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How to Avoid Being Just Another Plant Protein Product

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Plant Protein Plant Protein

At this point in the life of the plant protein trend, you have probably read countless articles about how the market for plant protein products is booming, and have seen lists upon lists of product launches showing how plant protein comes to life in products like bars and beverages. In the wake of an ever-growing market, a lot of us are left to wonder, “How do I make my product stand out from the crowd?” or “What pitfalls should I be careful to avoid?” Here are some tips to help answer those questions.

Buttoning up the basics—is your plant protein source complete?

Not all proteins are equal when it comes to nutrition. This is especially true for plant proteins. Proteins are made of amino acids, which are sometimes referred to as the building blocks of the human body. They are important for building tissue like muscles or bone, as well as for less visible things like cell signaling or transmission of nerve signals.

Among the amino acids, some are known as “essential,” meaning they are essential for us to consume in our diet because our body cannot make them. These include histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan and valine.

Plants are often missing one of these amino acids, which means they are considered an incomplete protein, whereas animal proteins typically contain all of these amino acids and are considered complete proteins. For example, beans are usually low in methionine and grains like wheat can be low in lysine.

Are blends better than single plant proteins? Applying vegetarian eating strategies to product development

Even though many plant protein sources are incomplete, you can still create a complete protein source in a product by combining different plant proteins. This is known as protein complementation and has been used as a strategy by vegetarians for decades to ensure they are getting all of their amino acids.

For instance, take the examples of beans and wheat above. Beans are lacking in methionine, and wheat is lacking in lysine. However, beans can have plenty of lysine and wheat can have plenty of methionine. If you combine these two foods, such as in a peanut butter sandwich, you’ve created a complete protein source in which the plant proteins complementing each other. This is the same strategy Kerry’s nutrition and R&D teams used to create Prodiem, a complete plant protein blend that uses pea and rice and is optimized for digestibility to be equivalent in quality score to gold standards like whey or casein.

This same strategy can be used in formulation of a product, which is why you often see blends of different plant proteins on product ingredient statements.

Digestibility is also a nutrition hurdle in plant proteins

Even when you are eating a complete protein, your body still has to digest and absorb that protein to be able to use it. Plant proteins are high in insoluble fiber, which can make it hard for the enzymes and acids in our digestive tract to reach the proteins in plants. This reduces the amount of amino acids we can actually break down and absorb from plants, reducing the digestibility. Insoluble fiber does have other health benefits, but in this case, it can be a barrier to accessing the protein we eat. There are also other “antinutritional” factors in plants that can deactivate our digestive enzymes, for example.

Luckily, many different processing techniques can improve digestibility. Heat can deactivate antinutritional factors like trypsin inhibitors, and plant proteins can be processed to remove fiber by isolating the protein.

Why should you care if a plant protein is complete or digestible?

One of the main benefits of including plant protein in a product is to call it out to consumers to attract their attention. However, many regulatory agencies around the world require the amino acid profile and digestibility (i.e. protein quality) to be taken into account when making these claims. The FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) relies on the Protein Digestibility-Corrected Amino Acid Score (PDCAAS) when making protein claims, while Canada relies on the Protein Efficiency Ratio (PER). Knowing the protein quality of your product when making claims is essential to be in regulatory compliance. Many plant proteins with low quality, like wheat protein, can make it difficult to meet the requirements for certain claims.

Blending amino acids, calculating scores, and optimizing digestibility can become complicated quite quickly during product formulation, so it is best to work with someone who is familiar with these regulations when developing a product. Taste and functionality within beverage and food systems The flavor of plant proteins is a substantial hurdle for product development.

Taste can be very off-putting, and the texture and mouthfeel can also leave much to be desired, especially compared to whey or milk proteins, which consumers have been used to for the past few decades. There are a few strategies to overcome these hurdles, though. Identifying the peptides in specific plant proteins that are causing off-notes is a critical first step, which should be followed by either finding a way to remove those peptides from the product or identifying a way to mask them with flavor technology. When creating product formulas, you can also choose flavor profiles that complement the taste of plant proteins, such as botanical or fruit flavors.

What other benefits might consumers want with a high protein product?

The plant protein space is becoming crowded, meaning it may not be enough to just have plant protein as the sole benefit of a product. Consumers are turning to food for benefits beyond protein, like energy, mood, and digestive health. Kerry’s recently conducted Proactive Health study has provided the industry with new insights into what specific benefits consumers are looking for, which ingredients they associate health benefits with, and which product types they seek benefits from.

The research found that nutritional beverages and bars were in the top five food categories consumers consider for proactive health benefits, which are also prime targets for plant protein fortification. The benefits consumers are seeking the most are related to stress, energy and sleep, so pairing functional ingredients that provide these benefits alongside plant protein can be a way to stand out in a crowded space.

The study found that ginger and ginseng had strong health halos for immune health. Combining these ingredients and flavors with ingredients that have strong scientific evidence for immune health benefits, like certain probiotic strains or Wellmune is a way to deliver on consumer expectations in a differentiated plant protein product.

Bringing it all together

When creating plant protein products, you may want to consider the checklist below to help your product stand out in the market:

• Is my protein source complete?

• Does it have the protein quality (amino acids + digestibility) it needs to make the claims I’m making?

• Have I put my plant protein into the best application for taste and functionality?

• Am I providing other proactive health benefits to help my product stand out? NIE

Nathan Pratt, PhD, RD is a nutrition scientist passionate about helping people use science to lead better lives. He completed his doctoral studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where his research focused on weight management, nutrition labeling, and consumer behavior. He joined Kerry’s nutrition team in 2016 and is responsible for scientific communications, nutritionrelated innovation and guidance on product development.

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