Alberta eyes promise of protein fractionation

Proponents say developing an industry that processes plant proteins would help diversify the province’s economy

TABER, Alta. — Binders, emulsifiers, texturizers, foaming agents, gels: these are some of the uses for fractionated plant proteins.

David Fielder, senior scientist and value-added fractionation program lead with Alberta Agriculture, said Alberta can be as competitive as other provinces in processing plant proteins for use in foods and other products. That would help diversify the economy.

“A lot of our ingredients go overseas,” he told those at a late November meeting organized by groups including Southgrow, the Plant Protein Alliance of Canada, Farm Credit Canada and the regional food corridor.

“Value is produced through processing of those pulses or those seeds and then those value-added productions come back into our markets. The idea here is that, if we are able to do that processing ourselves, we obtain that value, which then trickles back down to the farmer and grower.”

The plant protein market is forecasted to be worth $12.5 billion by 2024. The current focus is on meat alternatives, but Fielder said about half the future growth in the plant protein market will be non-food items, including personal care products and animal feed.

“There’s plenty of opportunities for protein products and ingredients that are being produced in places like Alberta, in the future, to supply world demand.”

Globally, soy protein tends to dominate among all plant proteins in foods, but that dominance appears to be waning as research produces a wider range of products with superior taste.

“Today we see that there’s a wide range of different types of food products that have been modified by food engineers and developed by food engineers to give different textures and flavours and being used in a wide range of products from pastas to sports drinks and through to alternative meat products,” Fielder said.

That bodes well for extracts from pulses, which are 20 to 35 percent protein depending on type. Greater use of pulse proteins “checks off a number of boxes,” said Fielder, because they are widely grown, can fix nitrogen for agricultural purposes, require less energy to produce than does animal protein, rarely present allergy problems and provide good nutritional balance.

As for plant-based meat alternatives, Fielder said he thinks the trend to greater use will continue as consumers seek what they perceive to be healthier options to animal protein.

The pea protein picture is particularly rosy. Peas have steadily gained popularity at the expense of soy and wheat, and the global pea protein industry is anticipated to grow to $465 million by 2022 from its current value of $319 million.

Key players in the plant protein field, primarily in the United States, include Cargill (peas) Archer Daniels Midland (soy), Dupont (soy, peas) Kerry Group (peas, rice) and Glanbia PLC (whey, pea, flax), said Fielder.

On the Canadian scene, Protein Industries Canada is investing more than $500 million over the next four years into plant protein research and development. Three new protein fractionation plants are either under construction or currently operating, including Verdient Foods in Vanscoy, Sask., Roquette Freres SA, which is building a $400 million facility in Portage la Prairie, Man., and the $65 million Merit Functional Foods processor opening next year in Winnipeg.

As well, Calgary-based Botanico received $8 million in pulse supercluster funding to explore new plant protein extraction technology, Fielder said.

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