New Proteins Offer Nutritional And Functional Benefits

A growing demand for sources of protein offers food processors new product opportunities.

By Claudia D. O’Donnell, Contributing Editor

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Protein-enhanced products have generated much revenue for food processors. Of the 10 most successful food and beverage introductions in 2012, as defined by IRI’s New Product Pacesetters, Dannon’s Oikos Yogurt took the top spot with $283.8 million in year one sales, helped by the fact that the Greek yogurt contains twice the protein as regular low fat yogurt. General Mill’s Nature Valley Protein Bars, also in the top 10 most successful new food launches, garnered $95.7 million in its first year.

Good reasons exist for protein’s popularity. “The World Health Organization recommends that dietary protein should provide some 10-15 percent of calories when individuals are in energy balance and maintaining a stable weight,” says Kelley Fitzpatrick, principal, NutriTech Consulting. High-protein diets reduce risk factors for cardiovascular disease and have positive benefits for diabetics, including a positive impact on glycemic regulation and reduced postprandial glucose and insulin responses.

More important for the general consuming public, research suggests that dietary protein is more satiating, promotes less energy intake and has a higher thermogenic effect (diet-induced energy expenditure) than fat or carbohydrate, with the exception of fiber, Fitzpatrick adds.

More fundamentally, proteins provide eight essential amino acids. The world’s population is predicted to grow from its current seven billion to nine billion in 2050. The Feb. 24, 2011, issue of The Economist notes that the FAO estimates total demand for food will rise about 70 percent from 2006-2050. That along with a growing middle class in many countries will result in great demand for highly desired meat and milk-based proteins. This gives impetus to the search for less traditional sources of protein, both to satisfy basic nutritional requirements and also as a source of functional additives in value-added processed foods.

The list of protein ingredients is long. It includes commercially available protein concentrates and sometimes isolates from pea, potato, canola/rapeseed, rice and rice bran, algae (e.g., Chlorella prototheocoides), hemp, spirulina (a cyanobacteria) and cottonseed among others. They join the more traditional offerings such as from soy, wheat, dairy, gelatin and egg whites.

Other potential emerging sources of protein already consumed in parts of the world include wolffia (aka watermeal or duckweed), which contains about 40 percent protein; insects (e.g., mealworm larvae); and single cell proteins, not only from algae and bacteria but from yeasts and fungi (one example of the latter is Fusarium venenatum, currently the basis of Quorn). Ingredients with concentrated levels of proteins from pulses besides peas (e.g., fava beans, lentils) also draw interest.

While a protein may satisfy basic nutritional needs, a different set of properties makes a protein of functional value in formulations. Those properties include solubility, flavor, stability to heat and/or acid and the ability to contribute benefits such as emulsification and foaming, gelling, film-forming and viscosity.

For example, RuBisCO, an enzyme involved in the CO2 fixation cycle in all green leaves, may be the most abundant protein in the world. Its amino acid profile is said to be “in line” with FAO recommendations. Work is under way to efficiently extract and concentrate it to produce a functional ingredient with minimal flavor and color. The Dutch research company NIZO has been working with a RuBisCO protein isolate of over 95 percent solubility, high foaming capacity and stability (especially around pH 4.5) and with the ability to gel at a pH 7 and a 2 percent concentration.

In another example of finding a promising protein ingredient in a less than promising place, Mexican researchers report in the December 2013 issue of Journal of Texture Studies on the effect of a Lupinus (i.e., lupin, a pulse) and Jatropha (Jatropha curcas) protein concentrates on wheat dough texture and bread quality. Jatropha, or Barbados nut, is a plant that can grow in poor quality soil. The toxicity associated with some species of Jatropha and Lupin (as with other pulses like kidney beans) can be negated through plant selection and/or processing, such as soaking and heating.

Such new sources of proteins will be desired both as a source of nutrition and also for their useful formulation properties.

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