Researchers at the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland are creating so-called ‘hybrid’ ingredients through fractionation, splitting raw plant materials like grains and pulses into their constituent parts, then recombining them in ways that make them more useful for the food industry.
The researchers say that plant-derived ingredients could play a key role in tackling some of the biggest challenges of our time, such as producing more and better food to meet the needs of a growing global population.
“It’s clear that we need more food in the future, and also high quality food,” said Emilia Nordlund, research team leader at VTT.
“We now have to seriously think about how we can produce this food in the future without destroying the planet.”
Eating fewer animal products and shifting to a more plant-based diet has repeatedly been suggested as a way to mitigate the environmental impacts of feeding the planet, while also improving health. But the VTT team takes this a step further, suggesting that treating or processing plant ingredients in certain ways could make their use even more efficient – and more desirable for food companies looking to develop new products.
More protein, fibre…and functionality
In western dietary patterns, about two-thirds of protein and fat come from animal sources, and most people do not consume enough fibre. Hybrid ingredients are protein- and fibre-rich plant ingredients with high functionality.
“Through dry fractionation we can produce fractions enriched in desired components like protein and fibre for example,” said VTT research scientist Pia Silventoinen.
The team works with grains, seeds, pulses and side streams like cereal brans and meals from oilseeds. Dry fractionation can increase protein in the resulting hybrid ingredients or improve the ratio of soluble and insoluble dietary fibre. Removing the highly insoluble parts of cereal brans, for example, rice and wheat bran, improves their nutritional profile, but also their functionality, giving them better foaming properties, and providing a crisper, richer flavour in baked goods.
However, using dry fractionation to increase protein at high concentration levels also leads to lower product yield, and Silventoinen says this is a balance that needs to be kept in mind.
NPD with hybrid plant ingredients
Nordlund added, “We want to make use of all the valuable ingredients that are present in these plant materials…but it’s not simple.”
She explained that compared to their animal-derived counterparts, the properties of plant ingredients – and sub-streams from plant ingredient processing – often are lacking, whether in terms of nutrition, sensory profile or texture.
Senior scientist Dilek Ercili-Cura emphasised the need to overcome these attributes to increase the use of plant ingredients.
“If you think about plant proteins, we know that their structure can cause poor technological properties,” she said, adding that flavour perception, mouthfeel and nutrition can all be improved during processing or by pre-treatment.
This could involve fermentation, the use of enzymes, or thermochemical processing like extrusion or HPP (high pressure processing).
Ercili-Cura gives the example of a rice bran hybrid ingredient, which already contains less oil and higher protein and fibre than ordinary rice bran. It also contains about 22% phytic acid, a compound that blocks absorption of iron, zinc and calcium. Enzyme treatment with phytase could reduce phytic acid content to 3%.
“It’s not just nutritional but gives higher amounts of soluble protein,” she said.
This is important for water holding capacity, and gel formation and strength.
Other examples include fermentation of a faba bean fraction, which increases protein digestibility and improves bread quality, while an oat protein hybrid ingredient produced by dry fractionation has improved emulsification properties through high temperature enzyme treatment with amylase.
“We have shown that hybrid ingredients are multifunctional,” said Ercili-Cura. “This allows us to tailor their properties for different applications, from liquid to bakery and spoonable, and even meat analogues.”
She added, “Isolates are useful but we should think about inventing new raw materials, processing for hybrid ingredients. There’s no need to start from side streams.”
When it comes to using hybrid plant ingredients, the team said plant-based meat alternatives, yoghurt substitutes and healthy snack products were likely to hold the most potential.