A look at the new alternative proteins you can expect to see more often on restaurant menus
By Kavita Sabharwal
What protein means to consumers has changed dramatically over the past few decades. Restaurants have gone from offering only the basics (chicken, steak or pork chops) and maybe if they were lucky, one or two seafood options, to guests. Restaurant-goers started expressing an interest in other protein options on the seafood side, such as scallops and calamari, which soon became mainstays on restaurant menus.
Now, things look much different. Vegan is the fastest-growing health claim in restaurants, increasing by 71 per cent over the last two years alone. Many people are looking for vegan options, and some of those people may not even be vegan, but flexitarian, a sub-group of vegetarians that eat a plant-heavy diet but are allowed to “cheat”.
“Black bean burgers focus on the vegan market, but also the concept of flexitarians; someone who may or may not be vegan but is interested in the taste of that vegan protein,” says Rob Bianchin, vice president at Blendtek Ingredients, a supplier and distributor of food ingredients. “There’s a shift happening. I think chefs in the foodservice industry need to understand that the flexitarian market is real and you can appeal to both sides.”
A future food crisis
By the year 2050, the global population is set to increase by another two billion people. This increase will require a 70 per cent increase in food production, but the land and natural resources required to accommodate this jump will likely not be available. In the next 50 years, we will have to produce more food for the global population than has ever been produced over the past 10,000 years.
Unless the entire population of the planet decides to try out a vegetarian or vegan diet, that means we will have to make some adjustments to what we’re eating or face the consequences, depleted land and natural resources among them.
“Having alternative proteins is key to sustain the growth of the population,” says Bianchin. “If everyone wanted meat, we don’t have the land to support that growth.”
In an effort to offset this eventuality, ingredient companies such as Blendtek have been researching and experimenting with alternative proteins to see what can take the place of traditional proteins. Some high-end restaurants have already been incorporating these ingredients into dishes with excellent results, as they’ve spent time to ensure they taste good in whichever application they’re in.
“We’re looking for innovative, cutting edge ingredients to help chefs think differently about how they’re creating food,” says Bianchin.
Up-and-coming alternative proteins
Soy protein is the most popular alternative protein, and is unique in terms of meat replacement. Soy protein, known as a texturized vegetable protein (TVP) is used to create a soy-based alternative to chicken fingers and other meat products so that people can enjoy the same texture and flavour profile without having the meat aspect of it. However, many people have an allergy to soy.
Pea protein is already incredibly popular, says Bianchin. It is currently in use mostly in the sports nutrition market as an addition to protein shakes and smoothies. Traditional protein shakes are made with whey protein, but many people have an allergy to whey. Pea protein is becoming a very popular option.
“Soy is still popular, but pea protein will become an important portion of the market,” says Bianchin. “There are no negatives to using these different options.”
Algae protein is currently only being used in Michelin-star restaurants. Algae has a very unique flavour reminiscent of smoky oysters. Restaurants that are using it are pairing it with various seafood dishes to give them a rich, strong flavour and aroma.
Cricket protein is becoming more popular by the day. Originally a food ingredient that added Instagram-ability and ‘wow’ factor (or ‘ick’ factor, depending on how you look at it) to dishes, it is actually a sustainable protein that can be used in creative ways. However, it may take many consumers some time to get used to the idea of eating insects, especially in North America.
“These new-age ingredients are incredible and can enhance the experience of diners, but people don’t have access to them, or maybe they just don’t know about them,” notes Bianchin, who adds that he has tried food with crickets and barely noticed they were present in the recipe. “There is a market out there for these different proteins, and my advice is, look for alternative proteins that are easy to incorporate into your recipes.”
Barriers to using alternative proteins
For many new food products, including alternative proteins, the most common barrier is the certifications and regulations making sure these products are food-safe, explains Bianchin.
“For products like insect proteins, I know they’re struggling with getting a kosher certificate because they wouldn’t typically apply as kosher products,” he says. “In terms of getting it into the mass consumer market, we need people to be innovative. That’s who Blendtek has partnered with, innovative companies, chefs and organizations that want to challenge what we typically eat as food.”
Bianchin believes alternative vegetarian proteins will be more popular in the coming years. “Flax protein may be one of the next big things. It’s more versatile than seeds, with a better nutritional profile,” he says. “That’s the challenge that food scientists will be facing right now. We’re going to see more vegetable proteins surfacing.”
He adds that the entire concept of alternative proteins is different for everyone, but the important part is to emphasize that there are alternative proteins out there, as well as innovative, tasty ways to use them.
So the question is, what’s your alternative protein of choice?
Kavita Sabharwal is the editor of RestoBiz.