Trade Talk

June 25, 2020

Europe’s Pulse Ingredient Innovator: Europe’s Pulse Ingredient Innovator: An Interview With Arjan Geerlings of Herba Ingredients

Charlie Higgins


At a glance

Herba Ingredients is hardly a newcomer when it comes to producing high quality, plant-based ingredients. Representing the B2B ingredient division of Spanish multinational group Ebro Foods, the company has spent the past 25 years developing an impressive range of applications involving one of the world’s most important staple foods: rice. Along the way, Herba has incorporated state-of-the-art agronomical practices and techniques to ensure its products meet its high standards in terms of health, ecology, fairness and convenience.

It should not come as much of a surprise, then, that the company has since expanded into pulses, which, like rice, are gluten and allergen-free. Recognizing a global trend towards the increased use of plant-based protein, Herba started working with pulses about five years ago and currently produces all kinds of fava bean, lentil, chickpea and pea ingredients at its factories in the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain and elsewhere. Its diverse catalog of products—flours, starches, concentrates, texturized protein, to name a few—is a true testament to the dynamic nature of pulses. Look closely and you’ll find Herba Ingredients in everything from baby food and baked goods to pastas and read-to-eat meals marketed by the world’s largest industrial food and pet food processors, many of whom have benefitted from the company’s tailor-made solutions.

We recently spoke to business develop manager Arjan Geerlings to gain further insight into the world of Herba Ingredients.

Tell me about some of the specific processes that go into producing your pulse ingredients and how these have developed over the years.

We have only been in the business of pulse ingredients for a couple of years. We have more experience with rice ingredients, but we have been working with pulse ingredients for four or  five years. Recently, we opened a new facility in Belgium that produces pea and fava bean concentrates. There we use a dry milling and dry fractionation process that separates protein from starch and fiber. We chose this technology—and not, for instance, wet technology for producing isolates—because we believe that this process is more sustainable in the long run. It's more cost-effective compared to a wet process and has several other benefits from a more functional point of view of the ingredients. That's why we invested in this technology. Now this factory is up and running, producing pea protein, pea fiber, pea starch and also fava bean protein and fava bean starch. With these proteins and starches, and also with regular pulse flours, we can convert them into more functional ingredients. We even have in-house technologies that allow us to pre-cook these ingredients. We gelatinize them. We also have technologies for deodorization. And we also have the ability to produce textured products, i.e. textured protein, which we have already been producing for almost two years. That is mainly used of course in the meat replacement industry.

Can you comment on the marketing side of Herbal Ingredients? How does your strategic location in Europe benefit the company and where are you looking to expand?

Well, as part of a bigger group we have sales teams in most of the bigger European countries (France, Benelux, UK, Germany, Italy, and Spain). We also have our own sales team in the U.S. Being a European company based in the Netherlands and in Belgium, we decided to build the new pulse factory in Belgium, close to the Harbor. So that's convenient for exports, but also for the importation of raw materials. And of course, Belgium is in the heart of Europe, from where we can easily supply. The main food industries are located, of course, mostly in the north of Europe, where we also have a strong commercial presence already. So it makes sense that we focus mainly on these countries. And that will definitely continue in the coming years, though we do believe that with some of our pulse ingredients we have the possibility to expand into new territories and new markets for us, like, for instance, South America, Asia, or even the Middle East.

do your products compare to conventional soy-based ingredients from a price standpoint? Do your ingredients tends to wind up in premium or health-conscious products or do they run the gamut?

We offer our ingredients in different sizes and qualities to different industries. We have a strong presence in the pet food industry, but we also have a strong presence in all types of food industries. So we have solutions for all of them. Obviously pulse protein is growing a lot in the meat replacement sector nowadays, which is of course really a premium sector. There we have solutions available that are high-end, for example textured protein, and also other rice proteins and natural binders for meat products. So we have different solutions that we are offering. From a price point of view, it depends on what you compare us to. If you look at protein—like I said, we produce pea protein and fava being protein concentrates, which are a little lower in protein compared to the isolates (pea isolates, or other types of isolates). However, they are more cost-effective. Even if you express the price per kilogram of protein, concentrates are more economic compared to isolates on a euro-per-kilo protein base. And then also, of course, peas and fava beans are allergen-free. So compared to soy, that is also an advantage.

Tell me about your tailor-made solutions for businesses. Can you provide any interesting anecdotes about a business that was uniquely served by Herba?

Yes, we do offer tailor-made solutions. In many cases we bring in new customers through tailor-made solutions developed specifically for them. For that we have a large pilot plant where we have all of our technologies on an industrial scale, and they are also available on a pilot plan scale. So we’re talking about fractionation, milling, texturizing, deodorizing, etc. All of these technologies are also available in our pilot plant. And in some cases, customers come and do trials with us and develop an ingredient together that is tailor-made for the customer. That is something we have been doing for a long time. An anecdote…well, I cannot name a specific project or customer, but for our rice ingredients, what we often do is grow specific rice varieties with specific functionalities on our own rice fields and later turn such variety into specific ingredients for our customers. So that is really an example of seed to selling the final ingredient. That is also something that we are starting to do with pulses.

I understand you focus a lot on infant nutrition. What nutritional benefits do pulse ingredients offer infants that are not found in conventional ingredients and Why should parents look for pulses on baby food labels?

We have extensive experience in infant nutrition, especially with our rice ingredients (rice flours, for example) that are specifically grown on their own rice fields to control contaminants and guarantee full traceability and the highest quality. Rice is a gluten-free cereal that is the first cereal that an infant normally gets in its early life. So from the age of four months, babies tend to start to incorporate cereals into their diets, and most of the time this is based on rice. So it's not a surprise that we are strong in that field, in the infant formula sector, through our rice ingredients.

Where would pulses be used in infant nutrition? In the first place, if an infant grows a little bit more, after six months, other cereals and other protein sources are incorporated into the diet. At that age babies also start eating vegetable purees or fruit purees. And they often incorporate pulses, lentils, or maybe chickpeas or peas themselves. To my knowledge, other types of pea ingredients or pulse ingredients are not used yet in infant nutrition, but that could be an interesting option to enrich baby food with plant protein. So I definitely see a future for us in that field.

Tell me about some of your state of the art agronomical practices and techniques used in the production of your pulse ingredients. What innovations can we expect in the future that could have a major impact on the industry?

I cannot reveal too much about our lead projects and ones that are currently under development. I can say that we are involved in different projects with different research institutes and also collaborating with other companies to develop new products that can be downstream. So, looking at different varieties and their functionalities, but we are also looking more upstream, so incorporating new technologies and new production processes for our pulse proteins or pulse starches. So what will come out [of this] and what will be a breakthrough for the industry in the future? Well, it’s difficult to say, but clearly there's a trend in the market of increased pulse and plant plant-based protein intake. So everything that can help increase consumption among the consumer or satisfy consumer demands may be considered as a breakthrough. So looking at, for instance, improving the taste of pulses and of pulse ingredients—that is definitely something that the industry is waiting for.

How has the COVID pandemic affected your production lines? Have you seen any uptick in demand due to meat and other food shortages?

We sell in many different countries, with many different products to many different types of customers. So what we have seen in general is that the food industry has been continuing its work, of course. Our factories have not been closed at all; they’ve been producing at full steam. It is true that some customers have been more affected than others. With some customers we have seen lower demand for our ingredients. However, other customers have shown an increase in demand for our ingredients. And that has a lot to do with the type of customer. For instance, a company that is selling more finished products, more to restaurants or food service, has been suffering more than other types of companies that are selling finished products more in the retail [sector]. Of course, there are also differences country by country. Overall, for our company, these have definitely been hectic months, and indeed we have seen an overall increase in demand for our products.