Is the interest in plant proteins here to stay?

Protein is an important nutrient in all diets but recently it has also been proven to alleviate several health concerns. Consumers nowadays are more and more aware that they need to incorporate a certain amount of protein into their daily diets. So is this trend just a short term fad or is it here to stay?

Driven by the growing awareness of the bene ts of protein, protein supplements have been gaining in popularity among consumers in recent years. Market reports show that people are constantly trying to include more protein in their diet. This emphasis on protein has led to a growing demand for supplements and especially in powder or ready to drink format for weight management and for sports nutrition. Both animal proteins and plant proteins are used but for sports nutrition dairy proteins are very popular. The reason why the dairy proteins are so popular in the sports protein category is their nutritional pro le. They contain high levels of Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAA’s) that have been proven to be beneficiary to muscle development and they are also highly digestible. Of course the dairy proteins are also highly functional
which means that they are easy to incorporate in any kind of application. The taste and mouthfeel are also important aspects and make the dairy protein an easy choice for sports protein supplements. Recently pea proteins have also become popular in this category. People are looking for plant proteins that are free from allergens. The nutritional pro le will not match the dairy proteins but nevertheless this ingredient has been used in sports applications. Many formulators like mixing the plant proteins together to make sure that they are offering a complete protein.


Several plant protein ingredients have been introduced to the protein ingredients market recently. Rice and potato proteins are well known but hemp and canola are also used. All the proteins have different functionalities to be used in different applications and they all score well in in different fields. Pea protein is enjoying high popularity due to non GMO status and non-allergen position and the fact that it is processed through a hexane free process. Price has to be taken into account and of course GM soy is useful when price is the most important aspect. But the market is looking to find new alternative proteins to satisfy the ever growing demand for products labelled ‘free from’ either soy, gluten and lactose or all of them.


There is a new plant protein just introduced to the market extracted from the plant Lemnoideae. It is the world’s smallest flowering plant, commonly called Water Lentils. Tiny bright green aquatic plants that grow on top of still water all around the world. As the world’s smallest, free floating plant, Lemnoideae tends to get crowded out and shaded by larger, more cumbersome plants. Since it’s an excellent source of digestible protein and carbohydrates it also tends to be grazed on by animals but it has evolved to adapt to the predatory world it lives in. It reproduces faster than all other leafed plants. While it flowers, fruits and seeds, the water lentil has adapted to cloning as a favoured means of reproduction — reproducing itself continuously. It takes 24 hours for the plant to double its biomass which gives it a higher yield per hectare than any other crop even Genetically Modified Soya.

The plant has been eaten whole for hundreds of years but the protein extraction is only now being realized. A company called Parabel has developed a system to grow and process the plant to its maximum use. Through the growth system the plant grows prolifically and it also shows a very interesting nutritional profile. The whole plant has a protein density of 40% and contains a lot of other macro and micro nutrients. In fact it has been said to be the world’s most complete food. The protein has an amino acid profile similar to whey and is higher in Essential Amino Acids and Branched Chain Amino Acids than soy and pea. The protein digestibility score is .93 which is notable compared to other plant proteins.

LENTEIN Plus, which is the brand name of the concentrated 65% protein ingredient, was the winner of the IFT innovations award 2015 and is produced in a cold water extraction process. This keeps the functionality in the protein and all nutrients intact. The cold processed ingredient is freely soluble and highly dispersible with an NSI of 57% and a PDI of 54%. There are a number of macro and micro nutrients that are noticeable such as Omega 3, Folic Acid, Iron and antioxidants. No chemicals are used making the ingredient and it is free from major allergens. Just like the soy industry the company is set to introduce various levels of protein density and texture to fit into a number of applications. There will be de greened versions that will be easier to incorporate in existing product formulations.


2016-03-11 at 12.56A large proportion of the western diet consists of processed foods. We are slowly moving away from the 3 balanced meals a day to a diet of several smaller meals that can be eaten on the go. The same thing is happening in Asia where urbanization is a large reason for the increase in processed foods. Other reasons are growing middle class and the growing interest for nutrition and health. The result is that the demand for protein ingredients is continuing to grow. Research show that the Global market for plant protein ingredients will continue to grow at a CAGR of 8.8 % per year between 2013 and 2020 [1].



But are we putting too much emphasis on protein as a solution for health and weight management?

New research presented at the annual meeting 2015 for the European Association for the Study of Diabetes (EASD) shows that high protein diets improve blood sugar control in patients with type 2 diabetes without any adverse effects on kidney function. The study concludes: “In diabetic subjects, the 6-week high-protein diet leads to an improvement in glucose metabolism and decrease in liver fat independently from the protein source. The high-protein diet has no adverse effects on kidney parameters, moreover the kidney function actually improved in the plant protein group.” [2]

This study paves the way for even more products launched on the market with protein claims.

There have been a number of health warnings published during the last few years either due to inherent properties in certain plants such as oestrogenic properties but also due to contamination in certain crops of heavy metals and such. These are also areas that will influence the consumer in their choice of proteins and in the end the food manufacturer. Plant proteins are still mostly associated with health so these cases are quite far and few between.


When choosing a protein the formulator will look to functionality and price but also what sort of claim that they can put on the label. There are a number of claims that are becoming more and more popular and soy-free and gluten- free are two that have risen in popularity in recent years. Mintel Innovations and Insights 2014 show a significant increase of new products claiming to be allergen – free. The increase
of new products with an allergen – free claim was 25% from 2013 to 2014! Non GMO ingredients have also become more sought after as the increase of products with this claim was 10.2% in the same time period. Environmentally friendly product claims have also enjoyed an increase of 6.6% during 2014. [3]


There are a growing number of people that want to either minimise or cut animal protein out of their diet altogether. According to retail data from Global Insight leader (IRI), sales for pre-packaged sausages and bacon are down the week following the recent publication of a report stating that processed meats can cause cancer by the World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). [4] More and more of us want to become vegetarian or vegan mostly for health reasons but also for ethical reasons. This is due to the killing of animals but there is also a growing awareness of the unsustainability of animal protein. It’s not just the methane gas involved in the rearing of cattle but also the water used for each kg of beef. It has been said that it takes 20,000 litres to produce 1 kg of meat. The world is getting more and more aware of the water used in traditional farming. In 2030 the gap between supply and demand of fresh water could reach 40%! [5] 70% of the world’s fresh water is used in traditional farming and however much we are cutting down on our own water use, we will never make an impact unless we look to industry and farming to help out. [6]


It seems that even if some of us don’t believe that protein is the way to health and wellness the world will still need to produce more and more protein ingredients. This is just to satisfy the global demand that stems from population growth but also a higher standard of living in all corners of the world.


  1. 2014 Global Industry Analysts. GIA.
  2. Markova, Mariya. n.d. Berlin: German Institute of Human Nutrition (DIFE), Charité University Medicine.
  3. 2014. Mintel Innovations and Insights.
  4. 2015. IRI – Global Insight Leader.
  5. n.d. “Global Water Supply and Demand Model; Agricultural Production Based on IFPRI IMPACT-WATER base case.” 2030 Water Resources Group.
  6. 2012. FAO.

By Cecilia Wittbjer,
VP of Marketing, Parabel