Notable efforts at producing plant-derived meat substitutes and analogs abound. And sports and energy food and beverage designers tapped into the value of protein for active bodies years ago. Further, with a major shift under way to reduce reliance on meat as a primary daily source of protein, ingredient technologists are engaged in providing high-value, technologically advanced protein alternatives.

“Today, six in ten of the US population 15-70 years old are cutting back on meat-based products and ingredients, while an additional 17% claim to have totally or largely eliminated them from their diets,” says Steven Walton, general manager at the research group HealthFocus International. “These new data from the just completed ‘HealthFocus U.S.’ consumer study identifies, sizes, and profiles the growing non-meat protein alternative market with insights for action.”

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Walton adds that, “all evidence suggests the move to a more plant-focused diet is a long-term lifestyle decision that continues to grow over time.” He also points out that the consumer move toward more plant-based eating is “broad across demographic groups, categories and need areas.”

Data from global research group Innova Market Insights revealed a 60% rise in global food and beverage launches using a vegetarian claim between 2011 and 2015. According to the Innova report, “launches featuring the term ‘vegan’ also rose to account for 4.3% of total introductions in 2015, up from 2.8% in 2014 and just 1.5% in 2012.”

“This trend represents a growing opportunity for high-quality meat alternatives, which is also being reflected in the 24% average annual growth in global meat substitute launches recorded between 2011 and 2015,” reports Lu Ann Williams, director of innovation for Innova.

Innova also reported that the trend toward “flexitarian, vegetarian and vegan diets” is accelerating the “move toward the use of plant-based proteins as meat substitutes.” Innova noted that, while the majority of meat substitutes still rely on soy or wheat protein, products are emerging as well with alternative proteins.

“Paradoxically, another key area of opportunity in meat substitutes may be in targeting meat eaters as much as vegetarians,” wrote Williams. “While many vegetarians may opt for a diet rich in vegetables and beans, meat eaters may turn to meat substitutes if the product is right. Instead of just finding alternatives, technological solutions also need to be focusing on the development of meat substitutes closely mimicking the taste and texture of meat products.”

Filling a New Need

Leading the drive to investigate and experiment with new proteins is this demand for vegetarian versions of animal and animal-derived food products. The past few years have seen both sales and varieties of meat, poultry and seafood
analogs grow exponentially. (See “Plant Proteins and Other Fake-Outs,” More importantly, the technology used to create those analogs has raised them to a level of quality that allows some of them to pass a blind taste and texture test.

Many of Garden Protein International Inc.’s products do an exemplary job of fooling the palate. Other contenders include products from Kellogg Co.’s Morningstar Farms, and offerings from relative newcomer Beyond Meat LLC. And soon-to-launch Impossible Foods promises to throw down the gauntlet with a next-generation plantburger.

Impossible Foods’ R&D team used a combination of proteins from legumes, grains, and vegetables, plus fruits and nuts for textures and flavor. But they didn’t stop there: they also added some beet for color and that red-blooded juiciness that consumers expect from an all-American hamburger.

Novel proteins are being derived from a variety of sources, including plants, algae, insects, synthetic biology, and even agricultural and food waste. Certain food science advancements are required for food processors to participate in such a transformational change. The technology and resulting ingredients need to remain simple, sustainable, easily transferable, and inexpensive.

To assuage increasingly “green” consumers, new protein sources also must leave a low carbon footprint. Within the ecology issue, concerns over sufficient protein supply to meet the demands of the burgeoning world population is one of the biggest influences.

Confounding the drive for new protein sources is the fact that, traditionally, rising prosperity further increases the demand for protein on a per-capita basis. The environmental concerns of resource utilization and other sustainability factors as a priority are casting a shadow over conventional protein sources, such as beef, pork, and poultry. All these factors rely heavily on resource consumption throughout their production value chains.

From the Water

Seaweed, with centuries of history in Asian cuisine, is gaining popularity in the West as a new and healthy source of protein. Seaweed and its relatives get extra notice for being a sustainable trove of minerals and vitamins. The protein composition and the primary sequences of seaweed proteins differ from those of land proteins.

Some research indicates that seaweed proteins might even be better suited for human consumption than animal protein sources as far as bioavailability and digestibility are concerned. Seaweeds contain all essential amino acids, and brown seaweed (Himanthalia elongate, for example) also contains aspartic and glutamic acid in levels that contribute to a moist meaty taste and mouthfeel.

The proteins in seaweed have increased net charges that are generally alkaline, allowing the proteins to diffuse more rapidly to the air-water interface and encapsulate air particles to form foam. This can provide greater flexibility for formulations such as cake and muffin batters. These proteins also typically have  enhanced foaming capacity.

This evens out the distribution of fine air cells in a batter to increase consumers’ perception of smoothness and lightness. Such functionality further allows for the volatilization of flavors to add to the palatability of light cakes, or for dense emulsions as well.

Both the water- and oil-holding capacity of brown seaweed, along with the aforementioned foaming and emulsifying properties, make it particularly suitable for of gluten-free cakes and bread. In these formulations, it can help make up for the lack of a gluten network, holding the water and providing thickening and viscosity. In custard and pudding formulations, it can perform these functions without causing dissolution.

Interactions of water and oil with proteins are important for food formulators because of the effects on the flavor and texture of foods. A common complaint about high-protein foods (such as sports and energy nutrition or meal replacement bars) is their tendency to dry out and become brittle during storage.

The water-holding ability of seaweeds allows a high-protein formulation to continue its association with water even under water-limiting conditions, helping to maintain pliability and moistness. These favorable qualities are associated with fresh-packed bakery goods that require a moist mouth feel to recreate freshly baked sensations.

Seaweed’s high oil-holding capacity helps retain flavor and improve the palatability of products. Egg replacers in cake batters, mayonnaise and salad dressings also can benefit from using seaweed-derived proteins. So, too, can those formulations that rely on protein-based meat replacers and extenders for sausages, hot dogs, and other processed meats.

The Red and Blue

Dulse, the red seaweed species Palmaria palmata, can contain up to 25% protein and is used dried as a snack in Iceland, Nova Scotia, Canada, Wales and other cold coastal countries. Dulse serves not only as a source of protein but also vitamins, and minerals such as iodine, iron, magnesium and potassium. Dulse has made its way into products in the US as an ingredient in cookies, nutrition bars, and simply as dried leaves to be enjoyed as a snack.

Spirulina, a genus of blue-green cyanobacteria, often is classed alongside algae. It is an excellent source of eight essential amino acids, ten of the twelve nonessential amino acids, beta-carotene, and minerals such as iron and iodine. It also contains the omega-6 fatty acid gamma-
linolenic acid. It has a particularly high protein content.

Spirulina boasts an extremely low land use per unit of protein and per unit of human digestible energy: 100g of dried spirulina powder contains 63g of protein and 7.7g of dietary fiber. The ingredient has been recognized by NASA as a rich source of B vitamins, carotenoids, antioxidants, and trace minerals.

Typically, spirulina has been used largely as a natural colorant and as a nutritional supplement. It hit the health food mainstream in the 1970s, but soon was crowded out by other trends. Yet it appears to be regaining lost ground as a sustainable superfood ingredient.

Between 2012 and November 2015, 39% of spirulina-containing products that include the word “superfood” in the product description were launched in the US, according to Mintel. It has been used as a nutritionally dense substitute for whey protein in foods for the so-called “Paleo” diet. Coca Cola Co.’s Odwalla brand Original Superfood Bar, which makes “no animal ingredients,” “vegan,” and “kosher” claims, contains 500mg of spirulina per bar.

Algae Time

While visions of seafood and marine animals float in when people think of protein from the sea, the bounty that awaits them from marine flora is limitless. Marine algae, a diverse group of photosynthetic organisms, use their chlorophyll and other pigment molecules to generate more  oxygen than all the land-based plants in the world and also to form foods that are rich in proteins.

While seaweeds such as kelp and dulse actually are classified as brown, green, and red algae, they are multicellular “macroalgae” plants that thrive in oceans as well as in fresh water. Their microscopic counterparts, the microalgae, are found in fresh and marine water, or even in certain land plants. They are more diverse in terms of species, color, and nutritional benefits.

The nutritional density and functional versatility of algae and microalgae are just entering the applications field within food processing. Molecular gastronomists such as Carlo Cracco, a Michelin star-rated chef who recently demonstrated the value of kelp and algae to flavor pasta at Eataly.

The nutrient-dense algae possess varying amounts of vitamins A, C, E, and folate, as well as calcium, iodine, iron, and other essential minerals and trace elements. It also is a good source of omega-3 fatty acids, other healthful lipids, carbohydrates—and, of course, protein.

Protein content in seaweeds ranges from as low as 3% to as high as 50%, while the protein content of microalgae is much higher—up to 70%—making them a viable source of proteins. They also are uniquely positioned to be cost-effective, allergen-free replacements for premium proteins in the food supply today.

A notable genus of microalgae is Dunaliella. It contains as much as 50% protein content in the dried form, along with rich stores of beta-carotene. Dunaliella is typically used in powdered form for beverage applications. Chlorella, another microalgae genus, contains about 60% protein content when dried, and is used largely in dietary supplements. However, it is appearing increasingly in such as formulations as smoothies and soup extracts.

Duckweed—from the genus Wolffia—is a rapidly growing aquatic microplant that doubles its mass every 24-36 hours. While not technically type of algae, it currently is poised for growth as a new proteins source in nutritional bars and beverages. The lenticular leaves, when dried, contain levels of protein as high as 45-50% or greater, 35-45% dietary fiber, and is rich in vitamins and minerals. It is favored for its mild, almost neutral taste faintly reminiscent of fresh spinach.

Dried duckweed can perform well in lightly flavored products such as bread, snacks, and plant- or dairy-based beverages. Duckweed has garnered the attention of the world food organizations as an affordable protein source for relief foods. The dried green powder is currently being tested in chips, crackers, bars, cereals, pasta, and meal replacement shakes, and even in come water- and tea-based beverages.

Back to the Land

Leaves from the moringa plant (Moringa oleifera) recently hit the scene as a functional food ingredient for athletes seeking not only a protein boost, but also fiber, polyphenols and other phytonutrients. The nutrient-rich seeds are a good source of fiber and lysine-rich protein, making Moringa particularly suitable combating malnutrition and “hidden” hunger (that is, populations whose diets are calorie-dense but nutrient deficient.

In addition to being a potent source of natural antioxidants with high health benefits, moringa leaves also contain strong, natural antimicrobial agents. These can provide reasonable safety margins for food manufacturing.

Sacha inchi has a history of use spanning centuries in South America. The meal produced from Sacha inchi seeds after the extraction of oil (using a mechanical, solvent-free, cold-press process,) contains about 80-85% protein. It includes all nine essential amino acids along with dietary fiber and other essential nutrients such as antioxidants and minerals.

Sacha inchi protein meal is appearing increasingly in raw food applications alongside or in place of chia, quinoa or nuts. It provides these formulations with a significantly higher protein content. Because they are not heat sensitive, sacha inchi seeds, toasted whole or ground, also work well as a source of protein and texture in inclusions and toppings for cereal and yogurt products.

Hemp protein has a loyal but fairly niche following in the health and natural channels. It has been showing up in protein bars and beverages for the active consumer for several years now. Hemp is low on lysine, but relatively high in L-tyrosine and arginine, and is ideal for blending with lysine-rich proteins, such as those from pea and lentils.

In contrast to proteins from other vegetable and cereal sources, potato proteins are considered higher quality. This is because of their high proportion of lysine, an important amino acid not found in the other crops. Patatin makes up about 40% of potato protein. It has high solubility and works particularly well for texturizing, emulsification, foaming, and gelling applications. In commercial salad dressings, potato protein increases protein content, without compromising flavor and texture. In ice cream and other thickened dairy products, it can provide the same benefit.

Growing Trends

The mycelium of Shiitake mushrooms are now being used as a next generation protein source. They provide a sustainable protein that addresses the problems of animal and plant proteins, easily and rapidly cultivated in closed space systems (above and below ground level) using minimal resources.

Shiitake-derived protein is a complete protein, as well as highly digestible and loaded with vitamins and minerals. When dried, they can reach as high as 79% protein and have a nearly neutral taste and aroma (described as slightly savory or umami).

The growing awareness that seeds are a nutrient dense ingredient is driving extraction of proteins from agriculture/plant waste streams such as pumpkin seeds (pepitas). Previously diverted to hog farms, pumpkin seeds are now being dried, shelled and used as whole in breakfast and snack foods.

Nature’s Path Foods Inc., makers of healthful cereal and bar products, is incorporating pumpkin seeds as a nutrient and protein boost in its breakfast and snack products. Seven Sundays LLC founder Hannah Barnstable uses pumpkin seeds to boost protein in the company’s muesli cereals and “grab-and-go” Coco Pumpkin Seed Muesli Squares.

Barnstable notes that pumpkin seeds “offer the nutritional and culinary benefits of nuts but without the associated allergen issues or the cost.” Pumpkin seeds also are less prone to rancidity compared to peanuts and tree nuts. Extended shelf life in an ingredient and in the finished product translates to tangible bottom-line benefits.

Rice protein is a new entry via the market shift from fauna to flora. Historically associated with starch and carbohydrates is rice becoming valuable for its protein, a by-product of rice syrup processing.

The continually rising costs of other protein sources, the increasing vegan market, growing awareness of whey and soy protein allergies, and the long history of rice as a trusted grain (especially for babies and the elderly) are paving the way for rice proteins.

Sprouted brown rice protein offer an additional advantage. Seed germination or sprouting leads to beneficial nutritional changes most notably in the benefit of a more balanced amino acid profile than that found in rice. Sprouted brown rice protein, as opposed to conventional rice protein, is comparable to that of whey, casein, and egg protein in its protein values.

Historically, it was believed that rice protein did not measure up to whey, casein, egg, or even soy protein. But research in recent years has shown that rice protein is just as nutritionally beneficial as other protein sources. A recent study conducted by the University of Tampa concluded that sprouted brown rice protein resulted in the same muscle building results as whey protein which is a boon to formulators making performance products for people with allergy issues.

In addition to the organoleptic advantages of smooth texture, neutral taste, neutral color, and neutral smell, rice protein stays suspended in liquid longer than other rice proteins, which incidentally is not soluble, but finely dispersible. Unlike whey and other dairy proteins, rice protein is allergen-free, offering manufacturers a competitive advantage in the free-from category.

Extended shelf life is also a challenge that formulators frequently encounter with the traditional animal proteins and not with plant proteins that are intrinsically wired to last longer. Plant-based proteins allow formulators to design products with less stabilizers and extended shelf lives.

While meat, fowl, and seafood proteins still occupy the center of most plates, they are losing their exclusivity of being synonymous with protein in the marketplace. The growing train of novel protein sources and potential replacements are increasing in appeal to the everyday consumer. This trend prefigures a profoundly changed marketplace in which the once “alternative” gain increasing prominence in the mainstream.

Kantha Shelke, PhD, is a principal at Corvus Blue LLC, a Chicago-based food science and research firm specializing in industry competitive intelligence, expert witness services, and new product/ technology development and commercialization of foods and food ingredients for health and wellness. She may be reached at

Originally appeared in the November, 2016 issue of Prepared Foods as Novel Proteins.