This week, Madaline Dunn chatted to Brendan McKeegan, co-founder and director of Australian Plant Proteins (APP), about plant protein projections, innovative tech and APP’s commitment to sustainability.
Founded in 2016 by Brendan McKeegan and Phil McFarlane, APP develops and manufactures high protein plant-based powders from Australian-grown pulses. The company is part of the EAT Group, a Melbourne-based agricultural investment management company specialising in value-added supply chain opportunities. Ever-expanding and always innovating, APP keeps sustainability at its heart while becoming a key player in the plant-based movement.
How did APP come to be, and what’s its mission?
We identified plant protein as an opportunity back in 2016. At the time, a relatively small percentage of the population had moved from animal protein to plant-based protein but the wave was growing, as well as the downstream applications incorporating this protein into a whole range of products. Of course, from an Australian perspective, we’re also a large grower of plant-based proteins, particularly pulses. We’ve got a good history of quality pulse production, and we’re the second-largest exporter of pulses in the world, behind Canada. So, it made sense to look at how we implement a value-added step to the protein isolate in Australia.
We started looking at some of the inherent problems within existing plant protein. They typically relate to the flavour, odour and mouth-feel of the product. Our objective was to create a really smooth, good-tasting and relatively neutral plant protein while keeping it in its fullest form. This meant we weren’t denaturing it, but instead creating a fully functional protein that could adapt to a whole range of applications.
We started with a part facility and then last year we scaled up and built our first full-scale facility, where we currently operate. We’re expanding this facility with additional production capacity, which will increase its size about three-fold.
What are the products you produce and what crops do you use?
We currently produce fava bean protein, yellow pea protein, mung bean protein, protein and red lentil protein. We’re also about to launch a chickpea protein. We focus on the different pulse varieties. The area around where our factories are located, Northwest Victoria, produces about 40-45% of all Australian pulses.
In terms of downstream and where the market is at, we’re still exploring a lot of these alternative proteins, and we’re finding different applications on a weekly basis. Whether it’s an egg white replacement, a binder, or pure protein inclusion, there’s a whole range of downstream applications driving the products we produce. We also have a very flexible extraction process which allows us to take in all of those inputs.
Could you tell me about your extraction process and how it helps you to create a clean product?
We use a wet mechanical extraction process, a hybrid process where we don’t use any solvents, enzymes or any form of acid precipitation to extract the protein. We take it in its raw form, put it through a milling and soaking process and then through the mechanical process, extracting the fibre and starch, which are key components we sell as a byproduct. Then we take the protein and concentrate that into a liquid form. That’s dried into a powder and is shelf-stable for 18 months. It’s a process that we’ve developed from end-to-end and it’s a really efficient way of extracting the protein. It’s also scalable.
You’ve spoken about expanding capacity and growing local crops. How are you offering farmers new income streams?
We’re joining the dot between the consumer and the farmer. Farmers typically take advice from agronomists or look at the current and forward markets to find which product has an attractive price and then use that to decide what they will plant that year to generate revenue from that rotational crop. So, by understanding the downstream market, and directly linking them to it, which we do in various ways, including contracting, they can grow to whatever specification we need. We can fix a price to underpin that operation, rather than them having to rely on whatever that commodity cycle is doing in the eight months after they’ve planted the crop.
I think that’s key for farmers. It’s a way to give them stability in that rotational crop and a way to underpin some of their business expenses. It also means they work with us, so we can understand that market and build capacity to meet it. It’s a win-win.
Bunge recently made a big investment in APP. Can you tell me about that and the impact it’s had?
Bunge approached us nearly two years ago and was looking at opportunities within the alternative protein market. Given that they’re a large provider of soy protein and other commodities, like us, they saw the opportunity in plant protein and heavily invested in growing out their supply chains.
They knocked on our door, and at the time, we weren’t really looking for a partner; however, over a 12 month period, we got to know them and their strategy. They brought a supply chain and downstream distribution that we didn't have as a smaller company. They also had the application development expertise and consumer base so they were able to take our products through the global market, which works well for us. So, they’ve come on board as a partner, and now we’re building global markets in conjunction with them.
They’re excited about the quality that we produce and the scalability of our process, which is really key when you’re talking about a process that can be capital intensive. It has to be scalable and efficient for you to be able to make the right price in the market.
Sustainability is a key part of your business. Can you tell me about that and how you’ll maintain this as you grow?
We started from a good point because we’ve got a really sustainable crop. It’s a dry-land crop that doesn't rely on irrigation, and it puts nitrogen back into the soil. So, that puts us ahead of the game. On top of that, what we do here is fully recycle our water. As it’s a wet process, it’s important we recycle water back to the point that we can reuse it and then just top it up with additional water.
We’re also looking at renewable energy solutions, which, as we build our footprint, we’ll be able to incorporate into our drying technology and the like. Australia is growing its renewable energy reserves and that will factor into our ability to create a completely carbon-neutral footprint into the future, which is where we’re heading.
We’re very mindful that our customers are aware of the carbon footprint of their food and we’ll work within whatever boundaries we can so that we can contribute positively to that.
The movement towards more alternative proteins is really growing. What part do pulses have to play here, and what are your projections going forward?
I think pulses have a great role to play here. They’ve been a stable, staple food for hundreds, if not thousands of years. In terms of what they bring to the table, a combination of pulses and cereals give you your full amino acid profile.
We’ve also seen a real conscious shift, especially in Australia, where consumers are eating more plant-based diets, and that's a trend that’s moving upwards. Food technologists have been busy developing their products to meet consumer trends, so we’re starting to see a whole new range of products emerge, and we’re a key part of that.
In the form we’re able to produce plant protein, where we’re not playing with the structure, we can deliver the product to consumers in a convenient form that they are used to eating. That’s the thing; it’s not just about putting more lentils or mung beans on your plate. It’s about consuming them in a way you’re used to, whether that’s on the go as a snack, a smoothie, a meal replacement, powder replacement, or a burger or chicken nugget replacement. That convenience in terms of consumption is really the role we play in terms of that ingredient component.
While we don’t think that plant protein will ever fully replace animal protein, it certainly provides people with a great alternative. We’ll see people’s diets shift slightly, and that shift globally is a significant opportunity for pulses.
What’s ahead for APP?
There's so much going on from an R&D perspective. We’ve got a fully-dedicated pilot-scale facility, and we’re continually developing either new variations of what we have or looking at alternate feedstocks.
Upcycling is certainly a key opportunity for us. We’re taking a byproduct from another food production process and using that protein that’s either existing in its raw form or a slightly modified form within that waste stream and repurposing it as a food ingredient. That’s a huge opportunity for us to look at that circular economy and take the protein out of something typically sent to waste or animal feedstock.
There are lots of other weird and wonderful plant proteins found in a whole range of sources, so there are opportunities for us to extract that in a commercially viable way and look at that as an alternative ingredient for a whole range of food and beverage applications.