For several years now, consumers, young and old, have had instant access to the World Wide Web and its content. Never before in history has such a quantity of information been available to inform consumers’ purchase decisions. As fast as electronic data can travel, ingredient and food reviews, as well as related news and science articles, are available to potential customers. One of these potential customers is the millennial generation, the nation’s largest living generation, surpassing the baby boomers. They are also the first “digital natives”—a generation brought up in the age of digital technology. As such, it is completely normal for them to use the Web to instantly research anything of interest. When investigating food products, millennials often ask: Where is it grown? How does it affect my health? And is it sustainable? Millennials tend to keep up with exercise trends and dedicate time and money into eating what they believe to be healthy. In addition, the millennials are beginning to reach their prime “purchase power” years. Their concerns and questions about food are reshaping the food sector.
The high protein trend has been around for several years and shows no signs of plateauing. It is driven by scientific studies indicating a high protein diet curbs appetite, which helps curb weight gain, and slows lean muscle loss, especially in middle-age and older adults. In fact, in the article, “Protein: Why it’s so popular right now,” written in The Washington Post, 71 percent of consumers want more protein in their diet. This is partly due to the millennials. According to BakingBusiness.com article, “Millennials shake up snacking,”millennials matured in an era of concern over obesity and are naturally predisposed to choose healthier food options. Purchasing choices made by millennials have prompted retailers to increase high protein products.
As “gastronomy” has become familiar to consumers, they have been seeking out other sources of protein besides those from meat and dairy. Soy, peanut butter, quiona, chi, and hemp have been around for years. Lately, pulses have caught consumers’ attention as they are good for the environment and can serve as a gluten-free flour. (Pulses are types of leguminous crops that are harvested solely for the dried seed.) In fact, the United Nations declared 2016 the International Year of Pulses, bringing to light that most developing countries derive their main source of protein from a variety of pulses. Plant and pulse flour protein additions are the hot new bakery trend of 2017.
Pulses are available to the bakery industry as flours or powdered protein concentrates or isolates. When in the form of a flour, they are considered “variety flours.” Incorporating pulses into bread, cookies, or even pizza crusts not only increases the protein content but increases the available fiber, vitamins, and minerals. However, pulses are not considered a complete protein. According to Margaret Hughes with Best Cooking Pulses in the article, “Pulse flours to the fore” for Food Business News, when incorporating pulse flour into a formulation with a cereal grain flour, roughly 80 percent of the flour component should be the cereal flour and 20 percent the pulse. Pulse protein concentrates or isolates are used around the 10 percent level.
Sunflower lecithin and oil have been used the past few years as “clean label alternatives.” Now, sunflower protein is becoming a plant protein alternative, especially since it is a complete protein. Sunflower protein is lower in lysine than soy; however, it is superior to most vegetable proteins in digestibility (90 percent). According to a 1979 article in Cereal Chemistry written by F. Sosulski and R. M. Mahmoud, wheat bread fortified with sunflower protein, ranked higher than soy-fortified bread when replacing 12 percent of the wheat flour; vital wheat gluten replaced 2 percent of the wheat flour.
Sesame protein (concentrate and isolate) was tested by T.A. El-Adawy in 1995 for ability to incorporate into wheat bread. Results indicated that up to 18 percent sesame protein isolate and up to 16 percent sesame protein concentrate could replace wheat flour without unfavorable bread sensory results.
In addition, the December 2016 edition of Culinology magazine predicts seaweed “to make waves” in 2017. According to a 2014 article published in the Journal of Food Science and Technology, researchers working with C. Fitzgerald, et al., in Ireland and the U.K. were able to add up to 4 percent red seaweed protein hydrolystate to bread made from wheat flour.
Formulation and Labeling Challenges
Formulating a high protein, wheat-based, bakery product is not easy. Gluten is formed in dough with the addition of water and mixing. Workable, soft dough is created when gluten is fully hydrated and developed. Added non-gluten proteins will compete for water with the gluten proteins and also interrupt the dough matrix. Usually, to reach a developed dough, an increase in water absorption is necessary, as well as mix time and speed. Jay Fernandez, regional baked goods specialist for Reiser, suggests autolysing of the cereal flour may be necessary to allow all proteins the ability to become fully hydrated. The volume of high protein bakery products will most likely be reduced. This is sometimes counteracted by addition of vital wheat gluten or possibly increasing the yeast. One also needs to bear in mind that some pulse flours may affect the product’s sensory profile.
Another consideration when substituting plant proteins for animal proteins, or even when substituting one plant protein for another, is the potential for introducing a new allergen into a food product. Wheat, soy, peanuts, and tree nuts are well-known plant-based allergens that are identified by regulation. Manufacturers should understand that adding wheat gluten, soy protein, or almond flour, for example, into a product will introduce a known allergen and consumers will need to be alerted to that fact through proper allergen labeling.
Another potential concern that may be overlooked is allergen cross-reactivity, which occurs when a person who is allergic to one protein has an allergic reaction to similar proteins from other sources. Many of the novel sources of alternative plant protein that are being investigated are legumes. These include chickpeas, lentils, peas, beans, and lupin. Soy and peanut are also legumes and scientists have documented instances of cross-reactive allergic reactions between different legumes. In particular, individuals with a peanut allergy may be at greater risk of having an allergic reaction to chickpeas and lentils. In fact, researchers have suggested lentils and chickpeas may be almost as allergenic as peanuts and soybeans.
There is no requirement for allergen labeling of plant-protein ingredients that are not derived from wheat, soy, peanut, or tree nuts. However, given the possibility for cross-reactivity, manufacturers may wish to consider voluntarily labeling products, particularly if they contain other legume-based proteins. For example, a manufacturer could voluntarily add a label statement such as, “Contains chickpea. Chickpea is a legume related to peanuts and soy.” Manufacturers should note that because such a label statement is voluntary, it would not be considered part of any required allergen labeling by the FDA. Thus, it would be best to add it to the label as a stand-alone statement and it should be located on the label such that it would not be considered disallowed “intervening material.”
Although the use of alternative plant-based proteins may present food manufacturers with challenges related to formulation, functionality, and possible allergen concerns, clearly they can also offer many potential advantages and opportunities in creating products that attract millennials. Existing products can be enhanced with proteins that consumers see as healthy and sustainable—even exotic. Products can be crafted using only plant-based ingredients to appeal to consumers who want to eat more vegan or vegetarian foods. More broadly, these new plant-based proteins offer product developers novel palettes of flavors, functional properties, and amino acid profiles. By so doing, they open up additional avenues for creating healthy, appealing, and innovative foods made from a variety of crops with long and varied histories of cultivation across the globe. It’s likely the recent increase in the development and use of plant-based proteins in the U.S. is no mere fad, but rather a natural fit for an increasingly interconnected world.
McGlynn is a horticultural food scientist at Oklahoma State University’s Robert M. Kerr Food & Agricultural Products Center (FAPC). Reach him at email@example.com. Albers-Nelson is a milling and baking specialist at the FAPC. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.