein forms garner more attention. Soy derivatives continue to notch the biggest numbers (almost $1 billion in sales in 2002-03 in the US, according to Nutrition Business Journal), but the likes of pulse, rice, potato, canola and a host of dairy proteins, including whey and colostrum, are being offered by a diverse range of suppliers. And they are finding their way into an increasing array of applications in a global market estimated to exceed $10 billion (NBJ).

The low-carb environment, especially in the US, has boosted protein isolate demand and seen protein ingredients finding their way into virtually every kind of food. Aside from boosting a food?s protein content, food manufacturers expect protein ingredients to perform a variety of functions. Proteins have emulsifying, binding and whipping properties. They improve palatability and bring flavouring and texture to food, as well as improve appearance.

But different proteins perform these functions in different ways, and the ingredients they are mixed with have a big part to play in how they function. Bars will have different requirements of protein concentrates than dairy or beverage applications. And because many protein ingredients contain essential amino acids, they are the primary ingredients used in such categories as sports nutrition drinks, infant formulas, meal replacers, medical foods, nutrition bars and nutritional supplements. This burgeoning of protein options and applications is being accelerated by new extraction and purification methods.

Strong future growth
Frost & Sullivan figures are more buoyant than NBJ?s. The research company estimates the total US protein ingredients industry will reach $3.5 billion by 2006 with an annual growth rate of 8.4 per cent for the period up to 2006, with the revenue split 50-50 between plant and animal proteins.

In Europe, fish and egg proteins dominate, with 70 per cent of an estimated $7 billion market in 2002. Frost & Sullivan estimates this will exceed $9 billion by 2007, with plant proteins taking an increasingly large share of the pie.

With its near-perfect amino acid composition and generally excellent bioavailability, whey is one ingredient that has leapt to the fore in recent years. Research has shown whey passes into the bloodstream extremely quickly without side effects such as gas and indigestion.

NBJ valued the whey market in the US at $470 million in 2002-03, more than double the next best-selling animal protein, casein, at $225 million. Gelatine had sales of $200 million, while dried egg white sales came in at $175 million.

Whey has found favour among athletes and gym-users as it is an abundant source of branch-chain amino acids that helps reduce protein degradation during exercise while increasing protein synthesis. Whey and other milk proteins, such as casein and colostrum, or combinations thereof, also have been highly beneficial in improving the texture of bars. Of course, whey comes in many variants and new whey fractionations are regularly appearing on the market with varying nutritional differentiations.

Proteins derived from pulses are also on the rise, especially in regard to weight-reduction products, because of their high content of certain amino acids such as lysine, which maintains lean body mass, and arginine, which increases muscle mass while reducing body fat. Pulse proteins have formed the basis of products such as bread and beverages.

One particularly novel application is high-protein pasta. Depending on the thickness of the pasta, the cooking time may be reduced to five minutes, with blind taste panels reacting positively. It?s a product that is proving popular in the sports nutrition market as it allows consumers to take up high amounts of protein without having to resort to protein powders and shakes.

Mixing pulse protein with other protein sources, such as milk, eggs or plant proteins, results in lower costs and better amino acids profiles. Pulse proteins also have the advantage of being GMO-free and less likely to cause allergic reaction. Pulse proteins are neutral in taste and colour and can be incorporated into breads, desserts, bars, ready meals or powder blends.

Canola, rice and hemp
Canola, the second-largest oilseed crop after soy, is another exciting protein ingredient, although it is not expected to reach the market in isolate form until 2006. The buzz is being generated by the fact that this protein functions in similar ways to animal proteins. It is projected that canola will be able to be used in battered and fried goods, thickenings and sauces, binding ingredients in cookies and muffins, gelling glazes, emulsifiers, whipping and foaming agents in nougat and protein bars, salad dressings, protein beverages, vegetarian burgers, doughnuts and meringues.

Another interesting protein source is rice. Rice is 70-80 per cent starch, but the 6-10 per cent protein content is drawing increasing attention. Research has shown specially bred rice seeds can produce a protein-rich flour. One experiment had rice seeds simultaneously producing high-protein rice flour and sugar syrups for human consumption and broad industrial uses.

A similar approach could also be applied to other cereals, such as maize and wheat, which might offer even lower production costs than rice. US researchers are developing genetically modified rice carrying a protein from human breast milk. The modified rice is imbued with a human gene for the milk enzyme lactoferrin, needed by babies to use iron efficiently and fight infection.

Hemp is proving another useful protein source. Besides providing essential fatty acids and having a favourable unsaturated-to-saturated fat ratio, hemp seed is an excellent dietary source of easily digestible, gluten-free protein. Its overall protein content of 34.6g/100g is comparable to that of soybeans and better than that found in nuts, other seeds, dairy products, meat, fish or poultry. Hemp protein provides a well-balanced array of the 10 essential amino acids for humans. An important aspect of hemp seed protein is a high content of arginine (123mg/g protein) and histidine (27mg/g protein), both of which are important for growth during childhood, and of the sulphur-containing amino acids methionine (23mg/g protein) and cysteine (16mg/g protein), which are needed for proper enzyme formation. Hemp protein also contains relatively high levels of the branched-chain amino acids.

Frost & Sullivan isolates the following market drivers for emerging plant proteins in the US:

  • Demand for nutraceuticals drives market growth for plant proteins.
  • Health consciousness of US consumers increases demand for plant proteins.
  • The demand for grain products drives the market for wheat gluten.
  • High-protein, low-carb diets drive market growth for plant proteins.
  • Product differentiation increases consumer demand for plant proteins.
  • Multiple functional properties drive market growth for plant proteins.
  • Low costs increase substitution of plant proteins for animal proteins in the US food industry.
  • Government ruling allows for increased usage of plant proteins in school lunches.
  • Vegetarianism expands plant protein market growth.
  • Non-definitive conclusions on soy health benefits.
  • Negative perceptions about nutritional value of soy proteins.
  • GMO soybeans restrict soy protein market growth.
  • Narrow product base restrains wheat gluten market growth.
  • Opposition to soy protein in foods hampers soy protein market growth.

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