- Mung bean, chickpea, coconut and seaweed are the plant-based proteins that are best positioned to displace the current protein options, according to research by FutureBridge.
- Mung beans are ideal to mimic eggs, with many of the same amino acids and emulsification properties. Chickpeas continue to retain a top spot due to higher digestibility levels of their lysine and proline proteins, compared to yellow peas. Coconuts provide protein that can be used in plant-based dairy, particularly cheese. Seaweed provides clean-label umami that can be used in the alternative seafood segment.
- The research firm said consumer desire for healthier and more sustainable plant-based diets will drive manufacturers to look beyond wheat, soy and pea proteins in search of a more diverse menu of crops.
The plant-based segment is primed for continued growth. A recent study from DuPont Nutrition & Health found 52% of U.S. consumers are eating more plant-based foods and they believe it makes them feel healthier. In parallel, growth of plant-based protein and meat alternatives is projected to increase from $4.6 billion in 2018 to a whopping $85 billion in 2030, according to investment firm UBS.
However, not all plant-based proteins are created equal. While wheat, soy and pea reign supreme today, there is a myriad of other options available to manufacturers, and all with unique sets of characteristics and advantages. Alternative protein sources find themselves saddled with the task of imparting flavor, texture and protein content, all while offering sustainable alternatives to animal-based sources. Taste, nutritional profile, clean-label ingredients, protein content and a limited variety of items are barriers that continue to present a challenge for purveyors of plant-based foods seeking wider adoption of their products, according to a white paper by Kerry.
The four sources of plant protein FutureBridge highlighted are options that are just beginning to grab a foothold in the market and make waves. However, they could overtake today’s front runners if they can market their sustainability and flexible functionality for use in innovative product formulations.
Chickpeas are perhaps the most widely known as they offer a logical next step from pea protein, an ingredient in which production is struggling to keep up with market demand. Chickpea isolate offers a similar taste, mouthfeel and nutritional profile as cow's milk and yogurt. Ingredient companies including ChickP and InnovoPro have begun producing the isolate for the commercial manufacturing of dairy and meat products.
In addition to animal products, chickpeas are popular in cereal-based items. Banza, which uses the legume in its pasta, recently raised $20 million and is quickly growing in popularity.
Seaweed is also making waves. It has progressively lost its ick factor and is now sought after for its natural umami flavor. Not only does it improve taste, but seaweed has many nutritional benefits. These include supporting cognitive health, the nervous system, healthy skin, boosting energy and metabolism, and helping children's development.
This sustainable plant-based source of protein has shown up in snacks, jerky, pasta, vegetarian caviar and even edible food wrappers. It is also a principal ingredient in vegetarian seafood products from Good Catch, which raised $32 million in January from big name funders, including Lightlife parent company Greenleaf Foods and General Mills venture arm 301 Inc.
Coconut is another option making an appearance in beverages, salad dressings, soups, curries, milkshakes and jam, Dairy Reporter said. It has also long been a component of Asian cuisine with a distinct, creamy taste that can be overpowering. In addition to an unmistakable taste profile, the tropical nut comes with sustainability questions. Production areas can be affected by drought and typhoons, so the stability of the commodity is an important consideration for suppliers and manufacturers.
Mung beans are a lesser-known ingredient, but they are starting to make appearances in CPG products. Just Egg, the plant-based egg substitute made by Just, has mung bean as its main ingredient. Just Egg appears both in grocery stores and at food service establishments, and chefs have worked to use the liquid version as an egg substitute in other dishes.
While mung bean has potential, it also could pose problems for those who have soy allergies — one of the top eight allergens. The bean is a cousin of soy and although those who are allergic to soy may not react to mung beans, the New York Allergy & Sinus Centers recommends avoiding their consumption.
While it is difficult to say which protein source will come out on top due to the differing nature of their applications, chickpea and seaweed are top contenders due to their sustainability and versatility. These ingredients have already proven that they are not limited to the plant-based meat and dairy segment, which represents only a portion of the plant-based market.
Pasta and chips have proven to be an area where demand for gluten-free options and high protein content has seen chickpeas step in with popular formulations. Going forward, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the legume make its way into breads and breakfast cereals to offer better-for-you alternatives to staple pantry items.
Seaweed is naturally aligned with vegan versions of seafood products, but it has also made a splash in bone broth and noodles. In the future, this ingredient is positioned for use in supplements and snacks to provide a green superfood boost to products in need of a health halo.
Just Egg continues to be a category leader in vegan egg substitutes at grocery stores, with 36% velocity growth at U.S. grocery stores in the United States in the first quarter of 2020 compared to the last three months of 2019, according to IRI statistics the company sent to Food Dive. The company has sold the equivalent of 30 million eggs worldwide, and recently entered into partnerships to expand the product to Asia.