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In bad taste

Funding supports research into making oilseed proteins tastier.
Michael Nickerson, Saskatchewan research chair and professor of food and bioproduct sciences at the University of Saskatchewan, uses a Micro Kjeldahl Protein Analyser to measure the protein content in canola. He recently received $317,523 from Saskatchewan’s Agriculture Development Fund to study how to make oilseed proteins more palatable.

WESTERN PRODUCER — It takes about three seconds to find a report predicting that the global market for plant protein will triple, quadruple or quintuple over the next decade.

In 2021, Bloomberg Intelligence said the global market for plant protein was worth US$29.4 billion in 2020 and may reach $162 billion by 2030, which would represent 7.7 percent of the global protein market.

It’s certainly possible the market for plant-based products — burgers, snack bars, smoothies, sauces, dairy-free yogurt and other foods — will skyrocket in the coming years.

But the proponents of plant protein often fail to mention an important fact in their reports, forecasts and press releases.

Plant protein can have an offensive taste.

“The use of plant-based proteins has been growing around the world in the food and beverage market,” says the website for Kerry Group, a food ingredient company with headquarters in Ireland.

“However, the protein sources used in these foods can bring unpleasant tastes such as bitter, earthy, beany, astringent, and green, which have become major obstacles for consumers as well as for food manufacturers.”

Because of those unpleasant flavours, researchers and food companies have developed techniques to remove flavour or mask the taste of plant proteins.

Michael Nickerson, a food science professor at the University of Saskatchewan, is one of those scientists.

Earlier this year, the government of Saskatchewan’s Agriculture Development Fund provided Nickerson with $317,523 to study ways to remove flavour from canola, flaxseed and hemp protein.

“Canola is very similar to a lot of the other plant proteins. It carries a beany note…. If you ever tried peas, there’s a strong beany or vegetable flavour,” said Nickerson, who is the chair in protein quality and utilization for the Ministry of Agriculture Strategic Research Program in the province.

“(And) canola is a little more bitter.”

Canola oil doesn’t have much flavour, but canola protein can have an unpleasant taste because the flavour compounds tend to concentrate in the meal, Nickerson said.

When canola oil is extracted from the seed, the flavour compounds go with the “protein stream.”

”The proteins are really nutritious… but they’re not oil soluble. So, they don’t go with the oil phase,” he said, adding that extracting the protein from an oilseed can “concentrate some of the flavour compounds… if you don’t put in preventive measures.”

Finding ways to remove the undesirable flavours from canola, flax, hemp and other crops will be critical if Canada wants to become a major player in the plant protein sector.

Protein Industries Canada, a non-profit organization, has set an ambitious target: Canada supplying 10 percent of global demand for plant-based foods and ingredients by 2035.

If that goal is achieved, it could add $25 billion to Canada’s economy.

For that to happen, canola, flax, hempseed and pulse crops will need to take market share from soybeans.

“The biggest plant-based ingredients are soya and wheat. Soya really dominates,” Nickerson said. “There’s a lot of talk about pea. But in terms of market share, it’s actually quite low.”

There are companies, like Merit Functional Foods in Winnipeg, that hope to expand the market for canola protein. But for canola protein to realize its full potential, some issues with flavour and the colour of the protein must be resolved.

“Canola protein is highly nutritious… (but) we need to find a balance between the processes we use to remove the flavour compound with retaining the functionality… of the protein ingredient,” said Nickerson, who is evaluating ways to remove the offensive flavours.

One option is heating the canola meal to “blow off” some of the flavour compounds.

Another possibility is a filter, where absorbent resins in the filter trap the unwanted compounds in the protein.

“In the processing plant we can add sort of a wet filter,” he said. “It (the protein) is all liquid-based and it keeps on going through the processing line. You integrate it (the filter) right into the (processing plant).”

There are also ethanol washes or alcohol washes, which can remove some of the flavour compounds. They can be applied during processing, or after.

Another option is fermentation.

“Fermentation is really complex but a technology… that can modify the flavour profile,” Nickerson said. “You may have a pea protein ingredient… you ferment it and those microbes will generate new flavour compounds… and mask the other ones and change the flavour profiles to make it more attractive to consumers.”

There is also plant breeding. It might be possible to develop new varieties of canola, flax and hemp, where the resulting protein has a milder flavour. But that’s a long-term solution because getting a new cultivar to market requires years of field testing.

Nickerson is working with industry partners to improve the flavour of oilseed proteins, but there’s also the matter of colour.

Food companies prefer ingredients with light colours because it’s easier to work with something that is white or off white.

“From a technical point of view, the favabean is a very promising raw material to support manufacturers in creating appealing plant-based foods,” Steven Gumeny of Beneo, an ingredient company, told “They have a mild taste and a creamy, light-yellow colour.”

Canola protein is a darker yellow.

“You take canola protein, you put it in a solution and it comes out yellow. And pea, it comes out a little greenish,” Nickerson said.

“You can imagine, you’re developing a beverage and suddenly it comes out yellow or green… consumers aren’t going to buy it.”

Despite the challenges, firms like Merit Functional Foods and DSM of the Netherlands are sorting out the issues with canola protein because potential sales could be worth billions.

“If all the canola protein in the world today was used for human consumption, it could provide enough protein for 500 million people,” says DSM, which has developed a canola protein called CanolaPro.