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Bioengineering tomorrows’ sustainable plant-based food

Tuesday 08 Jun 21

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Anne S. Meyer
Professor
DTU Bioengineering
+45 45 25 25 98

Challenge Programme 2021: Proteins for tomorrow’s food

The programme is a strategic effort targeting specific challenges within annually selected research themes. For the 2021 application call, the Challenge Programme is seeking to support the research theme Proteins for tomorrow’s food.

With the overall aim of substituting animal-based food proteins with safe and healthy alternatives, the challenge is to understand and modulate the functional structural properties of plant, fungal and microbial proteins, to understand their interplay with other components in the food matrix and to create desired structures and taste.

Read more on the Novo Nordisk Foundation website

Two new projects with participation from DTU aim at developing a new food category of tasty plant based proteins.

Two projects both led by researchers at University of Copenhagen with participation from DTU and funded by the Novo Nordisk Foundation aim at creating an entirely new category of climate-friendly plant-based foods and to convert rapeseed proteins from feed to food respectively, thereby developing novel sustainable food sources for the growing global population.

Providing enough proteins through sustainable food production is a huge challenge that is only becoming more pressing as the global population continues to grow. By 2050, the global population is expected to reach 9.7 billion people.

Using animals as a protein source is a poor solution as the production harms the environment by high greenhouse gas emissions. Furthermore, an astonishing 1/3 of the Earth’s arable land is used to grow feed for animals. Theoretically, if this area was used for growing plants for direct human consumption, four billion more people could be fed without increasing agricultural land use or harming the environment further. Now two new projects will pave the way for developing novel sustainable proteinaceous plant-based foods for the growing global population.  

The PROFERMENT project builds on the idea that solid state-fermentations with filamentous fungi and bacteria can enhance the taste, mouthfeel, and the nutritional quality of plant foods. The SEEDFOOD project will convert rapeseed proteins from feed to food.

PROFERMENT – Using fermentation to optimise plant-based protein sources

PROFERMENT, run by the Department of Food Science at the University of Copenhagen in collaboration with DTU and Utrecht University in the Netherlands, has received DKK 56 million from the Novo Nordisk Foundation to develop the basic knowledge required to invent a completely new category of sustainable, plant-based foods as an alternative to animal protein sources.

"At DTU we are excited to participate in this visionary project. The project is an ideal collaboration that I look forward to being part of. For us it involves a lot of new enzyme work. We will develop new biotechnology methods that are set to provide new insight into a range of fundamental enzyme catalysed processes that are crucial for creating tomorrow’s sustainable food."
Professor Anne S. Meyer, DTU Bioengineering

“There is a reason why we eat meat and other animal protein. It has a really good nutritional composition as well as some flavour components and a mouthfeel that, perhaps for evolutionary reasons, we really like. If we have to eat less meat, there is no point in trying to suppress these desires. We want to find some plant-based alternatives to meat that do not necessarily look like meat, but which offer the same enjoyment of food that meat provides for many of us,” explains project leader Dennis Sandris Nielsen from Copenhagen University.

The research is based on yellow peas and oats, because both crops grow well in the northern hemisphere and have a naturally relatively high protein content. At the same time, they are crops that are currently being used primarily for animal feed. The idea is also that the methods should be transferable to other crops, with the oats representing grains and the yellow peas representing legumes.

The researchers will process the plants using fermentation, which is an age-old method for processing foods, so that they become more flavourful and last longer. Furthermore, the researchers will use a combination of Bacillus bacteria and various moulds for the processing of both yellow peas and oats, thereby increasing the nutritional value and creating the desired structure and taste that will make plant-based proteins a real alternative to animal protein.

Plants generally protect their proteins very well, which is why they are not very accessible for human digestion, and accessing the proteins is one of the challenges the researchers will have to overcome.

“At DTU we are excited to participate in this visionary project. The project is an ideal collaboration that I look forward to being part of. For us it involves a lot of new enzyme work. We will develop new biotechnology methods that are set to provide new insight into a range of fundamental enzyme catalysed processes that are crucial for creating tomorrow’s sustainable food,” says co-project leader Anne S Meyer from DTU Bioengineering. 

Read more in the press release Researchers want to create an entirely new category of climate-friendly plant-based foods from Copenhagen University

SEEDFOOD: Converting rapeseed proteins from feed to food

The other research project SEEDFOOD will attempt to change the use of rapeseed from being a seed mainly used for animal feed, to a source of proteins used for human food in the future.

The research project has been established with a grant of DKK 56 million kroner from the Novo Nordisk Foundation Challenge Programme and is being led from Department of Food Science at University of Copenhagen with participation from DTU and University of Le Mans.

Rapeseed proteins are currently not used for food due to substances that block or limit the utilisation of the nutrient content also called antinutritional components, an undesirable taste and a lack of functionality in food (e.g., the ability to form desired structures in food).   

“Many plant proteins have a low content of the essential amino acids that humans need, which are found in animal proteins. But the content of these essential amino acids is quite high in rapeseed compared to other plant sources, and this is also one of the reasons why we have chosen to investigate how we can process the rapeseed so it is suitable as a healthy and tasty source of nutrition for humans,” says the project leader Marianne Nissen Lund.

The role of the researchers at DTU Bioengineering in SEEDFOOD, in collaboration with colleagues at DTU Health Tech (Paolo Marcatili) and DTU Biosustain (Morten Sommer and Leonie Jahn), will be to study the fundamental properties of rapeseed proteins. This includes their solubilities, aggregation and interactions with each other and with different molecules relevant for food applications, such as lipids, carbohydrates and components of saliva.  To that end, the researchers will apply modern protein engineering and characterization, as well as bioinformatics tools to an extent and at a level of detail that has to date not yet been done in food science.

“This approach is based on the idea that the creation of optimal food applications with rapeseed proteins requires a better understanding of the relevant fundamental properties of such proteins. Such an improved understanding and the new approach will also benefit other types of plant-based food proteins and the project therefore reaches beyond the immediate application on rapeseed,” says co-project leader Alexander Kai Büll from DTU Bioengineering.

Read more in the press release Researchers want to convert rapeseed proteins from feed to food from University of Copenhagen

 

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