The Protein Bar of the Future Will Be Made From Food Industry Side Streams
In food production, it’s easy to understand why less waste would be good news for both the environment and business.
Written by: Pekka Pekkala — January 2017
The world’s population is growing, and we need 15% more food by 2020. But currently, one-third of the food is being wasted in the food supply chain.
This trend is accelerating and creating a serious protein challenge globally. By 2030, we’ll need 30% more water and 45% more energy to produce 50% more food. But our existing sources of protein aren’t suitable, so researchers have turned their attention to plant-based proteins.
Today’s agriculture and livestock production can’t meet the challenge. They produce 10% of all greenhouse gas emissions in the European Union (EU) and the United States, while emissions from developing countries are growing exponentially. At the same time, the suitable area for farming is predicted to only grow by 2%, which means that the current ways of producing plant-based protein must also change in order to feed 10 billion people by 2050.
Creating new products by fractionating oats
Finland is one of the biggest oat producers in the world, but oats have been exported unprocessed, and mostly for animal feed. For Research Professor Kaisa Poutanen of VTT, this is rather silly:
“Exporting unprocessed oats is something similar to the idea of Finland importing only logs, but not processing them to a more high-value product like paper,” she says.
Fazer Group, known for its bakery and confectionery goods, now operates in eight countries around the Baltic Sea, employs 15,000 people, and sells its products in 40 countries worldwide. (Affiliated company) Fazer Mills, part of the group in Finland, develops tailored solutions mostly for industrial customers.
One of Fazer Mills’ current answers to the protein challenge is to process the whole oats into new products such as protein.
When oats are broken apart, the fractionating process produces multiple components to work with. Beta-glucan, the water-soluble dietary fibre, is well known for its cholesterol lowering effects. But the fractionated oat also provides another interesting (side) stream – protein:
“We have created a whole new family of oat-based products for our business customers with a licensed technology that was originally developed and patented by VTT,” says Dr. Markku Mikola, Senior Manager of Fazer Mills research and development.
The food innovation ecosystem
Mikola says that VTT is one of the key partners in their success in food industry applications. The ability to extract high-quality protein ingredients, beta-glucan, and oat oil from raw oats has opened a market for completely new products. Mikola thanked VTT not only for its ability to act as an information and innovation hub for food-related science and regulations, but also for giving practical help when companies are developing new products:
“In Finland, VTT plays a key role in leading and organising different interest groups and introducing businesspeople to new technological possibilities. The ability to use VTT’s resources for laboratory-scale experiments with reliable results is exactly what Fazer Mills expects from its partner.”
Oats are the best-known success story in the protein challenge, but there are more to come from VTT’s research efforts. Next up in the fractionating pipeline are rapeseed press cakes, wheat bran, and brewers’ spent grains. All of these are produced on a scale of millions of tons, with side streams that are high in protein, fibre, and/or oil. These new plant proteins have enough protein to feed the whole population of the EU. All researchers need to do is redesign the process of fractionating the plants, and we could feed a whole continent.
Partnering to create food ingredients from non-food components
The possibilities of fractionating in food production are almost endless: materials that are currently considered non-food, such as wood, could be used. Wood is similar to edible plant cell-wall components, and therefore wood polymers such as birch xylan or lignin could be used as dietary fibre, or as a structure component in yogurt or mayonnaise.
When exploring these new opportunities, a company eventually needs a business partner to scale things up and make the concepts into actual products. Emilia Nordlund, Research Team Leader of food solutions at VTT, explains:
The possibilities of fractionating in food production are almost endless: materials that are currently considered non-food, such as wood, could be used.
“We at VTT can prove these concepts in practice: you can make protein out of plants or insects in a feasible way. Plus, we can help to demonstrate that there is a business opportunity as well and help companies to scale up from the lab to full-scale production, Fazer’s ingredients business being an excellent case.”
What’s more, the innovation around food production is happening everywhere. Big food companies, like Nestlé and Unilever, consider the circular economy and plant protein as the next big trend. Their approach is to create new food categories and concepts from these new ingredients:
“It’s not easy to sell berries grown from cells, 3D-printed protein ingredients, or yogurt with wood additives. This is where you need marketing and new concepts, skills that the big players have. Look at the supermarket aisles packed with potato chips or breakfast cereal: they have no counterpart in real nature. They are made-up, well-marketed concepts of food. Similar product categories are needed for the next generation of foods as well,” says Poutanen.