Lentils, peas, and faba beans have long been regarded as hippie food. Not anymore.
- The plant-based protein market is forecast to exceed $34 billion worldwide by 2027
- One company has designed a new process that extracts 85 per cent of the protein from grains
- Plant protein powder can be used as sports nutrition, alternative dairy and egg white replacement
These legumes are the cornerstone of the emerging “plant-based protein” market.
And the almost colourless powder derived from them is now one of the hottest tickets in global food.
The term “plant-based protein” usually conjures up images of sweaty, muscle-bound gym junkies wolfing down a post-workout protein shake. Or a “veggie burger”, almost resembling its meat-based original.
But a new wave of consumers – yes, mostly millennials – are propelling this plant protein powder into a wide range of food and beverages.
“We focus on three main categories, which are sports nutrition, alternative dairy, so yoghurts etc,” said Phil McFarlane, a co-founder, and director of Australian Plant Proteins.
The company has invested about $25 million in a processing plant in Horsham, in the heart of Victoria’s grains belt. The plant, operating for about a year, is running at full capacity.
Plans are afoot to more than double production with a $50-60 million dollar expansion. The investment is principally from global food giant Bunge in a deal that also gives APP reach into new markets around the world.
It’s good news for farmers, who till now have had few avenues to value-add to their pulse crops. Traditionally, most Australian pulse crops have been grown for the nitrogen they fix back into depleted soils, as for the grains they produce. Most are exported as whole grains but since the pandemic, those markets have been fickle.
“We’ve got trouble at the moment with [the] availability of shipping containers and also the rates, so it’s very risky at the moment exporting in containers,” said grains miller Andrew Saunders of JK Milling in Horsham.
Game changer for the pulse industry
Mr Saunders hails the new protein extraction plant as a game changer for the pulse industry, sentiments echoed by the region’s farmers.
“This area doesn’t have a lot of value adding for its produce: we barely do 1 per cent as it is,” said grains farmer David Jochinke.
The usually unpalatable but high-protein faba bean is just one crop that will be transformed into protein powder. The processing plant extracts up to 85 per cent of the protein from the grain and converts it into fine, creamy powder.
“We’ve developed a really clean, great-tasting, very neutral-smelling product with an excellent mouth feel, so it enables us to sell into manufacturers of food and beverage products and provide them with a really clean quality protein,” said Brendan McKeegan, of Australian Plant Proteins.
The company developed a proprietary process of removing the bitter residue that’s commonly found in plant proteins extracted from pulses.
And it has been staggered by the growing demand for the product — everyone from Instagram influencers gushing over its benefits, to health-conscious consumers, to bakers using it as a binding agent replacement for egg whites.
“Being able to have faba beans protein and incorporate that into our range has been so exciting for our community and our audience who purchase the protein,” said Laura Henshaw of Melbourne-based online wellness provider Keep It Cleaner.
The company produces a range of health products which incorporate the locally produced plant protein powder.
“It’s really different to traditional plant-based proteins. They’re often a little bit grainy, and they don’t blend very well, but the faba bean protein is a fantastic product.”
Global race to meet demand
Worldwide, the plant-based protein market is forecast to exceed $US24 billion ($34 billion) by 2027, led by North America and Europe.
The surging demand is being fuelled by increasing awareness of health and wellbeing and the emergence of “flexitarian” consumers, including vegetarians and vegans.
“There’s a huge want for it in the market — that’s for so many different reasons, whether it’s sustainable reasons, environmental reasons, animal welfare or just health in general,” said Steph Claire Smith of Keep It Cleaner.
There’s a global race to meet demand. Canada, China and South America, all pulse growing countries, loom as Australian Plant Protein’s major competition.
But its technology and its supply of high-quality grain have given the company a crucial and potentially lucrative lead. Once its Horsham expansion is done, it plans to build a super plant somewhere in the grains belt of South Australia or Victoria.
And the forecast growth is spectacular.