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Development of high quality food protein through sustainable production and processing

Periodic Reporting for period 4 - PROTEIN2FOOD (Development of high quality food protein through sustainable production and processing)

Reporting period: 2019-03-01 to 2020-02-29

The growing world population demands increased high-quality protein-rich food sources, while simultaneously considering human health, environmental sustainability, with more effective and ecological agricultural practices, and increased biodiversity. PROTEIN2FOOD addressed these challenges by:
• developing innovative, cost-effective and resource-efficient food crops that are high in protein, with a positive impact on human health, the environment and biodiversity
• enhancing the quality and quantity of proteins from selected seed crops (quinoa, amaranth and buckwheat) and grain legumes (lupin, faba bean, chickpea and lentil), by using a multi-disciplinary approach, involving genetics, agronomy, and food-processing engineering, as well as sensory, socio-economic and environmental assessment.
• gaining a better understanding of:
̶ genetic mechanisms that drive protein formation and accumulation in seeds
̶ plant resilience against biotic and abiotic stresses (pests and environmental factors)
̶ protein extraction and ingredient development
̶ protein interactions with other food components and their sensory consequences in the final targeted food products

At the end of the 5 years of research activities, the project was able to boost the protein production through new effective breeding techniques and optimised crop management, with an increase of Europe’s arable land destined to protein-crop production, including marginal soils accelerate the transition in consumption of animal-based protein to plant-based protein in Europe with clear impact on reducing the carbon footprint. The project also increase Europe’s agro-biodiversity by introducing novel high-quality crops (quinoa cv in Romania) and develop a new generation of protein-rich food and beverage prototypes with a viable market potential. All the knowledge developed during the project have been widely disseminated improving, thus, Europe’s visibility in the area of food processing and technology through 20 scientific publications, all published in high impact factor journals. An additional 20 scientific publications will be further collected in a dedicated journal special issue.
Field trials were carried out with more than 220 cultivars in various European temperature zones. The agronomic practices were evaluated and suitable protocols able to stabilise and improve protein quality and yields have been developed. Quinoa will be the most suitable crop across of European arable land, followed by blue lupin. A high level of tolerance to drought and salinity was detected for quinoa and amaranth able, thus, to colonise marginal environments. The development of genetic markers in fava bean and quinoa allowed a systematic analysis of the internal structure of the protein-rich seeds.

From the selected protein crop new plant-based functional protein concentrate and isolate were developed. Specifically, aqueous processing provided protein isolates with significantly reduced contents of antinutrients and improved sensory profiles. Due to good protein solubility, emulsifying and foaming properties the protein ingredients developed exhibit excellent potential for a wide range of food applications.

Wheat-based and gluten-free bread and pasta, cookies, snacks, breakfast cereals, meat-analogues and plant-based milks and infant-formula were successfully prototyped and scaled-up. High nutritional quality and consumer acceptance were confirmed for these prototypes, and the formulations can be easily applied at the industrial scale reaching the full commercialization. Their market potential approval was performed. The key barriers identified were unfamiliarity with the product, fear of new food types, and sensory aspects. However, such barrier could be easily removed if participants could easily grasp how to cook and combine it with other flavours. The key drivers for purchasing plant-based foods were reduction of the environmental footprint, and animal well-being.

Additionally, a need for more information and clearer indicators of environmental footprints and nutritional information on foods was highlighted. On such regards, the prototyped new plant-based protein-rich foods showed a much lower carbon footprint than animal-based alternatives. However, crop yields and the efficiency of protein extraction from domestic legumes need to be further optimised in order to reduce their relatively high land footprint and processing energy demand.
The development of genetic markers and the screening of local ecotypes increase the agrobiodiversity and help Europe become less dependent on imported protein crops. EU-aligned strategies, relevant to researchers, breeders and farmers, aiming to develop better seeds for higher yields have been postulated. This will help to increases the quality of plant proteins produced in Europe.

The knowledge gained for production of protein isolates and concentrates from lentil, faba bean and white lupin can be applied by ingredient producers to create new types of protein ingredients. This will increase the market opportunities of both ingredient and food producers in the medium term. Their commercialisation enables food producers to create tailored plant-based food products that contribute to a nutritious diet and increase the market uptake of new proteins. On such regards, diet change scenarios assessed within PROTEIN2FOOD showed that highly processed plant protein combined with mildly processed legumes would be ideal to move towards more sustainable food consumption. PROTEIN2FOOD company partners were able to operate at TRL 4-6 by validating food processing conditions and product formulations at an industrial level allowing them to introduce innovative technologies for protein-rich food and beverages into the value chain.

However, agronomic, supply chain, and consumer awareness barriers are likely to prevent greater consumption and production of plant-based protein products in the future. To overcome such hurdles, is necessary to encourage, support and develop local supply chains, improve consumer education and awareness, increase policy support for plant-based products and support product processing sector expansion. On such regards, PROTEIN2FOOD project has helped spark social innovation in Romania by introducing quinoa, new cropping systems and innovative production processes to the country. A Memorandum of Understanding, that describes the rights and duties of all the parties involved in the production, process and commercialisation of quinoa, has been developed and can be transferred and inspiring other EU countries.
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