Smart Protein project: scientists and industry team up to create sustainable plant-based products

A new EU-funded project hopes to fully replicate meat products and enter into categories like plant-based meats, fish, seafood, dairy, as well as baked goods.

24 October 2019
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image credit: Getty Images

If the world went vegan, it could save 8m human lives by 2050 and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by two thirds, research from Oxford University found. Meanwhile, Mintel found a third of Brits have also limited/reduced meat eating in the first half of 2018.

It is statistics like these that are ramping up the pressure on the food industry to find a way to satisfy consumer demand without quite so much bloodshed.
A new project – funded by the European Commission and led by the School of Food and Nutritional Sciences at University College Cork in Ireland – hopes it can deliver the answer.

Launching in January next year, the Smart Protein project will develop new alternative proteins made from plants, fungi, by-products and residues.

“We’re going to investigate new protein sources with the aim of developing a full range of food and beverage products to meet consumer preferences,” Dr Emanuele Zannini, senior research officer with the University of Cork and the lead coordinator of Smart Protein, tells Food Spark.

What makes the project groundbreaking is that it doesn’t simply hope to replace meat, but it aims to replicate the textures entirely – a challenge in the world of proteins, says Zannini.

“Animal protein, in particular, has very unique, techno-functional properties which influence the structure, the colour and the texture of end products,” he adds.

However, it’s not only about regular meat textures, but also very specific functional properties such as infant food. As part of the project, Zannini and his team will attempt to reverse-engineer plant proteins to learn how to replicate end products from the ground up.

From farm to fork

But the researchers aren’t under any delusions – they don’t expect to convince heavy meat-eaters to make the switch overnight to plant-based products. In the short-term though, they hope to attract flexitarians and vegetarians to a full-time plant-based diet.

A key focus of the project is on byproducts and residues, which would usually be used in animal feed. Proteins will be created from edible fungi by up-cycling side streams from pasta, bread including the crusts, and beer with the likes of spent yeast and malting rootlets.

New products will also be developed from plants, including fava beans, lentils, chickpeas, and quinoa.

Despite the emphasis on replacing meat products, however, Zannini insists the project will help farmers, rather than hinder them.

“We are targeting the entire food system from farm to fork,” he says. “We cannot start developing new products without taking consideration of primary production. We need to be able to develop raw materials in a much more sustainable way, producing more, better, and using less. That's the main goal we are targeting; future-proofing.

“We are also targeting soil-health restoration through organic regenerative agriculture practices that are able to shift from carbon-source to carbon-sink agriculture, which is more resilient to the effects of climate change and helps farmers’ long-term financial futures.”

Industry involvement

A total of 33 partners from industry, research, and academia across 21 different countries will collaborate on the project. Major collaborators include Fraunhofer, the University of Copenhagen, ProVeg International, Barilla, Thai Union, and AB InBev.

“The industry partners play key roles because we are not just doing fundamental science,” says Zannini. “[Our partners] are very important because they are going to validate everything in their own facilities; the protocols they're developing, the recipe, the process, the protein extraction process too. So this is reaching the so-called pre-commercial stage.”

Other companies are still able to get involved by becoming a member of the advisory stakeholder forum.

“They can get privileged access to the knowledge that we are developing,” comments Zannini. “The stakeholder advisory board is there to get the feedback from other areas of the food industry to see if we are moving in the right direction, or they [may] have other suggestions that we should take into consideration for further developing our project.”

It is expected that the first wave of products – including plant-based meats, fish, seafood, cheese, infant formula and other dairy products, as well as baked goods – will go to market in or around 2025. But why is the development taking five years?

“We have to ensure we have enough raw material for the ongoing support of the ingredients,’ explains Zannini. “It needs to be able to be brought to an industrial scale. Then, the ingredients have to demonstrate and validate a cost-effective protein extraction process which is also environmentally sustainable.

“So it's not as simple as developing a nice product, but [we need] to make sure that the new system will be sustainable in the future. Having enough farmers to produce it, enough companies willing to process it, [retailers] willing to stock it and consumers willing to buy it.”

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