Alternative proteins on the rise

Food Pilot partners with Air Liquide
Food & Pharma
20 December 2021

Some people talk about protein diversification, and others prefer protein transition. But in each case, the challenge is the same: the search for new nutrients and products to take their rightful place alongside meat products. Preferably also for their taste, texture, nutritional qualities and price...

Provided it’s produced through good animal husbandry, meat is a worthy source of nutrition and there’s not much argument about that. Except in terms of sustainability. Some meats are already more sustainable than others, but we expect alternative proteins to do better overall in this area.

"It makes absolute sense to invest in alternative protein sources today," says Beny Bruggeman, Food Cryo Application Manager at Air Liquide. "Consumers are also increasingly demanding this type of product, so it’s up to the food industry to come up with suitable answers.”

“But this doesn’t mean meat products will go away anytime soon. What it does mean is that, as the quality of the alternatives gets better, the quality of meat products will also have to improve further. If not, the quality gap with alternative products might eventually become too narrow. So, it’s a double whammy: on the one hand, the food industry has to fully invest in alternative proteins, while on the other hand, it has to ensure that the quality of meat products - already excellent today - continues to get better.

Food Pilot

The Food Pilot site, an initiative of ILVO (Institute for Agricultural, Fisheries and Food Research) and Flanders’ FOOD, is located on Brusselsesteenweg in Melle. The complex consists of a building housing a good number of semi-industrial food machines as well as offices, with a series of research laboratories hidden behind the main building.

Geert Van Royen is project manager at Food Pilot. He is responsible for technical consultations with food companies who want to use Food Pilot services, and also directs the overarching research projects. This is all in the context of meat, meat products and alternative proteins.

"Our services are based on three pillars,” Geert suggests. “The first revolves around answering individual queries. As a rule, this only requires expertise, for example, questions about the shelf life of food products or obligatory statements on the label and suchlike. We don’t charge for this kind of initial discussion and it’s often a big help to food companies.”

Cryogenic chilling

"The second pillar revolves around lab analysis," Geert continues. "Think of tests relating to taste, allergens, nutritional qualities, and so on. Finally, the third pillar is about services related to process development and optimisation. That’s why we have more than 50 items of semi-industrial food equipment at our disposal, such as a cutter, a UHT machine, a vacuum fruit and vegetable press, a new protein extraction line, a high moisture extruder, and so on. And thanks to Air Liquide, we now also have access to a cryogenic tunnel."

"The cryogenic tunnel for chilling and freezing, model FP1, is a recent device that meets the latest EHEDG hygiene guidelines," adds Beny. "The tunnel has wheels and can be transported quickly, if necessary, when customers are interested in carrying out tests on their site. But at all other times it’s available for Food Pilot projects."

"We’ve now built up a close working relationship with Air Liquide," says Geert. "Initially, Air Liquide just supplied gases for our MAP packaging and our freezer. Then the business of the cryogenic freezer tunnel began and now we share know-how extensively with each other. We particularly see Air Liquide's expertise in food chilling and freezing as a significant added value."

Proteins for a healthy future

The various research programmes on alternative proteins are one of the main priorities at Food Pilot. "In the short term, we think that it’s mainly vegetable proteins that present the most opportunities. That’s because the most research has already been done on them and they’re readily accepted by consumers. We also believe in the potential of microalgae, but their fishy taste limits their application for now."

"Insects are an excellent and practical source of protein but consumer acceptance is just not there. In any case, only mealworms and locusts can currently be used as ingredients."

"From a technological point of view, we’re already very successful at imitating meat-like structures with alternative proteins, but we’re not there yet in terms of colour and taste. The end product often looks rather dark and sometimes the nutty taste is also a problem. Proteins from pumpkin and sunflower seeds tend to suffer from this.”

“Ultimately, we want to create ingredients and products that can exist alongside meat, both in terms of taste, and nutritional and techno-functional properties. And, of course, the processing can’t be so complicated that it costs more than meat. In the end, we also need to keep an eye on the sustainability aspect.”

"Meat has a certain amino acid profile and its specific nutritional qualities follow from that," Geert continues. "Alternative proteins don’t usually have the same nutritional qualities because they lack essential amino acids. So we’re constantly looking for solutions, for example by combining multiple sources of protein."

Air Liquide Technology Centre

"There’s no doubt that alternative proteins have a bright future," says Beny. "The food industry is in a transition phase where there’s room for products based on alternative proteins, but work is being done to improve meat products too. Air Liquide plays a supporting role in all this. We enter into a dialogue with our customers and together we find solutions to help them achieve their objectives. This includes advice on chilling and freezing as well as MAP, wastewater treatment, and so on." 

"We have quite a few nutrition specialists in our Air Liquide Technology Centre departments around the world, and we make good use of our unique, comprehensive database of nutrition solutions and insights. We often use it to give the right advice quickly, so we don't have to reinvent the wheel every time. But we’re happy to do that too, if necessary. For example, we recently developed a new 'P' version of our cryogenic tunnel. This can be used to harden and stabilise food products, so that they can be further processed more easily and without losing quality."

Wondering how Air Liquide can help you to develop new food products or optimize current processes? Contact Andy Augustus, Market Manager, Food & Pharma, or Beny Bruggeman, Food Development Manager.

For more information about Food Pilot, contact Katleen Coudijzer, Manager, Food Pilot.