Webinar: Leading the way in replacing animal protein

Published on
December 14, 2020

In an exciting webinar on 1 December, WUR researchers Ingrid van der Meer and Atze-Jan van der Goot introduced us to different approaches to replace animal protein in our diets.

It is no secret that the production of meat and other animal-based products has a dramatic impact on the environment. As the consumption of these products rises with the living standards, the need to reorient our diets to more sustainable plant-based products is stronger than ever. However, this is easier said than done, especially with regards to protein intake. Substituting animal-based protein is one of the big challenges of our time. During the webinar “Leading the way in replacing animal protein” on 1 December, researchers Ingrid van der Meer and Atze-Jan van der Goot from Wageningen University & Research (WUR) presented two approaches to solve this problem: the discovery of new sources of protein and the development of plant-based meat analogues closely resembling the texture of meat.

Duckweed: a new source of protein

Ingrid is an expert on duckweed, or water lentils. “It’s the smallest existing flowering plant and can be found anywhere in the world”, she explained “and it reproduces by budding, leading to exponential growth and an incredible yield in biomass”. On top of this, duckweed is made up of around 40% of protein and contains high levels of vitamins and antioxidant nutrients. Exponential growth combined with high protein content make duckweed an extremely promising source of protein that could produce 6 times more protein per hectare compared to soy. “The biggest hurdle to overcome so far has been the legislation, as the requirements of the European food safety authority (EFSA) are very strict on novel foods. It took us 6 years to gather all the information that EFSA requires”. Finally, Ingrid and her colleague were able to show that water lentils are absolutely safe for consumers and that their protein are highly digestible. Water lentils also passed the taste test: chefs find them easy to include in several recipes and consumers showed to like them just as much as other leafy vegetables such as spinach. “It has a slight nutty flavor and a nice bite to it, even when it’s boiled”, explained Ingrid.

So, when will water lentils be finally available to consumers in Europe? “We expect to receive the final approval from EFSA in about 8 months. After that, companies will be able to begin production so we expect that it should take at least a year for consumers to be able to buy it”.

Juicy plant steaks: the future of meat replacements

Atze-Jan, on the other hand, is an expert in the production of meat replacements that closely resemble the texture of meat thanks to the innovative shear cell technology developed by his research group. “There are two categories of meat analogues available on the market: minced products such as burgers and schnitzels and whole cuts. These whole cuts, however, are very small. They can replace products such as chicken bites but not a whole steak. The shear cell technology that we developed offers something that is not yet available on the market: the creation of a whole cut of meat-like product of up to 7 kg in one step without the use of gluing agents”. Importantly, this innovative technology offers great scalability potential. “It can be scaled up for industrial production, but it could also remain at a small enough scale to be used in the retail sector, by restaurants and kitchens in hospitals”. When asked about the sustainability aspect of the shear cell technology, Atze-Jan noted that the biggest impact is associated with the raw ingredients used to produce the meat analogue. “Soy, peas and wheat are dominating the market for vegetable protein in this sector”, he explains. However, his team is also exploring the potential of alternative sources such as rapeseed, sunflower seed and green biomass.

This provided an exciting overview on the work that is being done in replacing animal protein in our diets. It’s a process that starts with the discovery of new sources of proteins such as duckweed, but it doesn’t end there. These proteins have to be made available to the consumer in an appealing way, for example through the development of a delicious meat-like product. Do you have a great idea that could change the way in which we think about protein in our diets? The ReThink Protein Challenge’2 will give you the opportunity to translate your idea into reality! Learn more.