Interview Ben Langelaan about sustainable proteins

“There are major opportunities for startups, and other companies throughout the chain, to bring sustainable plant proteins to market”, says Ben Langelaan, Research Manager at Wageningen Food & Biobased Research. “There is an abundance of innovative ideas, concepts and technologies waiting to be explored and exploited.” Langelaan, involved in the upscaling and marketing of Wageningen University & Research ’s ground-breaking shearcell technology, will be presenting at F&A Next 2018. He will focus on the protein transition: how do we drive a worldwide shift towards sustainable proteins?

 

Could you reveal a little more about Food & Biobased Research and their role in the protein transition?

“We see the development of sustainable proteins, just like the prevention and reduction of food waste, as key to establishing global food security. Food & Biobased Research intends to be a leader in this, by combining advanced research, setting the agenda and bringing chain partners together. We are supporting partners throughout the chain – from ingredient suppliers to food manufacturers and retailers: developing tailor-made solutions that are making a real difference. These might be the breeding of new crops, identifying new plant protein sources, developing technologies to separate high-quality proteins from agri-food waste streams, optimizing product taste and texture, or gaining new insights into consumer acceptance of plant-based foods. We work with an integral approach, in which multiple disciplines work closely together and fundamental and application-oriented research go hand in hand.”

Could you mention a few successful projects?

“We are coordinating the Topsector Agrifood program Plant Meat Matters, in which our shearcell technology is being scaled up for market entry. This innovative process, developed by Wageningen professor Atze Jan van der Goot, is the first in the world to create plant-proteins with a fibrous structure similar to that of beef. In Plant Meat Matters we are optimizing the technology for large-scale production of a new generation of meat replacers such as extraordinary plant-based ‘beef’ with the bite and juiciness of real beef. The project has ten partners, including, ingredient suppliers, food manufacturers and hardware companies. Each brings in specific know-how, and the results of this program will benefit all these partners in the long run through an increased market for plant-based meat products.

Another exciting example is Plenti, a soy based-meat alternative with chicken-like texture, produced, marketed and distributed by OJAH and de Vegetarische Slager (The Vegetarian Butcher). The technology was originally developed by our research team at Wageningen Food & Biobased Research, and further optimized by two colleagues who founded the plant-protein startup OJAH. A month ago OJAH was successfully acquired by the Kerry Group.

 

Does the ‘perfect’ plant protein exist?

“I don’t think so. We have identified and investigated many of plant proteins and none has proven to be ‘perfect’ in all relevant aspects. Often they are lacking one or more essential amino acids – ideally, a meat alternative would have all twelve in order to provide optimum nutritional value –, contain anti-nutritional compounds or lag behind in techno-functional properties. Quinoa protein, for example, has all the amino acids but also contains saponines: these have a bitter taste and cause intestinal problems. Furthermore, new protein sources must comply to the novel food regulation before they can be applied for human consumption. This hampers e.g. the widespread use of algae and insects for food applications. Finally, to really make plant proteins a sustainable source, companies must leave the current paradigm of applying pure, single-source protein isolates and replace this by an approach that focuses on the required functionality in the product.

How does Wageningen Food & Biobased Research help the industry innovate?

“Larger companies and multinationals often partner in larger fundamental and applied research programmes, such as the public-private partnerships and EU-funded projects. We coordinate such programmes and ensure that deliverables are aligned with the objectives of the companies involved. Next to this, Wageningen Food & Biobased Research also supports industry in consultancy type of projects, e.g. support in collecting and interpreting data, validation of technologies and the development of tailor-made solutions. And we also connect them with other chain partners, for example when it is time to bring a new product to market.”

What about startups?

“Wageningen Food & Biobased Research is eager to engage with startups. We offer them our knowledge, experience, expertise, technology and research facilities. We have noticed that startup entrepreneurs seem to think that collaboration with a knowledge institute will not be application-minded enough and too expensive. Both are misconceptions. I believe that good early-stage research can provide a major return on investment at a later stage. We are confident that initiatives such as StartLife, and our presence at the forthcoming F&A Next event, will help us bridge the gap.”