Proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins and minerals are all essential components of a healthy diet. Proteins provide the amino acid building blocks that are needed for the growth, maintenance and repair of all our body’s cells and tissues.
Meat, fish, dairy products and plants, such as pulses, beans and cereals, are the primary sources of dietary proteins. Adults need a minimum of about 0.8 grams (g) per kilogram (kg) of body weight per day, which adds up to about 56 g of protein per day for an average sedentary man, and about 46 g per day for a sedentary woman. Studies estimate that the annual protein requirements of the world’s 7.3 billion or so people amount to about 202 million tonnes1.
Pressures on the planet
Producing this amount of protein in the form of crops, livestock and fish/seafood places huge demands on existing land, water and energy resources, and both wild and farmed fish stocks. Climate change is further compounding these issues, which all combine to impact on farming sustainability in many regions of the world.
And with the United Nations indicating that the global population will reach 9.7 billion by 20502, the need to develop sustainable agricultural practices and industrial manufacturing processes has become an increasingly pressing challenge. We need to develop greener, smarter solutions so that we can continue to produce enough affordable protein to feed all the world’s people, without causing environmental, ecological and economic chaos.
Plants currently represent the major source of global dietary protein, although estimates suggest that the demand for animal proteins worldwide could double by 20501, at least in part due to rising incomes in developing nations and increasingly Westernized diets. Meat is a rich source of dietary protein and micronutrients including minerals and vitamins. However, livestock farming uses more water and land – for both grazing and feed crop production – and generates more greenhouse gases than arable farming, so increased livestock farming should not be the only answer to meeting protein demand on a global level.
Alternative protein sources
The obvious need to find new solutions to the global protein challenge is spurring interest in alternative, environmentally sustainable sources of dietary protein, including algae, microorganisms and insects. Scientists suggest that edible insects, for example, represent a largely untapped source of proteins, fats, vitamins and minerals. Insects can be produced using less water and land than livestock, and generate less greenhouse gases. Some cultures already recognize the value of insect proteins, but the concept of eating insects, or deriving proteins from insects, is distasteful for many others. Education will play a key role in helping consumers to accept alternative types of protein-rich foods and to understand both why we need to produce them, and the resulting environmental benefits that these new types of agriculture may present. In parallel with the need for education, food manufacturers will also need to develop high quality, appealing products from these new protein sources, which consumers will enjoy.
We consume proteins through eating unprocessed meat, fish, vegetables and dairy foods such as milk, cheese and yoghurt. Over the past few decades developments in processing technologies have made it possible to extract and purify proteins that offer defined functional and nutritional characteristics.
Proteins extracted from sources including plants, dairy products and dairy by-products are used to improve the nutritional value of a wide range of everyday food and health products, as well as vegetarian, vegan, and meat alternative products. Proteins similarly represent key functional ingredients that can add texture to foods, as well as optimize the viscosity, emulsification, stability, foaming or fat-binding properties of a wide range of food products. Food manufacturers can select those with the desired purity, functionality and organoleptic properties – how the protein affects the taste, look, and smell of food – for their final products. Market sources indicate that the global food protein ingredients market is set to top $29 billion by 20243, while the global plant proteins market, valued at $8.35 billion in 2016, could reach $14.22 billion by 20224.
Purified whey proteins, for example, are key components in many types of protein powders, supplements and snacks that are used by sportspeople to help build muscle, as well as in nutritional products for patients who are recovering from illness or who have special dietary requirements. Protein powders are also essential components in infant formulas that may represent a baby’s sole source of nutrition for the first few months of life.
Industry needs to stay flexible to extract proteins from different sources. Installing versatile, efficient processing technologies allows the food manufacturing industry to handle a wide range of raw materials, according to local agricultural practices and seasonal availability. Farmers and producers are aware of the benefits of growing and husbanding crops, livestock, and novel protein sources that will not only thrive in the local environment and match seasonal climatic conditions, but which will put least pressure on land and water resources. The ability to process locally sourced protein similarly minimizes wastage, reduces carbon footprint by lowering transport and cold chain requirements, and helps to ensure that local people have access to affordable, high quality nutritional foods.
The agricultural and industrial sectors are continuing to work together to develop food processing technologies that will ensure efficient, sustainable protein production. Farmers aim to implement sustainable practices – for both existing and new sources of protein – which will help to safeguard the environment and reduce our reliance on non-renewable resources. But a focus on sustainability is just as important for the food processing industry as it is for the agricultural sector. Food product manufacturers are similarly driving to reduce their environmental impact and increase efficiency, so that they can optimize production from valuable raw materials. Specialists in processing technology and engineering, such as GEA, are working hand in hand with food manufacturers to design and optimize the processes and equipment that will maximize production while minimizing water and energy usage, reduce wastage and loss, and promote recycling of heat and water.
GEA has decades of experience working alongside producers of dairy and plant-derived proteins. We develop components, versatile technologies and complete integrated solutions that are used by manufacturers around the world to process proteins from a wide range of raw materials, including animal and dairy sources, oil-rich crops such as soy, and starch-rich crops such as peas and potatoes. As well as developing and optimizing processes from mainstream protein sources we are also actively harnessing our industry, technology and engineering expertise and knowhow to develop next-generation solutions for sustainable processing of proteins and protein derivatives from sources including insects, algae and fungi.
Our expertise spans the complete protein process, from preparing raw materials, to extracting, purifying and drying proteins, recycling excess heat and water, and cleaning effluent. We focus on developing greener, more sustainable solutions, so that manufacturers can be flexible and efficient, while using less water, energy and other resources, generating fewer emissions, and recycling more than ever before.
The knowhow of technology experts and innovators such as GEA will be key to helping ensure that we can continue to feed this and future generations with the dietary components that are vital to health and wellbeing, and at the same time help to conserve our planet’s valuable resources.
1. Henchion, M., Hayes, M., Mullen, A., Fenelon, M. and Tiwari, B. (2017). Future Protein Supply and Demand: Strategies and Factors Influencing a Sustainable Equilibrium. Foods, 6(7), 53.
2. United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. http://www.un.org/en/development/desa/news/population/2015-report.html