The EU-funded Smart Protein Project was founded to develop alt-protein products that are healthy, environmentally friendly, and increase food security. And it thinks four crops — lentils, chickpeas, fava beans, and quinoa — could be the answer.
Currently, these crops are known as “orphan crops” in the West. This means they are under-researched and not cultivated according to modern agricultural methods, leading to lower yields. The Smart Protein Project hopes to change that.
At present, these crops are generally imported from Asia, Africa, and North and South America, but all four could potentially be grown in Europe. A previous EU project, PROTEIN2FOOD, identified them as being particularly suitable for European conditions.
Each crop has unique properties that make it a good fit. Fava beans can be grown during both summer and winter and are nitrogen fixers, reducing the need for fertilisers and improving soil fertility. Lentils are also nitrogen fixers and have a high yield when grown in crop rotation with oats. Chickpea protein could potentially be isolated to make meat alternatives, while quinoa has a high resistance to drought and saline soil.
The PROTEIN2FOOD project has already developed lentil milk, and a new infant formula has been developed using lentil protein isolate. It meets EU requirements and may be able to replace soy formula.
The future of plant protein
A market report in January found that the market for plant proteins is set to grow rapidly through to 2025, driven by growing health consciousness. Many manufacturers of plant-based products are turning to legumes as an ingredient — for example, Dutch company Willicroft is making its plant-based cheeses from beans instead of nuts, making them accessible to those with allergies. And fava beans are enjoying a surge in popularity as an alternative to soy.
“Each of these four crops has various special properties and abilities in terms of nutrition, environmental impact, and technological qualities. This grants them a unique and important position in the search for new ways to shape our food system, to which the Smart Protein project is committed,” said a spokesperson for the project in a statement.