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Plant-based Deep Dive Day

Functional, sustainable & low-cost: Exploring potatoes’ protein potential

Article-Functional, sustainable & low-cost: Exploring potatoes’ protein potential

Potato protein is a functional protein with gelation, emulsification and binding properties that is highly available in Europe, making it a sustainable choice for plant-based foods, say the companies behind the UK’s first potato protein extraction plant.

“There is a huge demand for clean label, potato-based protein,” says Vidyanath Gururajan, managing director of B-hive Innovations, a fresh produce ingredient developer that recently teamed up with potato producer Branston to launch the UK’s first potato protein extraction plant.

“We envisage the potato protein to be used as a binding agent and as an egg replacement in the plant-based industry,” adds Gururajan. 

James Truscott, managing director of Branston, said the plant was the first of its kind in the UK. Branston will focus on serving the UK food industry, with clean-label protein from UK-grown produce while B-hive has created a new entity called RootExtracts to scale potato protein opportunities outside the UK. 

“There is a massive demand for vegan and vegetarian products, so manufacturers are looking for quality plant-based proteins to incorporate into them,” says Truscott. 

A protein source with gelation & emulsification properties

Different types of plant protein will offer various benefits. Still, many are typically grown and shipped globally, so they may lack the level of traceability that UK food producers would seek from their food choices or suppliers and also create significant food miles, Truscott notes. 

As potato protein also has a high level of functionality, it can provide solutions fundamental to food manufacturers and support the recipe development process. For example, it is good for vegetarian food producers looking for the same binding qualities as eggs, Truscott shares, and potatoes also have excellent gelation and emulsification properties.

Manufacturers considering using potato protein will want to know how it compares to other plant protein sources for functionality, cost-effectiveness, sourcing availability and popularity among shoppers, as protein consumer demands lead ingredient uptake.

Due to its high functionality, potato is a crucial ingredient in new product development (NPD) in plant-based foods, Gururajan says, adding potato protein has a full amino acid score with good functionality. 

It outperforms other plant-based protein sources available, especially as a binding agent. Due to potatoes being a staple crop across the UK and worldwide, Gururajan says, they have high sourcing availability and do not require crops to be grown specifically for protein production purposes.  

Embarking on potato protein production

“Currently, outgrade potatoes tend to be sent for animal feed or used in anaerobic digestion – this is of course not the original purpose that the potatoes were grown for,” says Gururajan. B-hive wanted to upgrade so-called ‘outgrade potatoes’ – those that fail to meet criteria set by retailers – and keep their nutritional value within the human food chain. 

“Growing potatoes isn’t precision agriculture, you get all sorts of different shapes and sizes from every plant due to the nature of the crop and the growing conditions,” says Truscott.

The new factory at the Branston site will convert secondary grade low-value potatoes into functional plant-based protein and generate starch-based products for different manufacturing applications. 

Developing a new process to use the whole potato crop

“We are not growing potatoes specifically for protein extraction,” says Truscott. “We are introducing a new process to make sure that we find the best home for the whole potato crop, with all its inherent variability,” Truscott adds. 

During its research and development (R&D) stages, Branston used a multi-stage filtration process to extract the protein fraction (and a mixture of starch and fibre) from secondary grade potatoes and some of the by-products of its processing operations.

There is less than 2% of protein in potatoes, the duo shares.

“Therefore, the extraction of the small volume but high-value product is always challenging,” says Gururajan.

Manufacturers need to have ready access to large volumes of low-value outgrade potatoes so they can extract the protein fraction from the water, starch and fibre, Truscott adds. 

The potato protein extraction facility is almost complete, Truscott shares, and the team is finalising the design of the internal equipment. As the new plant is next to Branston’s prepared factory, the brand has access to an abundance of raw materials. Therefore, it does not need to spend money, time or carbon shipping materials around the country.

Reducing food miles for ‘true sustainability’ in the supply chain

“These are interesting times for traditional food manufacturers, whose teams of chefs and food scientists are almost having to relearn their trade because of the different processes involved in creating plant-based products,” says Truscott. 

“There is so much demand for potato protein,” Truscott adds. The vegan food element and the wider food industry’s net-zero aspirations mean potato protein is an appealing option for consumers. 

“Currently, the ingredients in plant-based foods are full of chemicals and imported protein sources,” says Gururajan. “This will reduce food miles and help to create true sustainability in the food chain.”