More protein choice in product development
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More protein choice in product development

  • 12 April 2021
  • Door: Maaike Nieuwland, Scientist, Wageningen Food & Biobased Research

The popularity of plant proteins increases. The demand for meat replacers is growing, and also other products like dairy or sport drinks are more often produced plant-based. Yoghurt based on soy, a shake from peas and almond milk gain ground in supermarkets. However, this new type of products still poses a lot of questions. What would be the best protein for a specific application, and how to best promote products when the consumers are doubting about (for example) soy as an ingredient? To choose the best alternative, different aspects are important, such as nutritional value, technical functionality, flavour and sustainabiility. This range of properties needs to be compared for a range of proteins. To make the best choice, it is essential to know what protein functionality is needed in the product that’s developed.

Protein functionality in food

Proteins are added to food for different reasons. In drinks and sport drinks the nutritional value is most important, it should disperse well, be stable and not gel or foam. The mouth feel of a drink is also very important: the presence of particles can result in a gritty feeling. Rule of thumb is that particles of less than three micrometer particles are not perceived, but this highly depends on particle properties like hardness and can differ per type of particle. 

While in drinks solubility is of importance, in cheese-like preparations the solubility is only important indirectly. Proteins in cheese (and cheese alternatives) have to be good emulsifyers for a stable fat-protein structure and have to gel for firmness. The solubility is of importance as, generally speaking, worse soluble proteins gel and emulsify worse. 

In meat replacers, proteins should gel and emulsify, and have good oil holding properties. On the other hand, in sauces emulsifying and thickening are most important.

Comparison of ingredients

Once the type of product and with that the requirements for protein functionality is clear, we can start with selecting the best protein source for the job. While producers of proteins generally give an indication of the functionality of their ingredients, comparison between them is difficult. There are differences in measurement methods and conditions (such as how the protein is solubilitized, salt, pH etc), and these conditions are not always mentioned in the provided information. 

Also, it’s difficult to know what statements mean in practice. What does ‘good emulsifying’ mean? Without a reference ingredient it’s difficult to know what the scale of functionality would be – let alone the possible difference between different products. Furthermore, lab isolated proteins, often the object of study in scientific publications, are generally different in functionality compared to commercially available proteins. 

Combining essential properties

While the paragraphs above focus on technical functionality, as stated at the start of this article that is not the only factor of importance. Nutritional value is essential in developing a new product. And consumers are, next to the price, most sensitive to flavour of the product. Another aspect increasing in importance in our current society is sustainability.

A full image of the advantages and disadvantages of an ingredient can only be obtained with all of these aspects (technical functionality, nutritional value, flavour and sustainability), which are all essential in the product development. Having an objective indication of these aspects of a protein ingredient however still doesn’t give the whole picture. Ingredients can taste and react very differently when incorporated in a matrix such as a food product. Interactions between ingredients are defining the final flavour and texture. 

Fast screening of new ingredients

In the TKI project Protein Compass, Wageningen Food & Biobased Research works together with Unilever, DSM and Cargill to guide product development. Fast, standardized methods to measure technical functionality, texture, nutritional value and flavour of protein ingredients result in comparable data for a range of proteins. The goal is to develop fast, reproducible methods to measure functionality of a broad range of proteins. With this standardisation, it will be easier to compare new ingredients with the current standards. The project uses for storage and comparison a database developed via the FAIR principles (Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, Reusable).

Photo drinks: ©Beats/
Photo machine: ©Xiaoyu/

Source: Vakblad Voedingsindustrie 2021