Good old New Zealand pasture crops could be one springboard to a new, US$50 billion market if scientists exploring new ways to use plants for protein are successful.
Plant & Food Research, the Crown Research Institute which uses science to boost New Zealand's plant- and marine-based food sectors, are looking into different ways plant-based products from this country could make an international impact.
Part of the reason is the world's move towards this source of nutrition - one in three New Zealanders are limiting their meat consumption and 15 per cent of us eat a mostly vegetarian diet, according to recent Colmar Brunton research.
In response to the increasing population of vegetarians, vegans and flexitarians, scientists at Plant & Food Research are trying to turn the plant-based food market on its head by harnessing the goodness of plants into something different and uniquely Kiwi.
"It's important for Aotearoa New Zealand's economic future that the food industry develops new plant-based food options for consumers, creating a wider portfolio of products and reducing our reliance on animals for both our own diets and for export," says Dr Jocelyn Eason, GM Science Food Innovation.
"The challenge in being so far from our major markets is that our export products need to be of high value, compared to alternatives. We can't produce commodity plant protein ingredients, like pea or soy protein ingredients, for export as our competitors operate at scales we cannot achieve.
"We need something extra, something we can market as uniquely Kiwi, such as ingredients from plants that offer more or capitalise on our reputation for innovative sustainably-grown foods."
Plant-based dairy alternatives are an area where Aotearoa New Zealand could create new products for discerning overseas consumers. Plant & Food Research is looking at plants that suit our environment and growing systems – and whether there are potential markets for tasty plant-based beverages to diversify our nation's offering.
"Milk alternatives are big business, estimated grow to more than US$50 billion globally by 2028 says Christian Pena, a Plant & Food Research Business Manager who works with companies looking to develop plant-based food and beverage products – quoting US research on dairy alternatives from April.
"With our national expertise and capabilities in dairy production, we're in a great position to pivot to manufacturing dairy alternatives that use similar processes. We're looking to create plant-based dairy alternatives from plants grown in New Zealand which, when marketed using our reputation for sustainable, safe foods, could be a high value niche product."
Plant & Food Research is already exploring the potential for drink products made from quinoa, oats and barley – and are fine-tuning manufacturing processes to create a product with great taste, texture and excellent nutrition.
Food technologists have also developed new product concepts from combinations of cereals, fruits and vegetables with dairy ingredients that offer consumers tasty drinks high in protein and have good nutritional benefits.
Unlike animal-derived foods, few plants have all the essential amino acids – the building blocks of proteins – that humans need to keep their bodies functioning. However, the leaves of pasture crops, something generations of New Zealand farmers have excelled at producing, are rare examples of plant proteins with a full complement of these essential amino acids.
By incorporating these crops into rotational farming practices, we could create a food protein ingredient with the unique characteristics needed for the New Zealand food industry and with positive sustainability credentials, says Eason.
"Most plant-based protein ingredients are taken from the seed, as extracting high yields of protein from the leaves of plants is notoriously difficult," says food technologist Thomas Sowersby. "We've looked at a range of different protein-rich pasture crops and identified three – Lucerne (alfalfa), perennial ryegrass and brassica rape – that have some promise, and have developed a process for recovering high concentrations of protein.
"Historical efforts to extract protein from grasses have focused on a single protein that represents only a proportion of the protein available. Our process is a bit different and is directed to recovering the full range of proteins in leaves, so we can get a greater yield of protein from any given area of pasture."
"We've shown we can isolate plant proteins from pasture in the lab and at a small pilot scale," says scientist Dr Lee Huffman, who worked with the New Zealand dairy industry to establish their whey protein capability, a sector worth more than $600 million to the nation's economy.
"We're testing the process using industrial equipment that could easily be sourced or adapted from those used by the dairy industry to process whey protein. Our goal is to develop a plant protein ingredient sector with a range of different products sourced from our plant crops, diversifying our portfolio in much the same way as the dairy industry did in the 1970s and '80s."
Proteins from plants could be used as foundation ingredients in a range of different manufactured foods, such as protein-fortified beverages, nutrition bars or healthy foods for seniors. They could also be used to create new vegan-friendly meat alternatives, providing the full range of essential amino acids in one product.
A side-benefit of extracting protein from plants traditionally used in animal feed is reducing the amount of protein in the diet of stock. The by-products of the isolation process still have nutritional benefits for animals but, by removing some of the protein – the compounds responsible for the nitrogen expelled in urine – the amount of nitrogen leaching into soils and waterways is reduced, improving the impact of animal farming on the environment and enhancing Aotearoa's clean green reputation.
Eason has high hopes for a national move into a new sector: "Aotearoa New Zealand has the right experience to become a high value, niche provider of plant-based foods that consumers love; it just takes a bit of imagination and innovation. We know we're not short of those."