The Protein Problem
The majority of plant based burgers, sausages, nuggets and steaks on the market today are made from some form of protein isolate, with the dominant varieties being soy and pea. Much of this is produced in the US and Canada, where both crops are grown in enormous quantities. Isolating protein from soya or pea is a large scale industrial process, requiring a good deal of energy and water. Often, solvents such as hexane are used and the resulting protein is highly processed, with an awful lot of environmental impact embedded into it. When making plant based products, these isolates can be extruded to give them texture, either in high moisture systems to make a meat like paste, or through a lower moisture system to produce the dried, textured vegetable protein known as TVP.
If you want to make vegetable based food products that replicate the texture of meat, these sort of extruded isolates are the best starting point. Currently however, there is a complete lack of processing facilities to isolate vegetable protein in the UK, meaning that the majority is imported from the US and Canada. It is perhaps not that well known that as the UK market for plant based products develops, most are made from protein grown thousands of miles away that has been put through a highly energy and water intensive process. A recent study on the environmental impact of soy protein isolates showed that many have a global warming potential higher than that of unprocessed pork and similar to beef, which is perhaps problematic for a manufacturing sector that trades on its environmental credentials.
At the AB Mauri plant, lacking the sort of processing facilities that could create protein isolates, they are taking a radically different approach. The steam cooked soya beans that are usually ground down to flour are cut into a fine kibble, resembling kibbled almonds, which can then be incorporated into plant based sausages and burgers. These are a whole food rather than an isolate, and behave in a different way to a standard TVP. They provide less of a meat mimic than a whole food addition, giving a nutty texture, high quality protein, unsaturated fats and plenty of fibre. The long steam process removes the flavour taint that affects many soy based burgers and sausages, leaving a versatile, cost effective ingredient for manufacturers, with a price point far lower than commercially available isolates. Although the product has only recently launched, interest from manufacturers and retailers has been incredibly strong, with the first commercial retail products containing kibbled UK soy due to hit stores early in 2021.
Perhaps the greatest advantage of this new ingredient, sold under the brand name NaturaSoy, is that the soya will be 100% UK grown, allowing the sort of on pack provenance claims that are elusive in the current plant based market. UK soya is already an agricultural success story, but as it becomes visible to consumers in this way, interest is likely to grow exponentially. Once it is seen to be possible, ethical and environmentally conscious consumers are likely to start demanding more locally grown plant based options, inevitably leading to the development of new crops and investment in novel processing facilities. Companies such as Nottingham University based New Food Innovation and Sheffield’s Fruition Food Accelerator are leading a variety of projects to develop cleaner and greener ways of concentrating vegetable proteins on a smaller scale. Using NaturaSoy as a template, they are also looking to convert different plant based whole foods such as lentils and Fava beans to give them new and exciting textures, opening the door to a new generation of plant based ingredients.
The famous Jefferson quote at the beginning of this article is as true today as it has ever been, but perhaps needs a slight revision. For although successfully introducing a new crop is a rare and powerful thing, much of our novel domestic agriculture is focused on the production of biofuel or animal feed, both of which raise serious questions about the effective use of agricultural land.
But introducing a new crop, then finding a way of turning it into delicious, healthy food that people will want to eat, now that’s a rare thing indeed. It requires joined up thinking, genuine innovation and an awful lot of hard work to make it happen. But if we are serious about creating a better food future for this country, this sort of field to fork innovation is something we are going to have to start doing far more often.