To feed an evergrowing global population, we need to find sources of high-quality proteins which can be readily distributed at a low cost. Scientists have shown promising results how we can replace animal and dairy proteins with plant protein alternatives.
“The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man” Thomas Malthus once wrote. This prominent 18th century English cleric and scholar noted that populations tend to increase faster than the supply of food available for its needs. This is the reason that we use the term Malthusian crisis for the situation where population will exceed the increase in agricultural production and population will fall due to food shortages. However, Malthus also recognised that technological development and better agricultural techniques could raise the ceiling of population and delay the point of crisis.
A central task to avoid a Malthusian crisis is to find sources of high-quality proteins which are cheap and readily available. Proteins are essential for the formation of body proteins, for the building and repair of tissue, and enzymes for carrying out metabolic processes. Additionally, they are an energy source, just like sugar and fat. From a nutritional standpoint the defining characteristics of proteins are their amino acid structure. The bottleneck from a nutritional point of view are the nine essential amino acids, which cannot be biosynthesised by the body and are necessary in order to prevent protein malnutrition.
In the middle of the 20th century one of the issues regarding protein nutrition was not one of quantity, but rather of quality, a source of protein that would provide a balance of all the essential amino acids. In countries where wheat, corn and rice are the major caloric intake there is a deficiency in essential amino acids, which these sources lack. Nowadays, there are major concerns associated with imbalances in protein intake between the richer countries, where intake is excessive, and at inadequate levels of protein consumption, from both a quality and quantity perspective, for hundreds of millions living in Asia, Africa and Latin America. To overcome these issues of protein deficiency a number of approaches are being explored, namely the adoption of alternative plant protein sources which are more environmentally sustainable. The raw materials, namely water, used to produce a kilogram of plant protein are up to ten times lower than that used to produce a kilogram of animal derived protein, making plant sourced proteins an environmentally sustainable alternative to animal proteins.
Traditional proteins commonly utilised within food applications are either dairy based or animal derived proteins, whilst proteins can be sourced from other areas, namely plant sources, such as cereals, like rice, wheat and barley, or legumes like pea, soy and lentil. These protein sources have garnered much interest due to their abundant availability and improved public perception, in comparison to the traditional dairy and animal proteins.
There is a significant potential for the development of comparable products currently available with environmentally sustainable plant proteins, reducing the demand on land and water resources for the production of protein and improving quantity and quality of protein by utilising an improved source. New and still investigated sources of plant protein offer the potential to reduce the environmental impact of currently used animal and dairy proteins, whilst maintaining product quality.
About the Author:
Jonathan O’Sullivan is a postdoctoral researcher at University College Cork (Ireland) within the Department of Food and Nutritional Sciences as part of the Dairy Processing Technology Centre (DPTC). His research interests involve food protein chemistry, hydrocolloid functionality within food formulations and development of novel technologies. His work aims to develop novel alternative sources of protein ingredients derived from legume and cereal origins which possess the potential to behave as mimetics for either dairy or animal derived proteins or fat structures.