Erin Rees Clayton, Ph.D. • February 10 2021

How pulses are powering global alt protein innovation

By helping us create better alternative protein products, pulses can also help build a sustainable global food system.

The United Nations officially recognizes February 10 as World Pulses Day. According to the World Pulses Day website, this event celebrates the importance of pulses as a global food. Pulses are protein-rich, environmentally-friendly crops like chickpeas, lentils, dry beans, and dry peas. And they have an important role to play in creating a sustainable and secure global food supply.

Of the variety of crops grown around the world, pulses’ high protein content make them some of the most promising for use in plant-based meat, egg, and dairy products. While pulses are commonly consumed as a whole food, the global trend toward plant-based eating provides an exciting growth opportunity. Demand for alternative protein products—and the growing need for more sustainable protein production methods—is creating new market possibilities for pulses and ingredients derived from them.

To help you keep your finger on the pulse of how pulses are powering global alt protein innovation, below we highlight some recent and upcoming pulse initiatives GFI is excited about:

Plant-based product opportunities in Asia Pacific

Plant-based meat has been widely distributed across Asia for many decades, mainly serving the large Buddhist community. In China, for example, these products fall into a well-established industry category of “soy products” (豆製品). The use of new and innovative ingredients like pulses may play a key role in differentiating 2.0-level plant-based meat products from traditional “mock meat,” which is expected to be sold at a low price point, comes with historical image baggage, and has not succeeded in attracting a broader audience over the years.

Leaning into pulses as a source of alternative protein could produce a much-needed economic boost to developing countries that have not historically played a large role in the plant-based meat space. GFI APAC’s recently released Asian Cropportunities report illustrates the many lucrative opportunities for Asian nations to supply raw materials for plant-based meat production.

But for pulses to maximize their potential as raw materials for plant-based meat, additional research is critical. In Australia, Sydney University is leading the establishment of a Pulse Protein Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) with a consortium of 34 industry partners, 11 universities, and State Governments. The CRC will direct collaborative investment ($46 million AUD to start) into four research and innovation programs that will develop a value-added pulse protein market to meet growing needs of farmers, processors, manufacturers, and consumers.

Indigenous crop innovation in India

India is the top producer, consumer, and importer of pulses in the world. India’s status as an agricultural and industrial powerhouse creates a unique opportunity for it to become a potential sourcing and manufacturing hub for alternative proteins―and pulses are emblematic of that promise.

GFI India works across the pulse value chain as part of their Indigenous Crops Initiative, stimulating research, entrepreneurship, and infrastructure development for pulse applications in the alternative protein industry. Some examples of this work include GFI India’s collaborations with the Indian Pulses & Grains Association (IPGA), with whom they hosted an in-person panel in 2020 and are hosting a virtual panel in 2021 as part of their World Pulses Day Conclaves/Summits.

Additionally, GFI India’s collaboration with the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) has inspired the organization’s global experts in chickpea and pigeonpea breeding and processing to consider setting up a Smart Protein Innovation Hub research center. This initiative will focus on investigating these crops’ potential in alternative protein applications. Research and innovation hubs like this could stimulate commercialization and adoption of highly functional and sustainable pulse ingredients by the entire plant-based sector.

Smarter pulses in Europe and Israel

Israel is home to several startups bringing innovative thinking and novel technologies to the development of smarter pulses. GFI Israel partners with businesses, scientific institutions, and governmental organizations to promote groundbreaking alternative protein research and innovation.

Companies like Innovopro and ChicP have developed chickpea protein concentrates and isolates, respectively, for plant-based food applications. Other companies, such as Equinom and NRGene, are focused on breeding new varieties of crops including pulses, recognizing that existing crops have not been optimized for protein-rich food applications.

To bring together the entire value chain, the European SMART PROTEIN consortium aims to develop alternative protein ingredients and products for human food which positively impact the bioeconomy, environment, biodiversity, nutrition, food security, and consumer trust and acceptance. As it relates to pulses specifically, the consortium will explore the suitability, profitability, and potential of fava beans, lentils, and chickpeas. GFI is proud to be a SMART PROTEIN partner.

Pulses could be an economic driver in Brazil

As the largest producer and consumer of beans in the world, Brazil is a prime location to advance alternative proteins. The Brazilian Institute of Beans and Pulses (IBRAFE) aims to access, centralize, stimulate, and disseminate science and technology that benefits beans.

GFI is also interested in exploring beans as a potential raw material for plant-based meat. GFI grantee Dr. Caroline Mellinger Silva, a researcher at EMBRAPA (the Brazilian government agricultural research institute), is conducting research to develop protein concentrates and isolates from beans to be used in plant-based meat. According to Dr. Mellinger, the topic is relevant since Brazil only commercially produces soy protein ingredients and the plant-based meat market has been looking for other protein sources.

“Brazil is one of the largest producers of beans globally and has the possibility of having this chain developed in the coming years, going from consumer to producer of vegetable proteins,” explains Dr. Mellinger. “This generates jobs and income for the country, in addition to providing lower-cost ingredients for the food industry, which can develop products that are more accessible to the final consumer.”

Researching pulse applications in North America

U.S. and Canadian organizations are driving forward important research and commercial undertakings to develop the North American pulse industry. Pulse Canada, the USA Dry Pea and Lentil Council, and the American Pulse Association have partnered to create a Pulse Research Database to centralize previous and ongoing pulse research in nutrition, health, environmental sustainability, quality, functionality, processing, and applications.

Recognizing the potential pulses represent as a crop category for the plant-based food industry, GFI is currently supporting several pulse protein research projects at U.S. universities, including:

  • Dr. Girish Ganjyal, Washington State University, Novel plant proteins and insoluble fibers in the development of meat analogs
  • Dr. Dil Thavarajah, Clemson University, Breeding organic pulse and cereal crops toward protein biofortification—characterization of organic field pea and sorghum protein ingredients suitable for complete-protein plant-based meat products
  • Dr. Zata Vickers, University of Minnesota Plant Protein Innovation Center, Characterizing and texturizing pulse proteins to form meat-like fibers

Newer research initiatives, such as the University of Minnesota Plant Protein Innovation Center (PPIC), reflect a recognition of the need to create public-private partnerships aimed at addressing industry-identified plant-protein challenges and opportunities. Translating this research into commercial applications―as is done by the Saskatchewan Food Industry Development Centre, for example―is an essential step toward using pulses to improve the taste, price, and accessibility of plant-based meat.

Pulses are key for a sustainable food system

Interest in pulses as part of a sustainable and secure food system is only growing. Though agricultural production of beans, chickpeas, and lentils dates back to 7000 – 8000 B.C., new technologies and markets are driving additional demand for these crops. World Pulses Day provides us with an opportunity to celebrate both the history and future of pulses.

By helping produce more efficient and sustainable alternative proteins, pulses can help achieve “the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, a plan of action that seeks to strengthen universal peace.”

In pulse terms, that’s “world peas.”

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