The end of soy as a protein substitute? Researchers at the University of Copenhagen have found a way to make protein powder using fava beans - a far more climate-friendly alternative.
Tofu, soy milk and veggie mince. More and more Danes are opting to supplement or completely replace their consumption of animal-based proteins with plant-based proteins. Climate considerations are part of their reasoning.
We often use soy-based protein when experimenting with vegetarian cooking. But, new research from the University of Copenhagen's Department of Food Science demonstrates that fava beans hold great promise as a non-soy source of plant protein. Moreover, favas are a better alternative for the environment:
"Many consumers are crying out for alternatives to soy, a crop that places great strain on the environment. This prompted us to find a method of processing fava beans in such a way that allows us to produce a concentrated protein powder. One of the advantages of fava beans is that they can be grown here, locally in Denmark. This is excellent news for the climate," explains Iben Lykke Petersen, an assistant professor at the University of Copenhagen's Department of Food Science, and one of the researchers behind the new study published in the journal Foods.
Far more climate friendly
Fava beans are better suited for climate considerations because they can be cultivated locally, unlike soybeans, which are primarily grown in the United States and South America - and then exported to Denmark.
Moreover, numerous farms in Brazil and Paraguay have cleared large tracts of forest to create space for soybean fields. This has had severely negative consequences for wildlife, biodiversity and CO2 emissions.
"Another important factor is that, unlike fava beans, lots of soy is genetically modified to be able to tolerate Roundup, an herbicide. Within this context, many consumers are critical of soy's environmental consequences," explains Iben Lykke Petersen.
New method makes fava powder that bursts with protein
To find an alternative to environmentally taxing soybean, the study's researchers tested various crops, looking for those with the greatest potential as a protein powder, while also being able to be grown locally. Here, fava beans outperformed lentils, amaranth, buckwheat and quinoa.
Using an incredibly unique method known as 'wet fractionation', the researchers succeeded in concentrating fava bean protein and removing substances that would otherwise inhibit the digestion of the protein. This allows nutritious fava bean proteins to be more readily absorbed when consumed.
"Wet fractionation is accomplished by milling beans into a flour, and then adding water and blending the mixture into a soup. Thereafter, it becomes easier for us to sort out the less beneficial substances and produce an optimized product," explains Iben Lykke Petersen. She adds:
"Our results demonstrate that this method significantly increases protein content. Furthermore, through our tests, we can see that this protein is nearly as readily digested as when we break down protein from animal products, such meat and eggs."
Competitive color, taste and texture
The content and nutritional quality of a protein is one thing. Taste is something else! Here too, fava beans can compete with soy and other plant-based protein alternatives.
Iben Lykke Petersen explains that when fava beans are processed correctly, their proteins retain their naturally bright colour, along with a neutral taste and good texture.
"Manufacturers prefer a product that is tasteless, has a neutral color and a firm texture. Fava beans check each these boxes, unlike peas, which often have a very bitter aftertaste," she concludes.
Fava beans are part of a major EU project
- The study is part of Protein2Food, an EU-funded research project that, for the past five years, has been studying alternative protein sources that can be grown locally in Europe and thereby provide a sustainable alternative to imported soy, among other things.
- Researchers began working on the Smart Protein project in January 2020. The project is a follow-up of Protein2Food and intends to explore how best to involve industry and validate the new processes for producing protein products from alternative crops. Work is also being done to investigate how best to implement new protein sources in foodstuffs production.