Nutrition Meets Food Science

Plant-based Proteins: The Canvas for Innovation

Although Indians do have a large proportion of people who eat meat and fish, the overall diet of Indians is vegetarian including non-veg consumers. Thus cereals, pulses, fruits and vegetables become a very important part of our daily diet. Our protein consumption is below the recommended amount and so we need to increase protein proportion in our diet and this is going to be easy, given our mostly vegetarian diet. There is however, one problem.

If we try to increase the consumption of protein-rich foods reducing the lower protein foods, we are asking people to change the dietary pattern which will face resistance and will be more difficult as it will change their lifestyle with respect to food related activities.

The easier process would be to find some innovative changes that would help them consume more proteins without much changing their diet.

One established means is food fortification with proteins. This started quite some time ago with beverages containing milk or soya proteins with many other nutrients. These would come in various flavours. One draw-back was that they invariably contained sugar.

Beverages were followed by nutri-bars or protein bars which had similar contents as beverages but came in different formats and could be convenient to carry and consume at any place. These also had similar problem of sugar content.

Now there are many products in market that have higher proportion of proteins. Some examples are biscuits, cookies, khakhra and some snack items in which protein rich ingredients are added to boost protein content.

There are also some flours available e.g. wheat flour enriched with pulse, soya and other flours that not only add proteins but also dietary fibre, so roti and dosa made from such flours will have higher protein content. Depending on the ingredients added there may be slight change in texture, taste or aroma as well as looks of these foods, but after some time one gets used to them.

The flours may have a wider reach of population being served than the food products with higher proteins.  One reason may be the cost. Many of the products are quite expensive compared to regular product. Consumers are willing to pay may be 10 to 15%. However, most of these high protein products are much more than that. So, there may be limited market for them. There should be some new thinking about how to get more products at reasonable costs so people would go for them in a larger way. That would certainly make a bigger difference in their protein intake.

Most of the plant-based protein products are replacement of animal products. Meat, fish and their products such as burgers, sausages, meat chunks and fingers with coatings, etc. The marketing idea is great for these products as these are very popular products and people would love to exchange them for plant-based protein products if they provide the same eating qualities like taste, texture, appearance etc.

As plant-proteins are chemically different, with both composition and arrangements of amino acids in them being different, they behave differently. In order to make them similar to animal products, developers have to use both processing and use of many different additives to give similar appearance and mouthfeel. This not only increases the cost but adds not very popular mix of many additives. Consumers are shifting from meat to plant-based because of health reasons and these would be partly compromised in their eyes if many additives are added. Thus, there needs to be some change in development strategy there.

Even the protein isolates and concentrates that are used in such products are quite expensive. The less expensive ordinary ingredients like pulse or seed flours would have many undesirable substances that interfere with the nice texture and flavour of the analogue. One can prepare totally new products using these ingredients and then one does not have to worry about adding some undesirables to make the products look like something they are not.

With a lot of social media available for marketing purpose, it is possible to promote new products that are not analogues but standalone products. People are also open to trying many new flavours and textures if they are made attractive enough.

Second possibility could be trying to fortify some of the Indian popular products with proteins. It is possible to use soya or some high protein ingredient into such foods like samosa or potato vada. If the filling is made high protein using such ingredients as soya granules or chunks or using besan products. One can even think of millet-based substances that would increase protein to some extent along with dietary fibre just like soya and pulse, although the latter two would have much higher level of proteins than millets.

One can even think of adding protein ingredients to batter to make higher protein idli and dosa. Such variations would not just be healthier but consumers looking for something new would be happy to try some unusual variations if they are delicious and looking exotic.

The need of the hour is innovation. There is a need for out-of-box thinking which needs people from different fields. We need food scientists along with nutritionists, marketing and most importantly, chefs. The chefs know the art as well as science of culinary manipulation of food ingredients to come up with a very tasty and exciting looking food. We must remember that people do not eat food only for nutrition but also for the enjoyment and experience of some delightful food.

Dr Jagadish Pai

Editor, PFNDAI

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