The EU-funded Smart Protein project was launched in January 2020 to develop the next generation of cost effective, resource efficient, and nutritious foods.
“Key sustainability challenges facing the agri-food industry include improving primary production efficiency without compromising our fragile ecological system,” explains Smart Protein Project Coordinator Dr. Emanuele Zannini, from the School of Food and Nutritional Sciences at University College Cork. “There is a need to produce more and better with less, and to re-shape the ‘food environment’ in which citizens engage with the food system.”
Tapping protein potential
The project will address these concerns by validating innovative, cost-effective and resource-efficient healthy plant proteins (fava bean, lentil, chickpea, quinoa) and microbial biomass proteins (food-grade yeast and fungi) for the production of ingredients and products for direct human consumption.
Specifically, the side stream from plant protein extraction (starch and bran fraction), pasta (pasta residues), milling (wheat bran), bread (bread crust) and beer production (spent yeast and malting rootlets) will be used as a nutritious substrate for producing high protein microbial biomass (from fungi) without competing with existing food production. The consortium is a blend of research organisations and universities, industry partners, SMEs and an international food awareness organization.
“During its four years, the project will scale and validate, in pre-commercial operation environments, target food products like bakery and pasta products, infant food, sport drinks, meat alternatives, and alternative seafood,” says Zannini. “This will pave the way for subsequent commercialisation. These innovative food products will be prototyped, taking into considerations the three dimensions of sustainability (social/health, climate/ environmental and economic).”
Along the food chain
The project team hopes to provide alternative and sustainable business solutions for all actors in the food chain.
“In primary production, innovation will be delivered through pre-commercial selection of the most interesting indigenous or well adapted varieties of legumes (lentil, fava bean and chickpea) and protein crops (quinoa),” says Zannini. “Smart Protein will think green by capitalising natural European resources in a more sustainable way, by optimising land and water use, and by tailoring crops and crop management to the different European climate zones.”
Ingredient and food producers can help to shift diets through food processing innovation.
“Only 40 % of the world’s plant protein production is for human consumption,” says Zannini. “The main part is feed for livestock. Growing food exclusively for direct human consumption could increase available food calories by 70 %, which could feed an additional four billion people.”
The project will also support business networking between farmers, food producers and consumers, and create new job opportunities through novel and environmentally sustainable production processes. Sustainable development and fair revenue for farmers is another key objective.
Finally, consumer acceptability of alternative protein sources is low and product quality needs to be improved. Smart Protein will trial new combinations of technological interventions with strategic collaboration along the food system.
The project plans to introduce 12 product launches and enhance consumer trust towards alternative plant-based foods and proteins. This builds on a recent survey from ProVeg International, which found that demand for plant-based food is growing across many categories. The survey suggests that there is potential for developing and launching new plant-based products in multiple food categories.
“Our targets include an increase from 7 % to 25 % by 2026 the proportion of high-quality plant protein for direct human consumption in Europe, and improving soil health and water management,” says Zannini. “We want to see more efficient direct and indirect land use per protein outcome due to enhanced protein crop yield and upcycling activities and implement efficient water management systems. I would like to think that Smart Protein will boost a ‘just transition’ for all actors of the food system towards a sustainable healthy diet promoting all the dimensions of the individuals’ health and wellbeing.”
Find out more!
You can find out more about the aims, objectives and scope of the Smart Protein project in a one-hour webinar on 08 October 2020, 11am CEST – 12pm CEST. You can register here.
A second webinar on 15 October 2020, 11am CEST – 12.15pm CEST, will bring together a panel of expert speakers who will share knowledge gained from market and retail insights, consumer surveys and research into consumer perceptions. Register here.
This webinar is aimed at members of the Smart Protein project Stakeholder Advisory Board, in addition to professionals working across a wide range of industries that are linked to the project. This includes those working in the agricultural sector, in addition to those linked to food and beverage research, development, manufacturing or retail.
Dr Emanuele Zannini, Smart Protein Project Coordinator and Senior Research Coordinator at School of Food and Nutritional Sciences, University College Cork. Zannini studied Agricultural Science at the Universita’ Politecnica delle Marche. During his PhD, in Applied Biomolecular Science, he focused on the selection of antifungal lactic acid bacteria as biopreservatives in food products.