Taking A Deeper Dive into Some Truly Alternative Proteins

Jan. 5, 2021
The interest in non-animal sources of protein leads to fledgling developments in hemp, duckweed, even insects.

There are alternative proteins, and then there are alternative proteins. Consumers have no trouble accepting a burger made of soy, pea or wheat proteins. What if the main ingredient were hemp, or crickets, or duckweed?

Plant-based "meats" have become popular items with consumers. Just as processors and suppliers moved from textured soy protein to a growing array of other but familiar plant-based proteins (mung, seeds, nuts), some adventurous product developers and ingredient suppliers are looking beyond these now "traditional" sources of protein.

“We are long overdue for a change to outdated meat alternatives such as soy, pea and wheat, whose production models haven’t improved since the 1970s,” says Josef Zehnder, former executive of Australia’s Byron Bay Cookie Co. and now founder of Zehnder Technologies in the UK … which offers one of these novel alternatives, made from sunflower.

“Interestingly, it’s not the vegetarian or vegan market looking for new answers," he continues. "Recent statistics show the majority of consumers looking for a drastic change are Generation-X meat-eaters with serious concerns around health and the environment."

Zehnder Technologies is already producing and exporting textured vegetable protein (TVP) made from sunflower. “Our TVP products are firmer and more nutritious than most already in the market and have little to no difference in taste or texture bite than regular meat foodstuffs."

While most suppliers of alt proteins disparage the raising and slaughter of animals, Zehnder takes aim at soy farming. "The production of soy is extremely damaging to the environment, using up large areas of land mass and water, resulting in deforestation and existing on the market as a highly refined product," he continues. Zehnder's TVP "is the first real innovation in the meat substitute market since it began and provides a better outcome for the consumer and the planet.”

The company’s TVP product has been in the European market for over six months with production expected to reach 120 tonnes a month early this year.

Plant proteins can be found in the forms of seeds, powder, flour and protein isolates. The different types of plant protein sources and their forms have different applications in foods – flours in baked goods and extruded snacks, powders in sport nutrition products and others can even make meat analogues or extenders. All can up the protein content of the finished product.

Another UK company, Moolec Science, produces bovine chymosin, normally a dairy-based functional protein, in safflower. It could be used to make dairy-free cheese.

“We use plants as bioreactors,” says Martín Salinas, co-founder and chief technology officer of Moolec. “Our experience and scientific background made us conclude that we could take advantage of nature's biological systems to design a resource-efficient alternative protein production platform.”

Moolec is at the forefront of a movement called molecular farming – "a technology that has not yet been fully explored in the alternative proteins landscape," said the other co-founder Henk Hoogenkamp Jr. That first product is being commercialized under the SPC brand.

The company is consolidating different research lines to produce unique blends of highly functional proteins from bovine and porcine origins in protein-rich crops such as soybeans and peas, "creating a new generation of meat analogues."

"We promote a technology that will have the cost structure of plant-based solutions with the organoleptic properties and functionality of cell-based platforms, an approach at least 10 times more cost effective than leading alternatives” states Gastón Paladini, CEO and another co-founder.


We first wrote about hemp in 2006, shortly after that year's Natural Products Expo West – a natural place to encounter the marijuana-related product. Hemp has had a growing fan base for a few years but, even though it shares only the slimmest connection to its psychotropic cousin, it's gotten a boost from the legalization of marijuana in a dozen or so states. The last Natural Products Expo East, in September 2019, had a separate Hemp Pavilion with some 50 exhibitors.

Hemp is about 50 percent fat by weight, but with a higher percentage of omega-3 fatty acids to the less desirable omega-6 ones—plus a good portion of healthy monounsaturated fatty acids and gamma-linoleic acid. As a bonus, you get an impressive fatty acid profile.

Hemp seeds are about 31 percent protein by weight, making them richer than sunflower or any of the commonly used oil seeds. They have an essential amino-acid profile second only to soybeans as a complete vegetable protein. That makes hemp a viable protein supplement to a vegetarian diet, where variety in protein sources often can use a boost.

Hemp seeds are rich in the fat-soluble vitamins D and E, too, and contain generous amounts of B vitamins. As for minerals, zinc, magnesium, iron, copper and manganese are there, in addition to calcium.

Products with hemp as a headline call-out are mostly relegated to specialty foods and protein mixes. But a handful of "traditional" products use it. Mikey's introduced a three-item line of tortillas this past November, one of them being Golden Turmeric with hemp protein. Earlier in the year, Unite Food debuted a trio of nutrition bars, all of them relying on hemp protein. Caputo Cheese created the Elevated Cow brand of cannabidiol (non-hallucinogenic CBD) -infused cheeses using organic hemp.

Aquatic alternatives

Aquatic plants are gaining interest from more than just people with aquariums. Several varieties of seaweed are high in protein and show potential for providing more and different micronutrients with even less of an environmental footprint.

Lemnoideae is the scientific name for a family of plants that grow atop still water, like that in lakes or ponds – duckweed or water lentils are the more familiar names. The free-floating, seed-bearing plants are very small but grow in dense colonies in undisturbed water. Fresh or dried, they've been used in Chinese herbal medicine.

The Lemnoideae family is the source of Lentein powder made by Parabel USA, a Vero Beach, Fla., maker of aquatic food ingredients. Lentein contains 45 percent crude protein and high levels of all the essential amino acids and branched chain amino acids associated with muscle building. It boasts a Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score of a perfect 1.0, which puts it on a par with soy and eggs.

"Rich in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and micronutrients, water lentils have been described as the world’s most complete food source," Parabel says on its website. "We are continuously developing new products from water lentils with various protein densities and functionalities, green and neutral-colored, including dairy alternative solutions."

Parabel was launched at the 2016 IFT Food Expo and still is in the developmental stage, but its Lentein powder has been used in a couple of dry blends for protein shakes. A more refined (70-75% protein) powder will be released this year, and Parabel hopes food & beverage applications will follow.

Edible seaweed has long been consumed along coastal areas and has been a staple in Asian diets – especially as a wrap for sushi. Its briny, umami properties enhance the flavors of many foods. But it's also a good source of protein.

One particular variety, red palmaria palmata (commonly called dulse or sea lettuce flakes), has protein content that varies from 9 to 25 percent. Resembling red leafy lettuce, dulse also is a good source of fiber, healthy fatty acids and antioxidants, and has important amino acids such as leucine, valine and methionine.

Considered a superfood by some researchers, algae might be one of the world's most overlooked foods. Algae convert energy from the sun into sugars and proteins, absorbing and converting carbon dioxide in the process and expelling oxygen. Several food ingredient providers are offering whole algae and microalgae, which are full of fiber and healthy lipids and micronutrients.

While those are macroalgae and have been food sources for centuries, microalgae is still developing as a food source. Microalgae is 50-60 percent protein. Depending upon the strain, nutrients can include vitamins A, B, C and E, as well as minerals, fat and fiber.

While these ingredients have yet to go completely mainstream at retail, they're finding a place in specialty foods, says the Arizona Center for Algae Technology and Innovation. Spirulina, for one, is being used in food colors as a replacement for artificial dyes and in smoothies and juices, like Naked's popular Green Machine. Protein comprises about 60-70 percent of spirulina's dry weight.

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"Edible insects have always been a part of human diets, but in some societies there is a degree of distaste for their consumption," begins a 2013 report on the subject from the United Nations' Food and Agricultural Organization. The photo collage on the cover shows women selling caterpillars in Central African Republic, crickets atop Belgian chocolates, a black soldier fly, Coleoptera and palm weevil larvae.

"Although the majority of edible insects are gathered from forest habitats, innovation in mass-rearing systems has begun in many countries," the report continues. "Insects offer a significant opportunity to merge traditional knowledge and modern science in both developed and developing countries."

Aspire Food Group was inspired by that report to apply "mass-rearing systems" to develop insect-based protein, particularly palm weevil larvae and crickets, to feed a fast-growing world.

"From grasshoppers and ants in Mexico to fried locusts in Thailand, caterpillars in Africa and waterbugs in China, insects are a normal part of the food culture in many countries," the company says.

"We are starting to see an increase of insect consumption in the western world. From cricket flour in consumer packaged goods to whole insects showing up on restaurant menus, people are rapidly embracing the idea of this ancient practice having a place at the modern table."

While most consumer may not be ready to order bugs off the menu, "We believe insects are the protein of the future, and that technology has the power to bring this extraordinary tradition to the world," the company statement continues. The company uses what it calls "precision farming" to raise insects that have a similar protein quality to meat and an environmental footprint closer to plants.

Aspire is raising food-grade crickets on a commercial scale in Texas. In Ghana, the company farms palm weevil larvae and runs a program that empowers peri-rural farmers to raise palm weevils locally.

At first, Exo was an Aspire customer, using the latter's cricket powder to make protein bars. In 2018, Aspire Food Group acquired the bar-maker, which continues to make and sell Cricket Energy Bars in banana bread, blueberry muffin, PB&J and three chocolate-based ones, as well as packets of cricket powder.

EntoVida sells cricket powder as a prebiotic. "Its taste may be unnoticeable," the company claims. "When you do taste cricket powder, it’s an earthy umami flavor that few people dislike."

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