In brief

Plant proteins are held back by harsh processing techniques and less desirable material properties, but developments in food technology aim to boost the way plant-based ingredients are created and consumed.

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Getting plant proteins to take root

19 Apr 2022

New technologies that turn plant proteins into better ingredients and food items could help feed the growing human population with less impact on natural resources.

How do you feed over nine billion people? According to a population projection by the United Nations, we will need an answer to this question by 2050. With estimates that the demand for food in 2050 will be 60 percent higher than it is today, the problem of food security becomes even more complicated when we consider the environmental cost of conventional protein production methods such as fishing and raising livestock.

One promising solution to the protein problem is to source it from crops. Because plants require less land, water and other resources than livestock, plant proteins may be a promising sustainable food source. However, plant protein technology is still developing, and much more research is needed before crops can replace animals as a reliable source of protein.

“Most importantly, these novel plant-based foods must be safe for consumption and provide adequate nutrition to support growth and health,” explained Christiani Jeyakumar Henry, Deputy Executive Director at A*STAR’s Singapore Institute of Food and Biotechnology Innovation (SIFBI) and Director at the Clinical Nutrition Research Centre (CNRC).

In that vein, Henry and his colleagues reviewed the pressing problems and the most promising developments in plant protein research, with a focus on innovative technologies that can be easily adopted.

“To ensure plant proteins provide optimal functionality and nutrition, we must understand the current gaps in plant protein ingredient development and how we can bridge them with existing technologies or new solutions,” added lead author Shaun Sim, a Senior Research Fellow at SIFBI.

For instance, one crucial roadblock plant proteins face is that they are much harder to extract, often requiring harsh processing techniques that may damage the extracted proteins. In their review, the authors highlighted in-house solutions that can solve this dilemma by modifying the structures of these damaged proteins to improve their functionality.

One such solution aims to make better yoghurt from plant proteins. Unlike dairy, plant-based milks don’t ferment well due to their lower sugar and protein content. As a result, most plant-based yoghurts are too starchy or watery, lacking the more desirable smooth and creamy texture of dairy yoghurts.

As an alternative to fermentation, the authors described the use of high-pressure processing, which enables controlled protein unfolding and aggregation for better gel formation. The amount and duration of pressure applied can also be fine-tuned to tailor the consistency of the final product. Such emerging technologies not only turn plant proteins into better ingredients, but also better food items with more appealing taste, texture and nutrient profiles.

“With increasing consumer demands for other food formats such as meat cuts and fish fillets, we are working hard to produce the next generation of healthier alternative protein foods,” said Henry and Sim.

The A*STAR-affiliated researchers contributing to this research are from the Singapore Institute of Food and Biotechnology Innovation (SIFBI) and the Clinical Nutrition Research Centre (CNRC).

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Sim, S.Y.J., SRV, A., Chiang, J.H., Henry, C.J. Plant Proteins for Future Foods: A Roadmap, Foods 10:1967 (2021) | article

About the Researchers

Christiani Jeyakumar Henry is a Senior Advisor at A*STAR. He obtained a PhD degree in nutrition from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Henry’s research focuses on translating nutrition research into food applications. In 2010, he was awarded the British Nutrition Foundation Prize for his outstanding contributions to nutrition, and in 2019, he was awarded the Kellogg’s International award for food research that led to a global impact.
Shaun Sim is a Senior Research Fellow at A*STAR’s Clinical Nutrition Research Centre (CNRC). He earned his PhD in Food Engineering at Cornell University and his B.A. (Hons.) in Chemistry from the University of Cambridge on the A*STAR National Science Scholarship. Sim’s research focuses on developing plant-based proteins and fats for future foods and to improve human health.

This article was made for A*STAR Research by Wildtype Media Group