For building a sustainable food system, changing from heavy consumption of meat and animal-based products into more plant-based diets is critical. Currently, only a few plant protein ingredients, mostly soy and wheat-based, and players dominate the market. Furthermore, the production processes of the existing plant protein ingredients are not optimal. The dry fractionation methods do not provide ingredients with ideal functionalities, and the wet separation process has lots of potential to be further improved to be less dependent on water, energy and chemical usage. Moreover, consumer preferences deserve more attention, especially the perceived sensory quality – taste and texture.
To tackle these challenges, VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland coordinates the Finnish RETHINK consortium which has kicked of a series of projects that target to develop new ingredient technologies to boost the plant protein business in Finland, and globally.
“Compared to our present highly centralized food supply chains the project aims for improved food security by new local value chains and resilient ecosystems that can also revitalize rural areas via local farmers and industry”, explains Emilia Nordlund, the responsible leader of the project from VTT.
- The project aims at creating globally competitive and healthy food solutions which are based on the new scalable plant protein ingredient processes that are optimized for maximal raw material use with minimized energy and other input usage.
- The new technologies for dry fractionation and wet separation will allow the use of local plants such as oat, pea and faba bean as food ingredients which will also increase security of supply.
- VTT’s approach combines machine learning with data on composition, functionality and flavour in a novel way to identify the most suitable raw materials and processes for different food applications.
- The project is expected to strengthen and increase the export by Finnish food industry by at least 500 M€.
The sense of taste enhanced with AI and machine learning
RETHINK project will promote consumers’ health status by providing new ingredient solutions to appealing plant-based foods that contain, in addition to protein, dietary fibre, plant oil and bioactive compounds. It is also important to understand which elements affect the taste of the product.
“Intensive flavour, such as bitterness, astringency, and beany or chemical-like flavour is still an issue limiting the consumption of foods manufactured with plant protein rich ingredients. We will explore processing strategies to mitigate the off-flavour issues, for example, optimizing the extraction process to limit the production of unfavourable compounds as well as purifying and modifying the protein ingredient to reduce the content of off-flavour compounds,” Nordlund says.
One of the very interesting expected outcomes of the project is creation of novel predictive models to help both RDI and industry in the plant protein ingredient field. A methodological basis for the machine learning -based prediction of oat quality parameters was created in the previous project called OatHow, and feasibility of hyperspectral imaging in identification of suitable raw materials was proven.
“Predictive models are further developed by combining predictions on quality parameters with flavour data that will provide a competitive tool for identification of suitable raw materials for various food processes.”
To facilitate the business development and market uptake, Finnish industry will work in parallel with the research project. Five food industry companies will have their own RDI activities as part of the RETHINK project.
“Pea is one of the largest plant-based protein sources and its consumption is constantly increasing. In Finland, however, many of the plant proteins, including pea protein, are purchased from abroad since no domestic options are available. We believe that Apetit’s deep experience in pea cultivation and VTT’s knowledge are key elements in our development work within the RETHINK project, as we aim by all means to make pea a more applicable and sustainable raw material for plant-based protein products”, says Hanna Pere, R&D and Portfolio Manager at Apetit.
“This project gives Viking Malt valuable scientific support as well as a network that will help us fully understand and improve the value of our protein ingredients in various end applications”, says Annika Wilhelmson, VP Sustainability, Innovation & Marketing at Viking Malt Group.
Strong growth in the global vegetarian food market
The worth of the global plant-based food market is currently around 45–50 billion euros, and it is expected to grow to around 160 billion euros by 2030.
“The very strong interest in plant-based products, both in Finland and around the world, led some companies to introduce products to the market in the initial stages, when their taste or texture did not necessarily match consumers’ preferences. That’s why it’s really great that such a large group of leading players in the food industry has now started to look systematically for new solutions to improve the texture, taste and attractiveness of plant-based products. We also need these new plant-based value-added products for export. There’s more and more variety in consumers’ habits, and new types of needs are emerging on the market. The new, more versatile solutions of plant-based products attend these new consumer needs perfectly,” says Esa Wrang, Head of Food from Finland Program at Business Finland.