Future Food Asia 2021: Potential of pulses in the alt-protein space

Panel discussion on pulses © Future Food Asia

Asia presents a unique opportunity for pulses as people in the region, who traditionally fractionated pulses for starch, now see protein as a useful byproduct

Compared to soy, which is the dominant ingredient for plant-based protein startups from global juggernaut Impossible Foods to Singapore’s Next Gen Foods and China’s Starfield, pulses are a lesser-known ingredient in the alternative protein space, but its application as an ingredient has been growing recently.

JUST Egg uses mung beans rich in folic acid, potassium, magnesium, zinc and vitamins to create egg replacements. Beyond Meat has included mung beans and fava beans in its ingredient list. At the same time, Nestle’s yellow pea-based alternative milk Wunda has also hit the shelves in France, Portugal and the Netherlands.

Pulses have often been praised for their nitrogen-fixing properties. Beyond that, “there's a lot of good things about pulses and sustainability in terms of resource and water use, compared to other potential sources that we could get our protein from,” said Joel Woodward, Regional Representative, Southeast Asia at USA Dry Pea & Lentil Council and US Dry Bean Council.

Speaking during a panel discussion at the recent Future Food Asia 2021 conference, Woodward said pulses have gained attention for “offering unique nutrition and functionalities that aren't found elsewhere.” Fellow panelist Vi Nguyen, Director of Research and Lead in Sustainable Protein at Asia Research and Engagement, said the adoption of pulses as a base ingredient in plant-based products in terms of volume is estimated to grow at a CAGR of over 10% till 2025.

Woodward and Nguyen joined Alexandra Londoño, Head of Business Segment Pulses at Bühler, in a panel discussion titled “Feeling the Pulse of Asia - A deep dive into the future of pulses." Singapore-based ID Capital organized the Future Food Asia 2021 virtual conference from June 7–11. 

Opportunities in Asia

Asia is a huge dairy market, but with 60–70% of the population being lactose intolerant, plant-based milk alternatives have grown tremendously, according to Londoño. "The first generation was around soya, and the second generation is now with oats and almonds. I’m sure the next generation will be all around pulses since they are high in protein and fiber,” she said.

There's a lot of good things about pulses and sustainability in terms of resource and water use

For players in the Asian alternative protein space, pulses provide them with interesting opportunities. In the West, fractionators of pulses have mainly been after the protein. People in Asia have been fracturing pulses primarily to get the starch for the glass noodle industry, and protein is a byproduct. 

“That's a major reason why we've seen this investment in midstream processing happening in China,” Woodward said. Shandong province, home to many glass noodle production facilities, has already become a major pulse fractionation center. “They're actually in some cases buying yellow peas from North America, fractionating them, selling the starch at home, and then re-exporting the protein back to North America,” he added. This is also happening in Southeast Asia, presenting a big opportunity to food processors already in the starch business.

Beyond China and Southeast Asia, Londoño has also spotted India. Accounting for 30% of the global pulse production, India has a huge potential to become a dominant post-processing hub for the world, transforming pulses to be ready for the alternative meat industry, she said. 

“[India is] very industrialized in the upstream, like cleaning and handling of the pulses,” she said. “They already have one piece of the equation.”

Won’t happen overnight

Both Woodward and Londoño agreed that pulses that are already widely planted worldwide and accepted by consumers, such as chickpea and dry beans, could be leading candidates for adoption as ingredients. "The production should be able to support a new industry [but] these things don't happen overnight,” Woodward said.

According to Woodward, R&D on dry beans these days is mostly in drink applications and snacks but mung beans are also gaining a lot of traction, especially for applications such as egg replacements. Although it's technically possible to produce fractions from any pulse, Woodward said it’s still impractical to use pulses at an industrial level. 

It’s still impractical to use pulses at an industrial level

Compared to soy, the dominant player in the plant-based protein space, pulses are latecomers due mainly to a lack of availability and technology. According to Londoño, the worldwide soy yield is around 340m tonnes per year. On the other hand, pulse production stood at just 92.4m tonnes in 2018. The demand for pulses in the market is not that high. 

"The International pulse trade is still a relationship business," Woodward said. ”Most pulses are shipped in containers. It's smaller lots at a time.” Lower yield and demand have also led to price volatility. “If there's more demand in the market, farmers are going to plant more, and we're going to have more supply, which will help create more stable pricing,” Woodward said. 

Additionally, soy processing techniques have been established for decades. “Soy protein isolate was developed in the 1930s, and texturized soy protein was developed by [Archer-Daniels-Midland Company] in the 1960s. Dozens of different soy protein products with specific characteristics and uses have been developed in this time," he added.

On the other hand, pulses have only come onto the scene in a big way in the last 10 years. “It's going to take some time to catch up in terms of product portfolio expansion, market familiarity and supply chain,” Woodward said.

CompassList is an official media partner of Future Food Asia 2021

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Edited by Selva Kumar

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