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Estonian scientists help local producers to create new plant-based foods

In response to consumer demand, the food industry has shown an increasing interest in marketing foods based on plant proteins and other plant byproducts. Food businesses have hired scientists to help them develop innovative plant-based end products with high export potential and added value.


The article is written by Ain Alvela and can be fround from HERE.


Plant-based raw materials such as soya, oats and peas are well-known for their ability to produce both fermented and unfermented beverages and foods. They can also be used to make so-called milk, cheese and meat substitutes due to the vegetarian proteins they contain. There are several technologies that could substitute animal protein in plant-based goods.


Consumption of such products has reached global levels in recent years, and demand is rising. It will also help achieve the greening and climate-neutral goals. So there is a growing interest to improve these technologies and create new products.


Scientists in Estonia have begun to explore the use of plant proteins in food, while the local food industry is increasingly trying to incorporate plant-based raw materials into food processing in order to remain competitive.


So far, nearly everything on the shelves has been produced outside of the country. Local crops grown in Estonia are mostly used as raw materials in traditional industries, animal feed, and unprocessed exports. However, this technique fails to realize a large portion of the products' potential.


Plant raw materials can be used to create new products with high added value and export potential.


The study's overarching objective is to develop alternative technologies that the food industry could use to introduce products in new dairy, meat substitution, and other food categories. They could both fill an empty niche in the domestic market and grow into new markets.


Plant proteins have come into the scene to improve the diet

Tiina Kriščiunaite said that the aim of this research is to put the results into practice by applying new technologies. The researchers were primarily motivated by the needs of businesses.


It makes sense that the research is being conducted by TFTAK, a research and development institution that works with companies on a variety of projects, she said. "The study is motivated by the awareness that grains and legumes grown in Estonia were either used only to produce traditional recipes or exported without added value," she said.


Kriščiunaite suggested that food producers and industry could increase their revenues by producing protein powders or concentrates from locally grown grains. "The added value of these goods would be much higher than just manufacturing basic products," she said.

One of the driving forces behind research like this is the global trend to reduce animal protein consumption. This is not to say that plant-based foods have any direct therapeutic properties; rather, people already eat more animal protein than they need. Meat production, on the other hand, has a greater environmental impact than grain production and is more expensive.


Plant proteins can be combined to form completely different molecules. But they can be integrated into existing products. One issue with using vegetable proteins is that they have an unpleasant flavor in their pure state. Customers, on the other hand, are particularly sensitive to any kind of disagreeable flavor.


As a result, one approach is to partially replace animal protein with a plant-based alternative with comparable nutritional properties. However, it is important to highlight that plant proteins have different functional properties than animal proteins, making it more difficult to produce cutlets from plant proteins than from conventional meat.


This study focused on the use of plant proteins in plant-based diets, with the goal of finding alternatives to meat and dairy products. Also, one aspect of the study focused on fiber which could be added to classic foods like yogurt.


Methodology gives a foundation for ongoing product development

The research goal was to create new products using high-throughput systems biology. The latter allows for the rapid and efficient development of new high-quality, value-added food innovations derived from plant-based raw ingredients.


In summary, this entails developing a standardized approach for fine-tuning a product's manufacturing process. Because of the diversity of plant proteins, there is no one-size-fits-all method.


"Firstly, there is pea protein, oat protein and soy protein. Secondly, pea proteins alone are produced in a wide range of different compositions, qualities and technologies. For example, if we want to make an alternative to yoghurt, the first question is which of the many proteins to choose, which starter bacteria to use to ferment the product," Kriščiunaite explained the choice that the food industry faces when attempting to incorporate plant-based alternatives into their product line.


In addition, she says, you have to take into account the smell and the taste: so there are a lot of different nuances in the process, all of which have to be taken into account. "We are not developing a specific technique for producing one product over another. Creating a methodical platform entails gathering a wide range of databases, knowledge, techniques, approaches, experiences, and other material that we can use quickly and efficiently to produce new products based on plant proteins," he said.


First and foremost, this means that an entrepreneur seeking to develop a plant-based food item contacts TFTAK with a request. There, using the scientific methods at their disposal, they will begin working on a specific product and developing solutions.


For example, an entrepreneur might want to make a pea-based dessert similar to a milk-white pudding. Researchers can then offer help in selecting the most effective root extract or other components to help develop the best possible product.


For example, milk-like products made from oats, coconut, soya or field beans are all commercially available. But they should not be referred to as dairy products as this would mislead the consumer - the basic nutrients, vitamins and minerals in plant 'milk' and animal milk are different. To make these milk alternatives act as regular cow's milk when added to coffee, for example, requires a huge amount of scientific work that has finally made it from the lab to industrial production.


"This is the research needed to launch a new branch of the food industry that will increase the competitiveness of the entire Estonian food sector," Tiina Kriščiunaite said.

With funding from the Estonian Research Council, the ResTa16 project was launched for the period 2020-2023. Its aim was to create a platform for the development of new plant-based products and technologies. The use of such a platform should ensure the rapid and efficient development of new high-quality and value-added food technologies from plant-based raw materials in the future. In parallel, a shorter-term project, ResTa17, focused on expanding the use of food by-products by reducing their anti-nutrient content.


WHAT IS WHAT: A methodological platform for the development of new food technologies and value-added foods.

The project has created a platform for the development of fermented plant foods based on the use of microbiome measurement and oxygen curve recording systems. The platform is supported by bioinformatics, molecular biology, chemical analysis, food physics and sensory methods. The platform will enable the detailed characterisation and selection of root crops most suitable for the production of plant foods. This allows the production of high quality products with flavours, aromas and textures that appeal to consumers.


A fibre monitoring platform was also developed to determine the composition and properties of non-edible oligo- and polysaccharides. The monitoring platform is based on models of human gut microbial communities. As a result of the studies, food manufacturers will be able to select the most suitable fibres for the formulation of innovative health products.


Also, new techniques for studying the techno-functional aspects of vegetable protein powders were devised and implemented.


The methodological framework developed as a result of the research is significant because it can help food industries in implementing cutting-edge technology to create innovative, sustainable, and healthful goods from local plant sources.

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