Finland is only 15 percent self-sufficient in protein, since most protein in its food and animal feed originates from abroad. This information is based on the results of the protein roadmap published by VTT and the Natural Resources Institute Finland in March.
Soy rules the markets
The partial replacement of animal food sources with plant protein would reduce the need for feed protein and, thereby, decrease feed-soy imports. Most of the world’s soy is produced for the animal feed industry. Although soy protein is of excellent nutritional value, its production causes environmental problems such as rainforest destruction and the contamination of water bodies in agricultural areas.
Consumers similarly find it difficult to lay their hands on plant-based products that are fully Finnish: Most trade in plant protein products is based on soy, which is also frequently used as a water binder in convenience foods.
Now, if ever, there is a need for new plant protein sources in order to meet growing demand.
Finnish canola may provide a substitute for soy. In this context, canola stands for the high quality rapeseed varieties low in erucic acid and glucosinolates. Some 80,000 tonnes of canola – three times as much as rye – is produced each year in Finland. The only seed component which currently has food use is the oil, which is prized for its excellent fatty acid composition. The seed material left behind in the oil press, i.e. the press cake or meal, is mainly used as animal feed. Canola press cake contains 30–40% protein and has a similar amino acid composition and digestibility to soy protein. In fact, canola has even higher content of two of the vitally important amino acids, methionine and cystine, than soy.
Canola protein could become a more important foodstuff than canola oil
The price of canola oil currently fluctuates between EUR 0.40 and EUR 0.80 per kilogramme, while that of press cake varies between EUR 0.15 and EUR 0.30 per kilogramme. The commercial value of protein fractions can be several euros a kilo, as in the case of new pea protein products (EUR 5/kg). As a major canola producer, Canada is one step ahead of Finland on the development path: within ten years, two companies – Burcon NutraScience and BioExx Specialty Proteins, now TeuTexx – will have begun producing canola protein. These projects have been hindered by the unprofitable nature of current production methods, which require huge amounts of water and energy.
Having learned the lessons of the Canadian experiences, we at VTT began developing water-saving and simple methods for enriching protein from the press cake. In place of alkaline or salt-based extraction, we managed to improve protein extraction using carefully selected enzymes and processing methods. It has been interesting to observe, for example, how much lighter shaded our protein fractions have been compared to the first commercial products.
We aim to develop a technology for the financially viable production of protein-rich ingredients for foodstuffs. The suitability of canola fractions for foodstuffs can be improved by eliminating the bitter flavour caused by plant phenols and enhancing the digestibility of canola fibres. We are not aiming at ultra-pure ingredients requiring several processing stages, but at ones which combine healthy ingredients such as protein, oil and fibre in suitable proportions.
Other Finnish protein sources in the barn
In addition to canola, potato is one of the most fascinating of the plant protein newcomers, as the starch producer Finnamyl will begin potato protein production this year. In the new factory, protein is being extracted from a by-product of starch production. During the off-season, Finnamyl’s extraction equipment could be used for the processing of other protein sources.
Other promising protein sources signposted on the protein roadmap include faba bean, pea and protein-rich grains such as barley and oats.
Because beans, oleiferous plants, potatoes and oats are naturally gluten-free, their proteins can be used to create the desired structure in gluten-free grain products, for example. At VTT, we have demonstrated the suitability of faba bean fractions produced by us for foods such as bread and pasta.
Due to their technological characteristics, protein-fibre fractions that we have developed from canola press cake could be used in drinkable snacks.
If Finnish canola protein is to make it onto the dinner plate, someone has to produce it. Alongside companies, we are starting up projects to create new value chains for canola. Our aim in this is to obtain a technology ready for commercialisation within three years.
Who will be the first to take hold of this new technology and get its products onto the shop shelves?