Munich - To meet the demands of the growing global population, food production throughout the world must double by 2050. New sources of protein are raising high hopes, not least because some of them offer more favourable use of natural resources. TÜV SÜD's experts provide background information on products based on soy, lupins, insects and other new sources of protein.
Even though lab-grown burgers for all are still a very expensive pipe-dream, researchers have already identified various new sources of protein. With the objective of meeting the global demand for food firmly in view, the variety of innovative proteins for human nutrition is growing. But what is behind these products?
The best known alternative to protein from animal origin is tofu, made from soybeans. Tofu has been produced for thousands of years by soaking, grinding and filtering soybeans to produce soy milk, which is then coagulated with coagulants. The resulting curd is pressed into blocks, pasteurised and sold in vacuum packs. Raw tofu is relatively neutral in taste and does not have a meat-like texture. In contrast, dried "textured soy protein" forms a fibrous spongy matrix that is similar in texture to meat and is already popular as a meat substitute among vegetarians and vegans in bolognaise, goulash or burgers today.
Lupins are another new source of protein. At the start of production, carbohydrates and fibres are removed from the de-oiled lupin seeds in several steps. The "milk" thus produced is used to make vegetable ice cream or dried and processed into meat substitute products. Gluten-free baking mixes, low-fat sausages and "high-protein bread" containing lupin proteins are already available on the market.
Asian seitan, high in fibre content and therefore nicknamed "wheat meat", is also making its way into European cuisine. The wheat product is kneaded in a bowl of water to strip it of its starch. The result is a fibrous protein block which can then be marinated to produce vegetarian seitan steaks or stroganoff. As for all new sources of protein, the production processes are very complex. Most nutrients, such as vitamins, minerals or secondary plant substances, are lost in production.
Many of the new sources of proteins are neutral in taste and are therefore frequently marinated or seasoned by adding spice mixtures, nutritional yeasts and flavours. Some people react to soy and lupins with allergies, so they must be indicated clearly on the list of ingredients.
Insects are also suitable for human consumption. They have as yet played no role in European cuisine and are restricted to exotic small-scale or tourist events.
While many insect species offer high-quality proteins and other nutrients, Dr Andreas Daxenberger, food expert at TÜV SÜD, points out that insects as food are still a legal grey area in Europe. "It is still unclear whether insects as a whole are food products or whether they fall under the EU approval procedure set forth in the Novel Food Regulation. These aspects have already been regulated for food ingredients that are isolated from animals and not obtained by traditional propagation or breeding methods." Important health-related, legal and quality-assurance issues are still open regarding commercial production of insects for human consumption. "Which forms of husbandry, operational hygiene, processing and storage are suitable to ensure consumer protection is still completely unclear", notes Daxenberger. Experts must also look into the possibility of allergic reactions to insect proteins.
While new sources of protein are gaining ground in Europe for the first time, they are still very much a niche area. European food law does not provide for a broad and secure field of application for these special proteins – quite in contrast to the production of time-tested sources of protein from conventional or organic meat or crop production.