This week, Madaline Dunn talked to Dr Maria Saarela, Research Director in Food Sciences at the South Australian Research and Development Institute (SARDI), to learn more about Adelaide's new plant-based food incubator laboratory, the exciting research ahead and the challenges of working with pulses.
Having received a $2 million investment from the state government, the incubator lab will develop prototypes for the plant-based food production industry in Australia, including everything from meat analogues to snacks.
Tell me a bit about yourself and your role as Research Director in Food Sciences at SARDI.
My background is in food sciences. I worked with probiotics, prebiotics, fibres, fermentation and food safety before I joined SARDI. My role at SARDI is to lead the group of people who work in the areas of food safety and food technology.
At SARDI, the food safety area deals mostly with seafood and meat safety and market access, and microbiological food safety in general. On the food technology side of things, we work mainly with local food businesses and do a range of projects which are applied and practical; troubleshooting, new product development, extension of product shelf life, reformulation and the like; we have been doing that for years.
More recently, we, and others, have realised that we need to increase our ability to add value to our grain crops by producing new ingredients and food products locally. Australia is a big producer of various grains, including pulses, but value addition has not been the main focus. So, with the high global demand for plant protein, we thought we'd start with that.
How did the plant-based food incubator project get started and how long has it been in the pipeline?
We started in 2019 when we got funding from the state government to buy dry fractionation equipment, enabling us to produce protein concentrates from grains that our farmers are already growing. For context, there are two main ways of producing protein-enriched flours from grains: wet fractionation and dry fractionation. Wet fractionation can produce high purity protein isolates, but it uses a lot of water and electricity. Since South Australia is a pretty dry state developing a new industry based on a process that has high water demands would be tricky. Also, the high price of electricity was a consideration. So, we thought that we'd do dry fractionation instead.
With dry fractionation, you are able to produce protein concentrates, and while they don't have as much protein as protein isolates (85-90% protein), you can still reach around 50%. In most food applications, you don't really need to use high purity protein because other ingredients (such as starch) are added during the food manufacturing process, so why take them all out in the first place? Using protein concentrates is also good because you retain some of the fibre and bioactives in the enriched-protein fraction.
So that's how it all got started, and then this financial year, we received $2 million from the state government to establish the food pilot facility so that we can use the protein-enriched concentrates in a variety of food product formats.
We immediately started to procure the equipment, with the main items being extruders. Extruders have been used for many years to manufacture products such as puffed breakfast cereals and snack foods (think of Cheerios and Twisties), but they are now also used to make high protein plant ingredients that have a fibrous structure that is similar to the structure of muscle or meat. This technology underpins the large growth in plant-based alternative 'meat' products we see in shops and foodservice restaurants.
We are buying two extruders: one is small, and a good fit with our dry fractionation unit and ideal for working out the optimal processing conditions to make a particular product; the other one is a larger size so we can produce 20kg of product per hour for further assessment including sensory testing by consumers and industry.
We are also buying a UHT unit so we can make some alternative 'milk' type drinks and soft custards, and an assortment of equipment for dehydrating food products in more gentle and cost-effective ways than by using high-temperature air. The first pieces of equipment have already arrived, and we expect to take delivery of the small extruder before Christmas. The big one will be here sometime between March and April next year, and by June next year, everything will be in use.
Can you tell me a bit more about dry fractionation and its ties to sustainability?
Yes, we chose dry fractionation for two reasons; the first was based on sustainability. It's a completely dry process; you don't need a drop of water. It also uses less electricity than wet fractionation because the end product doesn't need to be heated to dry it out so that it becomes shelf-stable.
The other reason why we chose dry fractionation is that the resulting flour is not highly modified because it's only a mechanical process. Wet isolation of the protein, on the other hand, is a chemical process and involves solubilising and then precipitating the protein by changing the pH/acidity of the solution, and at the end of the day, you have the protein in water that you need to dry. With dry fractionation, you mill the grains, and then you separate the protein granules from the starch granules in a kind of centrifuge. It is a simple process, and you don't end up with a heavily processed ingredient. It is also something that the industry can fairly easily adopt.
Can you tell me a bit more about what you'll be doing once everything is operational?
We will be producing food prototypes for the industry. We are not manufacturing any products ourselves on a commercial scale because that's not our role. A lot of the project will focus on new product development using value-added ingredients from plant-based materials.
In South Australia, there's quite a lot of pulse production, but most of it has been traditionally exported 'as is' and then processed overseas into food products. So, there's interest to have more local production of added value ingredients and foods from pulses. Consumers also want locally produced foods, and this has been a strong consumer trend for years now.
With the extrusion process, we can produce snacks, plant-based protein ingredients and fibrated protein products which mimic the meat. We try to be quite versatile, providing various types of ingredients and also final food prototypes, working together with the industry to develop these products.
What are some of the challenges that come with working with pulses? The main issue with using flour from pulses is the taste. There is often a beanie taste, and peas have quite a strong taste compared to many other pulses. There are techniques to mask the flavour or de-flavour, but it's still quite difficult. In general, that's the biggest challenge because, for instance, soy, comparatively, is fairly tasteless - but it's not a South Australian crop.
On top of the flavour issue is the issue of how plant proteins behave in food processes. They are very different from animal-based proteins and don't behave in the same way as, for instance, dairy and egg proteins. You have to figure out how to develop the recipe and process so that they work, and you are able to produce a good quality food product that consumers will enjoy.
Another challenging aspect comes when you try to make plant proteins look and behave like meat proteins. You have to develop quite a complex recipe, and the risk is that the resulting food product is not actually healthy anymore. If we think about plant-based burgers, they have been developed mainly based on their ability to look and taste like meat - but are they healthy? Many of them aren't because these products can be high in salt and fat, and there is a long list of additives to make them meat-like. Of course, the food industry has realised that it's not enough that there is just a good taste and texture, but that the product should be healthy, too, and they are now trying to make these products healthier.
Consumers buy these products because of animal welfare and sustainability reasons, but they also believe that these products are healthy. Whole grain products like peas and fava beans are healthy, but if you take all the fibres and bioactive compounds out of these plant-based materials during the processing and only have the protein left, you have removed most of the healthy components. This is something that many consumers are not aware of, and they often think that purified plant-based proteins have the same health benefits as whole grains.
The issues around processing, sustainability and healthiness are the main drivers for me; I don't really want to go down the path of highly purified plant proteins because it would be good to leave at least some of the fibre and the bioactive materials in the product. That said, there are different markets for various types of plant-based proteins. So, for some products, you need to have a highly purified protein isolate; for others, protein concentrates might be enough and, when they are enough, there is no need to use the isolates. You can also combine the two processes – dry and wet fractionation – to make the product more sustainable and improve its functionality in some processed food products.
One further thing we need to consider when we talk about increasing plant-based food consumption is that around 15% of the population suffers from Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). If you have IBS, you tend to avoid foods like pulses that are high in fermentable carbohydrates because eating them causes pain and bloating. It is likely, however, that when the protein is isolated, there are fewer of these carbohydrates left, so foods containing plant-based proteins and not the whole grain pulse may be a better option for this consumer group.
How are you planning on navigating these issues?
At the end of the day, I would prefer not to make the pulse or cereal 'pretend' to be meat. I think we should start educating consumers towards the thinking that plant-based food can be delicious and just develop honest, tasty plant-based foods. I understand that consumers still want plant-based sausages and burgers, but the sole focus of plant-based food development shouldn't be to make them look and taste like meat.
A $2 million investment from the government is really significant - what do you think it says about the potential of the plant-based market and its popularity in Australia?
When you look at the shelves in the supermarket, there are heaps of plant-based food products such as plant milks and other dairy-like products. There are also many meat analogues because Australians are big meat-eaters. Depending on the food category, many of these products are imported, so we have yet to meet the consumer demand for locally produced food.
There's also a lot of hype around plant-based diets, but there hasn't really been any major reduction in meat consumption yet. It appears that consumers are trying these products, but many haven't completely replaced meat. However, there are increasing numbers of consumers who have reduced or are planning to reduce their meat-eating, which is the flexitarian approach. Flexitarian diets will likely become even more popular in the future.
What are your thoughts on the project looking ahead?
In Europe, the US and Canada, work around added-value plant-based foods has been done for quite a while now, so Australia needs to catch up quickly with the rest of the world. Australia has done very well in selling its good quality grain crops, but now there is a clear need to start to add value to these raw materials in Australia for Australian consumers and also for exports.
That said, we shouldn't focus solely on plant protein because these things move on. When the plant protein marketplace has been established, something else will emerge, so you have to be quite versatile, and that's what we try to do.
SARDI is the research division of the South Australian Department of Primary Industries and Regions (PIRSA).