An international team of researchers recently identified the “sweetness gene” responsible for low alkaloid levels (not bitter) in lupins. This discovery could accelerate the development of new bitter-free crops and another protein source for plant-based foods.
A legume from the family Fabaceae, Lupin rivals soybean in protein content (44%). They are high in fiber and low in sugars. Moreover, lupin crops are climate tolerant and have a great potential to recover poor soils. But this legume naturally accumulates bitter and toxic alkaloids unpleasant for the human palate.
For decades, farmers have grown a sweet lupin variety at a small scale since crops can cross-pollinate and produce bitter lupins. But with this game-changing gene, farmers can grow sweet white lupin continuously and domesticate wilder varieties with higher protein content or better disease resistance.
The power of sweet lupins
The shift toward plant protein-rich diets and the awareness of the environmental impact of soybean cultivation and import is driving European countries to diversify the local production of protein crops. The UK government recently invested in R&D to develop pea and amaranth crops.
Many companies interested in offering novel plant-based foods have found lupin a powerful protein source to develop their products. Recent innovations include alternative dairy and meat, sweets, beverages, and chocolates.
The Australian company, Wide Open Agriculture (WOA), produces oat milk enriched with lupin protein. It has developed a technology to make lupin concentrate powder with a neutral flavor and valuable functionalities for food and beverage applications.
German good-tech start-up Prolupin offers alternative dairy products made with sweet lupin beans. It also has a powder with a protein content of more than 90% to make vegan cheese, sausages, and health food products. Also from Germany, PLANT B has developed a plant-based liquid egg made with sweet lupin that offers the same functionality as chicken eggs but with 50% fewer calories.
US plant-based nutrition company Mikuna has launched Chocho – a lupin-derived protein powder that the company claims outsells pea and soy protein in regional retail stores. And last year, Wicked Kitchen, the 100% plant-based and flavor-forward global food brand, launched “extremely creamy” lupin-based ice creams at thousands of Kroger grocery stores.
“Starting in the 1960s, the addition of agronomic traits such as loss of seed dispersal and early flowering enabled the expansion of sweet lupin cultivation. Now, the two most widely cultivated species are white lupin (Lupinus albus) and narrow-leafed lupin (Lupinus angustifolius). Their respective centers of diversity lie in the Mediterranean basin and the cultivation of sweet varieties now extends to a range of European and African countries as well as Australia and Chile. In Ethiopia, the severe shortage of protein for animal feed has sparked recent efforts to develop sweet white lupin cultivars adapted to local climates,” reads the “sweet lupin gene” scientific paper.