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Feeding a growing population

Turning an inedible byproduct into valuable food protein

The world’s population is growing fast, but how can we produce sufficient food for everyone without straining the environment? Scientists at DSM’s Biotechnology Center in Delft (the Netherlands) couldn’t ignore the challenge, and to explore the possibilities they set up a project called ‘Proteins of the Future’ (POFU). What emerged was a new technology that turns an inedible agricultural byproduct of rapeseed oil extraction into valuable plant protein for a wide range of uses in food.
Path through a field of rapeseed/canola

Shortage of protein

Protein is used to build body tissue, making it the most essential component of our food,” says Gertjan Smolders, R&D Manager of the Rapeseed/Canola Protein Venture that has emerged from POFU. “But it’s already in short supply. In the poorest countries, for instance, some 6 million people, many of them children, die each year because they don’t get enough protein. That adds a sense of urgency to our work.”

Plant protein?

Most of the protein humans eat comes from animals or animal products (meat, dairy, eggs and fish), but plant protein, in the form of beans, peas and lentils, is also an important source. Due to population growth and changing dietary choices, even more protein will be needed, which is clearly unsustainable. We will all have to consume more vegetable proteins.

Quick stop for an energy bar

And as it happens,” says Gertjan, “We already see a growing interest for vegetable protein in richer countries, from consumers who are looking for nutritional products that fit in with their active healthy lifestyle and are produced in a sustainable way.” However, because most vegetable protein is currently produced as a side stream of other ingredients, and the conditions used during processing negatively influence the properties of the protein, there is a need for vegetable protein with a better taste and functionality to make it suitable for use in a wide range of food applications.

This led the POFU team to look for a new plant protein with a high nutritional value and widely available globally. The most promising candidate turned out to be rapeseed, or canola, as it is known in North America. This member of the cabbage or mustard family, with its distinctive yellow flowers, is used in the production of cooking oil.

Rapeseed/Canola flowers

The opportunities of rapeseed

Rapeseed is attractive for several reasons,” explains Gertjan. “It’s a very large crop, grown all over the world and besides its use for cooking oil, it’s also rich in protein. In fact, if all the rapeseed protein existing today was used for human consumption, it could provide enough protein for 500 million people ‒ almost twice the population of Indonesia!”

The catch…

So where’s the catch? “The problem is,” says Gertjan, “that rapeseed contains substances that can’t be consumed by humans, and it’s very difficult to separate them from the protein. However, we’ve now developed a new technology and process that can isolate the protein from the meal, making it edible.”

DSM’s process takes rapeseed meal as its raw material. “This is a byproduct of the cooking oil extraction process,” explains Gertjan. “It’s normally fed to animals, but now that we’ve made it edible, it opens up great opportunities.” A very mild isolation process was developed to preserve the natural functionality of the proteins, resulting in a protein that has a good taste and suitable for many food applications.

Smoothies in cooler

Good stuff

So what can you do with this new rapeseed protein? “What can’t you do with it!” says Jorgen Quick, Commercial Manager of the Rapeseed/Canola Protein Venture. “It’s extremely versatile in its range of nutritional benefits and applications. It’s highly digestible and contains all the amino acids you need for growth and body maintenance. And it can be used in a broad range of food products, in areas such as clinical nutrition, sports nutrition, weight management, baby food, food for the elderly, and specialist foods such as non-gluten and vegetarian alternatives. Additional benefits are its good taste and high solubility, as well as the fact that it’s non-GMO, non-gluten, non-dairy and hypo-allergenic. Is that enough?”

Coming to a supermarket near you

It certainly sounds as though rapeseed protein has a great future ahead of it. “Absolutely,” says Jorgen. “We’re still working on the details of production and distribution, but we believe it will have a big impact on the future supply and use of plant-based proteins. It’s globally available, is highly nutritious and has good functional properties. What’s more, its processing is completely solvent-free. All this will make it an ideal addition to current protein options, whether for combating protein deficiency in the poorest countries or offering increased choice for consumers elsewhere.”

For more information, please contact Jorgen Quick at the DSM Innovation Center.