The global plant protein market is witnessing significant growth as the demand for sustainable, non-GMO plant-based food sources increases worldwide. Negative associations of soy with GMOs and allergens is leaving room for other legume based proteins, such as chickpeas, lentils, fava, mung, and lupin beans to capture a rapidly increasing share of the market.

The impressive success resulting from 2016 having been declared the “International Year of Pulses” triggered strong interest from consumers in incorporating pulses— chickpeas, lentils, beans, and dried peas—into their diets. These proteins are becoming key ingredients in the new applications that represent the foods of the future.

High protein content, clean label attributes, and sustainability are among the characteristics that make legume proteins important ingredients. Until recently, the cost of the raw proteins was a significant barrier. However, with breeders maximizing protein content in legumes, and technology in making their application meet taste and texture expectations, 2018 promises to be a tipping point for legume proteins.

While pea protein has proven especially effective in food and beverage formulations, and will continue to trend in 2018, there’s a recent boom in demand for chickpeas. This is not only because of its high nutritional benefits but its functional properties, too. Chickpeas make a good emulsifier.

Plant-based meats and dairy products continue to grow faster than their animal-based counterparts. Market research developed by The Good Food Institute with Nielsen showed plant-based meat analog revenue growing at 7.6%, while animal-based meat revenue is declining at 0.7%. Likewise, plant-based milk analogs, already claiming a 10% share of the market, are growing at 3.1% while dairy milk sales are declining at 3.3%. The majority of these plant-based products use soy, wheat or pea as their protein source.

The vast majority of commercially available plant-based protein ingredients comes from only 2% of the 150 plant species on which today’s global food supply depends. A significant pool of potential plant protein sources is thus available for exploration. This doesn’t take into account the almost 250,000 additional plant species not used in agriculture today.

Lux Research Inc.’s report on alternative proteins indicates that proteins from fungi and algae will experience growth in next five years. Food and beverage developers could look to these protein sources for product innovation in 2018. High-protein duckweed could also become a viable source if availability issues are successfully addressed in the coming year.

Part of the attractiveness of utilizing pea protein results from the fact that this crop requires fewer resources to grow compared to traditional commodity crops, and unlike soy and wheat it is virtually non-allergenic. 

Organoleptic properties are a critical consideration for product development involving novel plant proteins. In general, proteins from plants are lower in fat than animal proteins and thus less susceptible to oxidation and shelf-life issues. However, proteins from various sources will exhibit different flavor profiles and functionality.

Despite rising awareness of the global impacts of our dietary choices, consumers continue to base their purchasing decisions primarily on price, taste, and convenience. Technological innovation has reached a point allowing diverse, non-animal-protein analogs that are as delicious, price-competitive, and convenient as their animal-based counterparts. 

Originally appeared in the December, 2017 issue of Prepared Foods as Green Means "Go".