Even Old-Fashioned Proteins Have More Functional Futures

While proteins’ health benefits stimulate consumer interest, functionality drives usage as well.

By Claudia O’Donnell, Contributing Editor

Proteins continue to attract consumers. “Our 2015 EcoFocus Trends Study investigated interests of 'Healthy Beverage Shoppers,'” said Linda Gilbert, founder and CEO of EcoFocus Worldwide LLC. “Of these Healthy Beverage Shoppers, 69 percent say 'increased protein' is extremely or very important to them in a beverage.”

Some 46 percent of all grocery shoppers fall into this group and are defined as always or often choosing beverages for health reasons. They have significant spending power with 71 percent living in households earning more than $50,000 annually, explains Gilbert.

EcoFocus’ results are in harmony with IFIC Foundation’s Food and Health Survey 2015, which asked: “Thinking back about the past 12 months, when making decisions about buying packaged food or beverages, have you ever considered whether or not they contain the following…?" Some 62 percent responded “yes” to proteins. Consumers that were “women,” “younger,” of “higher income” and/or “in better health” were more likely to agree.

While consumers are attracted to protein’s health benefits, those formulating foods, beverages and nutritional products must consider other properties beyond nutrition -- such as taste, texture and physiochemical properties.

Global Food Forums asked those with R&D titles at its 2015 seminar on proteins “What are the [three] most important characteristics of a protein ingredient in order to be considered for use?” Topping the list was “functionality (physiochemical properties),” checked off by 67 percent of respondents; followed by “price per pound” and “nutritional aspects.” (“Nutritional aspects” narrowly edged out “functionality” in the 2014 survey.)

Functions such as the ability to gel and develop structure in a food, increase product viscosity, emulsify, foam, brown (by interacting with reducing sugars) and interact with other food components make proteins crucial ingredients in applications. But they also may produce negative results, such as shortening shelf lives in others.

A protein's usefulness expands as it is offered in more formats. For example, soybeans are the global market leader — by far — for plant-based proteins. One of many reasons for their broad use in the food industry has been the development of specialized ingredients such as 90-plus percent soy protein isolates to an array of colored, flavored, fortified and extruded textured meat analogs. As other plant proteins are commercialized, specialized forms will be developed as well.

In a presentation at a 2015 conference, Mian Riaz of the Food Protein R&D Center at Texas A&M University pointed out that extruded wheat, peanut, chickpea, lentil and green and yellow pea proteins are also available.

Understanding the nature of proteins increases the likelihood they will be successfully used to solve specific formulation problems. Susan Larson, associate researcher at the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research, points out that dairy proteins can broadly be divided into caseins and whey. They are differentiated by five important properties: structure, amino acid composition, physical state, solubility and heat stability. Awareness of these differences improves the probability that the most optimal protein is chosen.

For example, while whey proteins are soluble at 4.6 pH, caseins are not -- an important consideration for acidic beverages. On the other hand, caseins are very heat stable while proteins are more easily denatured by heat treatments.

As always, ingredient technology advances are being made. A variety of approaches to increase the heat stability of whey proteins are being investigated. They include enzyme crosslinking, conjugation with carbohydrates and protein encapsulation among others. (For more information, search for “heat stability” at USDEC’s website).

As new proteins from duckweed, insects, coconuts and many other sources are commercialized, a sign of their march into broader use in the mainstream food industry will be the development of further value added versions. Cricket protein isolates anyone?

Claudia O’Donnell is co-owner of Global Food Forums Inc. (www.globalfoodforums.com).

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