Bioengineering tomorrows’ sustainable plant-based food

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.

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