Rise of plant-based protein forces pulse quality rethink

The sector says it must develop new quality parameters to meet the needs of customers using pulses for alternative uses

It is time to develop new quality parameters and grading systems for pulses as demand for plant-based proteins takes off, says the head of Pulse Canada.

In the past, quality has been defined by three attributes — size, shape and colour.

Those are the key traits in traditional markets like India. Buyers want to know the calibre of a chickpea, whether the pea is green or yellow and if the lentil is round or football-shaped.

New buyers could be a significant new source of demand for pulses, and they seek a different set of attributes.

Beyond Meat, a plant-based meat manufacturer, recently went through the best initial public share offering in nearly two decades by an American company, according to an article in MarketWatch.

The company’s share price increased by 163 percent in one day. It sold 9.5 million shares and raised $240 million.

Gord Bacon, chief executive officer of Pulse Canada, said companies like Beyond Meat don’t care about size, colour and shape because they are grinding pulses into flour rather than selling them whole or split.

He said the pulse sector must develop new quality parameters that meet the needs of these alternative-use customers.

Some pulse buyers are already starting to require new quality characteristics in pulses. Each company may look for something different.

Companies making meat alternatives want pea flour that has high water absorption. Those in the cookie business want the opposite.

Roquette, the French company building a pea protein manufacturing plant in Portage le Prairie, Man., has a list of specific pea varieties that it wants to use at its plant.

“It’s already starting to happen,” said Bacon.

It is not a foreign concept for the agriculture sector. Maltsters have been influencing barley breeding programs for decades. The wheat industry has developed multiple classes of wheat to meet different needs.

“These concepts aren’t new, what they are is an evolution for the pulse industry,” he said.

The new quality parameters will have an impact on breeding programs, what farmers decide to grow and how those crops are graded, he said.

Pulse Canada has set a goal for 25 percent of Canada’s pulse production to be sold in new use categories by 2025.

For instance, it has goals for incorporating lentils into power bowls and using pulses in Asian noodles to increase fibre and protein levels.

The goal is to create a new source of demand for pulses, decreasing the reliance on unpredictable export markets like India where Canadian exporters are currently facing tariffs and quotas.

One change Bacon sees on the horizon is quality parameters based on values other than price.

Buyers are increasingly interested in values such as environmental sustainability, but no good ways exist to measure that in food products.

“What we have are half measures. Greenhouse gas? That’s not sustainability in and of itself,” he said.

There needs to be measures of other attributes such as water use, biodiversity and land use.

Many of the life-cycle models used to assess environmental sustainability are global or national in scope. They don’t take into account the different ecosystems where crops are grown.

Pulse Canada is working on developing models that will incorporate actual farm data for a particular region.

The models will use a complex mix of variables to provide easily digestible information for the end user.

“Consumers don’t walk down the grocery store needing to understand what symbiotic nitrogen fixation is,” said Bacon.

“They need something simpler to tell (them) what the footprint of the food is.”

The models will take into account what happens on the farm and at the processing and retail stages of the food chain.

Bacon recently visited the Buhler Group plant in Minneapolis where he saw equipment that reduces water use in corn milling by 95 percent.

That is the type of processing factor that can be included in measuring the overall environmental footprint of a food product.

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