As a leader in the plant-based meat category, Beyond Meat can be selective about the kinds of proteins it includes in its products.
Functionality, taste, nutrition and sustainability all factor into the choices the company makes, said Chief Innovation Officer Dariush Ajami. Beyond Meat has used fava bean protein as a component of Beyond Sausage since 2018. When it came to creating Beyond Chicken, Ajami said fava bean was the obvious choice as the product’s base protein.
"We choose fava for poultry because of its functionality to create a texture that has similar bite as a cooked chicken," Ajami said, adding that its color is similar and its water-holding capacity provides a juicier texture.
The specific functionality and nutritional aspects of fava bean, Ajami said, make it work well in plant-based meat. But manufacturers are also putting protein from the pulses in plant-based dairy products, as well as using them as ingredients in gluten-free bakery items. And ingredients makers are investing in new facilities and research to catapult fava beans from an obscure form of plant protein to a much more common option.
"In general, the food industry welcomes new alternatives because with plant proteins, you can create other stuff and everything has its unique properties," said Gijs van Elst, director of health ingredients at global plant-based ingredient company Meelunie. "We feel and we know and we see that it has a couple of unique properties, and it's up to the food industry to try and see what you can develop."
Meelunie’s van Elst said that fava is a plentiful protein source and a good fit for today’s products. While it’s been eaten for centuries, 95% of all that is cultivated today goes straight to animal feed. It hasn’t really been seen as a protein source for humans in recent years because the beans can have a bitter taste.
Meelunie is working to change the perception and use of fava bean ingredients. The company is building a large processing facility focused on fava in Denmark. Slated to open in October, the facility will have cutting-edge equipment from processing technology company SiccaDania that uses a methodology based on 17 years of research done at the University of Copenhagen. Van Elst is leading the project for the company.
He said Meelunie’s interest in fava came from the desire to find the next big thing in plant-based protein. Soy has always been a huge crop and popular protein, and van Elst said it didn’t make sense for Meelunie to try to develop new technology or facilities to take a piece of that market. Pea protein is also becoming more popular, but many large ingredient providers already specialize in that crop.
Meelunie wanted to focus on something currently seen as more niche, but with easy cultivation and functionality. Fava could be considered a game changer in terms of plant-based protein — and could even be used instead of soy or pea, van Elst said. For much of the world, fava could be a more sustainable alternative to soy, which is only grown in South America and some parts of the United States, meaning it can travel far to get to consumers.
Roquette, known as a global leader in pea protein, has also gotten into the fava bean business. Its interest began about five years ago, as the company was investigating new plant-based protein sources, said Bruno Géhin, the company’s global new protein projects leader. In 2019, Roquette launched its Nutralys line of textured proteins, which feature ingredients made from peas and fava beans.
Géhin said there is a lot that fava can do as a food ingredient.
"There is a good potential because of the protein content, because it can be grown in several areas all over the world" — although not hot regions, he said. "And it is potentially very easy to be used in formulations, especially the product we offer, which is textured and gives good possibilities in terms of sensory development."
"The food industry welcomes new alternatives because with plant proteins, you can create other stuff and everything has its unique properties. ...It's up to the food industry to try and see what you can develop."
Gijs van Elst
Director of health ingredients, Meelunie
The bean’s nutritional profile also meets many manufacturer and consumer needs, Géhin said. The protein is easily digestible, low in fat and sodium, and has a good amino acid composition.
When extruded, fava bean protein has a bit of extra firmness — good for enhancing textures of plant-based meat analogs, van Elst said. Meelunie is also working on a soluble fava protein isolate that could be used to enhance protein in beverages without bulking them up.
Géhin was part of the Roquette team that launched pea protein 15 years ago. He remembers how customers thought it was an odd ingredient, and many ignored it. Roquette had to spend time demonstrating the utility of pea protein and convincing manufacturers that it was a worthy addition to their products. Now it’s ubiquitous.
"In fava, we are approximately in the same position," he said. "There is a lot of interest, I can say, but there is still a need to inform, to teach, to explain what it is."
While most Western cultures don’t regularly consume fava beans, the legumes are grown in small amounts in many places around the world. Fava beans can be cultivated in a wide variety of places, but van Elst said they have been especially successful in mild climates — including the Nordic and Baltic regions in Europe and in Canada.
Fava beans are seen as good for the environment as well. Van Elst said they are considered “nitrogen-binding crops,” capable of pulling nitrogen from the air and depositing it into the soil. This nitrogen enriches soil, making fava a good rotational crop to help farmers of other crops improve their yields.
Meelunie's new facility will be located near fava-producing land, according to the company, giving it a local supply from which it can produce ingredients. Through its processing, Meelunie is also planning to use not just the protein, but also the bean’s starch and fiber, van Elst said.
Many functions, but an undeveloped supply chain
Meelunie’s new facility will use the nearly two decades old research project from the University of Copenhagen, which aims to eliminate fava beans’ bitter taste through processing, van Elst said. The fava bean protein Meelunie produces is rather neutral in taste and color, he said.
"Especially if a protein isolate is neutral in color, odor, taste, then it basically is a great [addition to a] toolbox for food formulators to create all kinds of different food products, whether they would like to mimic the animal equivalent or something totally new," van Elst said. "Basically, you can say the more bland it is, the better."
Fava bean is already present in smaller amounts in several plant-based products, van Elst said. Its main role is to provide nutritional qualities, like adding fiber or bulk to plant-based beverages or cheeses. With a more neutral taste, van Elst said, it could do more.
Meelunie is currently making samples available to manufacturers, and van Elst said it is unable to keep up with demand. For those who have been able to get some, the response has been positive, he said.
To date, van Elst said, the greatest interest in fava is from what he called the “old protein industry” — companies that make plant-based meat and cheeses, as well as those looking for an egg replacer and in gluten-free bakery.
Meelunie’s factory will be able to process up to 25,000 tons of fava beans a year in its first phase, van Elst said, and can be upgraded to double or triple capacity as demand rises.
Roquette is also working to improve its fava bean ingredients. Géhin said the company is doing R&D work with fava beans at its extrusion plant in the Netherlands and at the company’s new plant protein center of expertise in France.
In 2020, Roquette entered a partnership with Prairie Fava and Protein Industries Canada for a collaborative research and development project to address nutritional and processing challenges for peas and fava beans in Canada. The joint project, in which the three entities have invested $19.2 million, aims to develop and strengthen the value chain for the pulse crops, as well as work on pea-fava blend finished products.
"Together with them, we are gaining experience and knowledge of the Canadian fava bean," Géhin said.
"If a protein isolate is neutral in color, odor, taste, then it basically is a great [addition to a] toolbox for food formulators to create all kinds of different food products, whether they would like to mimic the animal equivalent or something totally new. Basically, you can say the more bland it is, the better."
Gijs van Elst
Director of health ingredients, Meelunie
While fava bean has great potential and manufacturers are interested in the protein, Géhin said there is a problem of access. Since the crop is seldom grown for human consumption, available fava beans might not meet human standards in terms of taste, color and function. The beans also haven’t had much of a supply chain for human ingredients, meaning new methods of cultivating, harvesting, processing and transporting the pulses may be needed.
And while fava beans can grow in many places, they have not yet been cultivated at the scale needed to be a widely used ingredient — or at a level at which prices are relatively stable. Géhin pointed out that plant proteins that are more common ingredients — including rice, soy and wheat — are grown on hundreds millions of acres around the world, with well-put-together supply chains. According to statistics from the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization, about 6.6 million acres of fava beans were harvested worldwide in 2020.
"We have to give them efficient ingredients, but also to demonstrate an efficient supply chain," Géhin said.