Comparing Plant-Based Proteins

PDCAAS, functionality, sustainability are among the variables driving applications.

By Carolyn Schierhorn, Contributing Editor

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Touted as a top trend for 2019 by a number of market research firms and food and beverage organizations, plant-based proteins continue to gain momentum in the U.S., with many large corporations making significant investments in this realm.

Ingredion (, Westchester, Ill., for one, announced in December 2018 it is investing a combined $140 million to further position the company as a supplier of a broad range of plant protein solutions.

“We’ve identified plant-based proteins as a high-growth, high-value market opportunity that is on-trend with consumers’ desire to find sustainable and good-tasting alternatives to animal-based proteins,” James Zallie, Ingredion’s president/CEO, said in a statement at the time.

University-based food science researchers also are focusing more on plant proteins. In late November, the new Plant Protein Innovation Center (PPIC) ( at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul held its inaugural meeting. PPIC will take an interdisciplinary approach, bringing together food and agricultural scientists from industry, academia and the public sphere as well as other stakeholders “to produce and study nutritious and functional plant protein ingredients for food applications,” as a brochure on PPIC’s website explains.

“There has been quite an increase in demand for plant protein from consumers, who are seeking alternatives to meat for many reasons,” notes B. Pam Ismail, PPIC’s director and an associate professor of food science and nutrition at the University of Minnesota. “Consumers are seeking protein sources that have health and environmental benefits, such as reducing greenhouse gases and improving land management.” Ismail’s goal is for PPIC to become an international research center.

Although soy has been the leading plant-based protein for decades — a complete protein with a Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score (PDCAAS) of .99 (1.0 being the highest) — the clean label movement has shifted attention to other plant protein sources due to concern that soybeans are often genetically modified. Soy is also among the “Big 8” allergens in the U.S.

While pea protein is the main alternative to soy at present, other pulse proteins are gaining ground, such as chickpeas, fava beans and lentils. Additional popular plant protein sources include nut flours, especially almond flour; cereal grain proteins such as oats and teff; pseudocereal grains like amaranth and the ever-popular complete protein quinoa; and seeds such as chia and flaxseed.

Soy as a template

Benefiting from years of research and production, “Soy protein is the most functional plant protein in the market,” Ismail says. Not only is it a complete protein, soy is also very versatile and efficient, used in everything from Silk to Tofurkey.

“When soy protein was first introduced in the market, it had a stronger flavor,” Ismail notes “But over the years, processing technologies have been developed to ensure that soy is bland-tasting and, therefore, more adaptable.” PPIC aims to leverage what the industry has learned from soy and apply this knowledge and experience to other plant protein sources.

“With soy, we know, 'here is a product that works,' ” agrees M.J. Kinney, a Minneapolis-based food scientist with the Good Food Institute (, Washington, D.C. “We understand its functionality to a greater extent than any other plant protein out there. So, soy can be a template for plant proteins to come.”

Pulses — rising stars

Considered to be clean label and allergen-free, pea protein’s star continues to rise. Compared to soy, pea protein has a lower PDCAAS of approximately .82. What’s more, in a typical pea protein isolate, roughly 80 percent of the of ingredient is protein compared to approximately 90 percent for soy isolates, according to Kinney.

To attain 10g of complete protein in a product, just over 15g of pea protein isolate would be needed, she explains, noting that she arrived at that number by dividing 10 by .80 (protein percentage) and then by .82 (PDCAAS).

One challenge with pea protein and other new plant proteins is the early dominance of certain manufacturers that develop proprietary formulations, Kinney observes. “There is a lack of a standard for processing,” she says, noting that collaborative industry research needs to be done to more fully understand the manufacturing processes that affect a plant protein’s functional properties.

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