When Puris started selling its pea protein ingredients in 2014 for use in food and beverages, the company found its biggest obstacle wasn't in the lab, but overcoming the stigma surrounding other foods containing peas.
Early on, Puris recognized for its offering to have any chance of succeeding on the market, it would need to convince flavorists, food scientists and product marketers. It went about preparing a suite of foods — including milk, yogurt and pudding — loaded with the ingredient for them to try. The strategy worked.
“I can’t tell you how many times we brought in this idea of pea protein and how many people had that 'ugh' look on their face. And, frankly speaking, that disdain for it is rightfully so. The products on the market already weren’t very good and, let’s face it, [a lot of people don’t like peas]. … We definitely had to get past that perspective,” Tyler Lorenzen, Puris' CEO, told Food Dive.
In the food and beverage industries, where flavor and mouthfeel are coveted, Puris has taken the opposite approach in developing pea proteins: blandness. The goal, Lorenzen said, is to "not compromise" the other flavors at work that ultimately define the product, such as sweetness, savory or umami, when the pea protein is added in.
"If the pea protein doesn’t take away from the flavoring and the food experience, that’s our goal. If we can make sure it’s neutral in flavor or non-noticeable, it makes the ... culinary experience have way more upside because you don’t have a green note or an off note or some sort of flavor that is not relatable to a user. Ultimately they want that experience that they’re used to. That’s their expectation, so how do we beat and exceed that?”
Once a seemingly forgotten ingredient, the pea has moved from being a maligned item on dinner plates to a popular addition to everything from milks, yogurts and snack bars to faux meat, veggie burgers and shakes. While its growth has made it a coveted ingredient in many foods, the pea is still facing a slew of challenges that could determine whether it remains a permanent fixture on ingredient lists, or becomes the next trendy item to see its popularity fade.
Growing like a weed
Pea protein has rapidly expanded in popularity as a way to add nutrients to products; replace allergens such as wheat, dairy and egg; and respond to increased consumer demand for more plant-based products that taste, look and feel like traditional meat or dairy. The ingredient offers functional benefits and a healthier image, which comes from its high protein content. Experts also have said that pea protein can be more sustainably produced and at a fraction of the cost compared to similar ingredients such as soy.
The global market for pea protein is projected to grow to $176 million by 2025, according to Allied Market Research. This increase comes on the heels of an already meaningful expansion as launches of foods and beverages containing pea protein posted a 19% compound annual growth rate between January 2016 and December 2018, according to data from Innova Market Insights.
“I can’t tell you how many times we brought in this idea of pea protein and how many people had that 'ugh' look on their face. And, frankly speaking, that disdain for it is rightfully so. The products on the market already weren’t very good and, let’s face it, [a lot of people don’t like peas]. … We definitely had to get past that perspective."
In just the last year, several high-profile products incorporating pea proteins have been introduced, including Nestlé's plant-based Awesome Burger and Awesome Grounds under its Sweet Earth banner, and Tyson Foods' Raised & Rooted brand, which uses pea protein and other ingredients to make plant-based chicken nuggets. Food giant Danone recently incorporated pea proteins into its plant-based offerings under its Silk beverage line and Hershey's Krave announced last week it was using peas as one of the ingredients in its plant-based jerky offering.
"Pea protein has soared in popularity ... which is making it more expensive," Sweet Earth founders Kelly and Brian Swette told Food Dive in an email. "For us, this is a key benefit for working with Nestlé. They have strong vendor relationships that they value and cultivate."
Food manufacturers told Food Dive that before settling on a pea protein they evaluated several varieties to see how well they functioned — solubility, for example — as well as taste, nutrients, sustainability and whether they could get a reliable supply.
The Swettes first started looking at pea protein in their test kitchen in 2016, assessing characteristics like protein levels, sodium and GMO status before testing the protein later to evaluate flavor, aroma, ability to be processed and color variability. Some pea proteins exhibited off-flavors or aromas, while others had the "undesirable quality" of muting natural flavors they wanted to put in the product, the Swettes said. Finally, they rated the texture of burger and sausages with the pea protein, ultimately settling on one that had a meat-like bite with some chew.
In addition to its role in food, pea protein had other attributes that made it stand out for the co-founders. Sweet Earth's peas can be traced down to the U.S. locations where they are grown and processed, reducing the impact that transportation would have on air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and fossil fuel consumption. The Swettes also were attracted to the ingredient because peas are nitrogen fixers, meaning they pull the chemical element from the air and add it to the soil. This is important to farmers, and can entice more producers to grow the legume.
Dairy and plant-based giant Danone evaluated more than a dozen pea proteins before selecting ones that met its requirements, Luke Chavez, senior manager for research and innovation at Danone North America, told Food Dive in an email.
He said pea proteins can vary considerably depending on the supplier or the process used to extract them. With the ingredient being a relatively new category, Chavez said the French company is "constantly evaluating" whether other pea proteins — or another ingredient option altogether — is the best choice for the product being developed.
"We are always striving to find the most nutritious, best-tasting, sustainable protein sources," Chavez wrote. "Pea protein is always in our recipe development 'toolbox' and evaluated in products where it makes sense, but we also continue to look at protein from sources other than pea protein to provide flexibility when developing new recipes."
Puris, with its expertise working with pea proteins, starches and flours, has partnered with large CPG companies to help them develop plant-based yogurts and ready-to-drink beverages that have the same texture and nutritional profile as their dairy-based counterparts. It's also among the suppliers of pea protein to plant-based food makers such as Beyond Meat.
While Puris may operate out of the spotlight directed toward hot upstarts and CPG giants such as Nestlé or Tyson, its role in the pea protein craze hasn't gone unnoticed. It has received $100 million in funding from commodity trader Cargill, much of it earmarked toward doubling production at one of Puris' plants.
"We didn’t just start yesterday. We didn't jump into this because it’s the hot market right now," Lorenzen said. "This has been our focus and our goal since we started.”
The company's team of 250 employees, including engineers, agronomists, geneticists and plant breeders, work with hundreds of different pea genomes in an effort to develop new varieties. To be sure, how the pea protein eventually tastes or feels in a new food or beverage product is paramount, but there are a host of other factors the company needs to keep in mind during its research.
Researchers need to consider how much fiber and protein the peas have, seed quality, how quickly the plant matures, how much it yields, how well the peas hold up when transported, the color and shape of the peas, the plant's ability to resist disease, and scores of other factors. To arrive at a pea that includes many of these attributes, the company eschews controversial technologies like CRISPR or gene editing in favor of cross-breeding, where the best traits in one plant are combined with those in another.
"We didn’t just start yesterday. We didn't jump into this because it’s the hot market right now. This has been our focus and our goal since we started.”
Puris is especially cognizant of the fact that farmers — the company works with 400 of them from Montana to Georgia — need to have an incentive to grow peas instead of more widely raised crops including corn, wheat, soybeans or cotton. For Puris, that means it not only needs to provide the seeds to grow peas but ensure that once they're harvested there is a market with companies that want to buy them.
So far that doesn't appear to be an impediment. Dry pea acres totaled 900,000 in 2018, according to Agweek, compared to about 300,000 two decades earlier.
Doling out the big bucks
Ingredion started working with pea proteins in 2014, initially partnering with outside firms. But as the ingredients supplier amassed more expertise and insight into the crops and how they functioned, it brought its work in-house.
CPG companies "are looking for pea protein to go into just about every application you can possibly imagine, from cereals and snacks to beverages and meat alternatives," Julie Mann, global plant protein senior manager at Ingredion, told Food Dive. "It has become a strong emphasis for us. Internally, we've allocated resources accordingly to grow this specialty ingredient platform and support our customers’ interests."
Plant-based proteins, including peas, have been targeted by Ingredion as one of its five platforms for growth. The company plans to spend $185 million on the segment by the end of this year. It's also modifying a Nebraska facility to produce protein isolates from peas, and has entered into a joint venture agreement with Verdient Foods, a Canadian company jointly owned and operated by the filmmaker James Cameron and his family, to make pulse-based protein concentrates and flours from peas, lentils and fava beans for use in consumer and pet food applications.
Mann said pea protein is coveted by food manufacturers because it is concentrated into a dried, stable protein source that can be formulated into CPG products. With knowledge, formulation expertise and a few supporting tools from Ingredion's portfolio, it also can be transformed to take on similar characteristics of proteins found in meat, dairy or soy products.
But peas come with their own set of obstacles. From a food science perspective, pea and pulse proteins deliver nutritional and functional attributes that are different from other sources, including the whey or soy they may be intended to replace, Mann noted.
The composition of amino acids — the building blocks of organic compounds that form proteins — and the structure of the proteins themselves can affect solubility or how they perform functions such as gelling and emulsifying. This can create formulation challenges for product developers replacing existing proteins, as the substitution is typically not a one-for-one replacement, she said.
As CPGs look to reinvent or reinvigorate categories and roll out products that address consumer needs — such as lactose intolerance, desire to cut down or eliminate meat consumption or other dietary restrictions — peas have become a go-to ingredient.
"As an industry, and at Ingredion, we are constantly learning and moving the needle further with R&D to fully understand and optimally leverage pea and pulse proteins," Mann said. "The research continues to build on alternative plant sources, and they are catching up to the level that dairy and soy proteins have achieved through decades of research."
"We've done the legwork to train (consumers) over the last four years that pea protein has accumulated popularity, so it's not like it's just going to disappear. But my mind is also catered to how can we make (it) better."
Food scientist, The Good Food Institute
As pea protein has become a household ingredient with consumers and food manufacturers seemingly overnight, there are further opportunities for improvements that could make it even more attractive in additional applications.
MJ Kinney, a food scientist with The Good Food Institute, a nonprofit that promotes plant-based alternatives, said researchers could further minimize the flavor and aroma of the pea and incorporate valued-added attributes, like increasing its ability to absorb water or add viscosity.
Kinney told Food Dive more needs to be done to increase the portion of the pea protein that is actually protein. This would create an incentive for more companies to switch to pea from soy, which naturally has more protein. At the same time, developing uses in human food for the starches and fibers generated when protein is extracted from peas would help increase its sustainability halo while making it more economically attractive for manufacturers to incorporate into food and beverages.
"We've done the legwork to train (consumers) over the last four years that pea protein has accumulated popularity, so it's not like it's just going to disappear," Kinney said. "But my mind is also catered to how can we make (it) better."